Grantmaker Profile: Coleman Foundation

Although computers are just beginning to transform education, they’ve already revolutionized the American business world. In the last two decades, computer technology has helped inspire America’s largest and perhaps most creative generation of entrepreneurs. Therefore, it should be no surprise that an organization that has placed itself at the juncture of education and entrepreneurship for nearly 50 years now finds itself with record numbers of applicants for its coveted grants.

Record interest in its programs has been both good and bad for the Chicago-based Coleman Foundation, founded in 1951 by Dorothy W. and J.D. Stetson Coleman. This year, the foundation was so flooded with applications for its Entrepreneurship and Education Grants (EAEG) that it announced it would not accept any applications for its June 30 or Sept. 30 deadlines. “It’s not even the money. We’re a four-person organization, and we just can’t process any more grants,” said President and CEO Michael Hennessy.

The foundation’s Board of Directors sifted through approximately 220 proposals this year to make 80 awards, targeting their traditional constituency of underserved, underpriviledged youth. Typical grant recipients propose to educate students about entrepreneurship and provide support for fledging businesses in local communities. Technology plays the role of supporting educational plans and sustaining youth-run small businesses.

Successful grant applicants usually propose to use existing entrepreneurial education and training programs to reach additional students. Then, teacher-mentors who are specialists in entrepreneurship follow up on the students’ progress. In other words, K-12 teachers and administrators who are seeking funds from Coleman should begin by finding out about entrepreneurial programs in their area and figure out how to create a partnership with experts in the field.

A few of this year’s grantees illustrate the types of projects that the foundation supports:

• Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (Athens, Ohio). Five high schools have created the Computer Opportunities Program to enable high school students to develop and operate their own computer technology businesses.

• ARCH Training Center (Washington, D.C.). The ARCH Training Center will provide entrepreneurial training and mentoring to at least 80 alternative high school students. With the successful completion of a viable business plan, they will have access to equity capital, debt financing, follow-up training, technical assistance, and private-sector mentoring.

• Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, N.D.).

The Center for Innovation will implement a Youth Entrepreneurship Program to conduct an annual business plan contest open to all interested high school students in North Dakota.

• Entrepreneurial Advantage (St. Paul, Minn.). The Youth Entrepreneurship Program provides high school students with the academic opportunity to pursue experiential educational experiences. The program offers graduates access to seed capital, entrepreneurship development funds, and a revolving loan fund.

The key to understanding these programs is that they are not solely motivated by bringing technology into the classroom. “While we think that technology is great, a basic request by a school or school district for computers or an internet hookup is probably the application we’re least able to deal with,” said Hennessy. “We’ve learned that bringing technology into the classroom is kind of like having to maintain a boat—the costs just continue to go up, and we can’t sustain that support.”

Technology comes into play in Coleman-supported programs in a less direct manner. After receiving training in running a small business and being given some initial seed money, students create businesses that are buying and selling products and servicing customers. Computers, of course, are an ideal way to track those data and analyze them with great sophistication. This is a real-world incentive to become proficient at using computers—e.g., the type of incentive that educators know has the most positive and long-lasting impact.

Getting teenagers excited about these real-world applications is one of the many things the foundation sought to encourage when it expanded its grant program this year. However, since it became too popular, the foundation has suspended giving for the remainder of this year while it decides how best to reposition the program to meet its mission without overwhelming its internal operations.

“We extended eligibility for our grants this year to a wider range of applicants than ever before,” said Hennessy of the EAEG program that began in 1981. “It was the first time we’d extended grants directly to high schools, for example. Although they proposed some great projects, they don’t necessarily know how to plan in detail how to use funds, nor how to sustain a program.” While the foundation made the decision this year to work with some of these applicants on those types of issues, Hennessy said that in the future he will expect grantees to demonstrate a more substantial level of sophistication about long-term maintenance of their programs.

The foundation is thinking of building on an existing partnership with the national nonprofit group United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (USASBE) to run its EAEG program. Coleman and USASBE have been working together for about three years, as Coleman sought USASBE’s assistance in providing support across the country for budding entrepreneurs. “We might solicit USASBE’s support for the marketing and administration of our EAEG program in the future,” said Hennessy. “And they might, in turn, want to clarify the guidelines to see more extensive partnerships between schools and other institutions in a community.”

For more information about how the Coleman Foundation is revising its programs, visit the group’s web site this fall. n

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at