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We recently sat down with John Templeton Foundation staff member, Sarah Clement, Senior Director of Character Virtue Development, to discuss the Foundation’s interests in and goals for research in this funding area, and the Character Through Community funding competition.

To get started, why don’t you share a little about your story – what brought you to the foundation? What made you interested in and excited about this place?

I began thinking about how the insights we glean from research can be applied to address real-world problems when I took Dr. Richard Lerner’s course on Applied Developmental Science at Tufts University. I was further drawn in by Dr. Lerner’s model of positive youth development, which emphasizes the critical role that the “5 C’s” – competence, confidence, character, connection and caring – play in development. What I didn’t know at that point was how prominent the character aspect would become in my professional career!

After receiving my doctorate in developmental psychology at Cornell University, I knew I wanted to do something more applied than a traditional academic position as I entered the job market, so I started to look at organizations where I could leverage my skills and research to help affect positive outcomes for children and families. When I saw the posting for a Program Officer position in Character Development at the Foundation, I initially disregarded the post because I didn’t have a degree under that title (in fact, there are no doctoral programs that confer a degree under that title). Fortunately, I reconsidered after learning more about the department and its alignment with my own research interests!

How do you define the foundation’s work related to your department’s funding priority?  What are the goals of this priority?

The mandate for the Character Virtue Development department is to advance the science and practice of good character. So, this is quite a broad remit, and there’s a lot we can do with it. One recent example is our Character Through Community funding competition. It was initially designed to be a $15 million program, but after receiving an overwhelming response to the call, we decided to increase the number of awards to $20 million. Our goal for this funding competition was to help strengthen organizations that seek to advance both the understanding and practice of character development. Many organizations today are interested in scaling, which is certainly an admirable goal. However, scaling programs that are looking to make long-term changes in an individual’s habits – whether it be perseverance, humility, generosity, or love – can be quite difficult, especially when these habits are cultivated in the context of trusting relationships. Organizations often lack the resources needed to grow their character programs. Therefore, our support is intended to help organizations focus on strength before scale.

In addition to financial support, we seek to further strengthen the professional network of our award winners by bringing them together to share information about their programs, brainstorm ideas, problem-solve, and develop their own community. The projects we are funding will build the capacity of 184 organizations (including multiple sites within large organizations) to deliver high-quality, character-focused activities and materials. To aid in this capacity-building, the projects will establish 122 communities of practice that will engage approximately 20,000 teachers, youth leaders, parents, and youth directly, with the opportunity to influence over 800,000 individuals in broader networks (one of the projects will engage 75 faculty members at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College (ASU), with the ultimate goal of changing the curriculum and culture of the college, which serves 6,700 teachers-in-training). While the focus of these projects will be on strengthening organizations, most will also contribute to the broader youth development community through shared knowledge. If successful, these programs will generate a significant number of resources for both practitioners and academics, including over 75 toolkits, online platforms, implementation guides, and best practices, as well as more than 77 articles for both practitioner and academic audiences.

What big questions drive work in Character Virtue Development, specifically for the Character Through Community funding competition?

The main question that drives this work is: Can we amplify a program’s positive outcomes by embedding its team members in a larger community of practice with like-minded practitioners?

What do you find particularly exciting about this work?

We’re awarding 23 grants as a result of the Character Through Community funding competition, and I’m sincerely excited about each one. We are supporting organizations that are seeking to improve the lives of youth and community members, which is a good thing in and of itself, and we’re also going to learn a lot of important information through these awards.

There are a number of exciting aspects of this work, including the potential to strengthen connections between organizations that are interested in character development. Often, these programs do not have the resources or line-of-sight to identify otherwise similar programs across the United States, or even internationally. Our hope is that by connecting these organizations, it will strengthen their overall capacity to deliver high-quality programming. I’m also very proud of the range of programs we’re supporting, including work in higher education, primary and secondary schools, after-school programming, faith-based initiatives, and community-based projects.

Finally, one of the most exciting objectives of this work is to advance our understanding of how different communities think and talk about character development. For example, we have a series of ambitious and innovative projects to transform universities by reducing polarization through intergroup dialogue facilitation (April Lawson, Braver Angels), offering a series of intellectual virtues courses intended for all students on campus (Duncan Pritchard, University of California, Irvine), and cultivating civic virtue by engaging a campus in Montgomery, Alabama with the city’s Civil Rights history (Aaron Cobb, Auburn University, Montgomery). We are also supporting a collaboration between Penn State University (Pete Allison) and International Outward Bound, to examine cultural adaptations to the character curriculum in a multi-national study. Finally we are excited to support an innovative partnership between Search Institute and San Antonio’s UP Partnership to deliver leadership training that will aid in cultivating relationship-rich, character-nurturing norms in local youth-serving organizations.

Why do you think this topic is important now?

I think the timing of this initiative is important for two reasons. First, it’s clear that we tapped into a real felt need with this funding competition. After we put out the call for applications, we received an overwhelming amount of interest. This really shows that there are so many communities around the globe that are looking to improve the lives of their youth. On the one hand, we’re thrilled to support so many organizations doing this incredibly important work with $20 million in awards. On the other hand, it’s hard not to notice how much more could be done with additional philanthropic support. Second, as I mentioned above, many organizations today are focused on scaling their efforts however, it can be exceptionally difficult to effectively scale character programs. Our hope is that JTF funding can help strengthen these organizations and put them in a better position to effectively scale in the future.

Where would you like to see the state of this work in five years? What questions do you hope we’ll be asking then?

My hope is that in five years, we will have a better understanding of what worked well and what didn’t work in the context of strengthening programs through communities of practice. Under what conditions did the communities flourish or perhaps falter? Did project members expand their professional networks? Did the organizations demonstrate growth during the three-year initiative? Are any of the programs in a position to “go to scale?”

From a programmatic perspective, my hope is that we see more programs using the latest science of character to inform their practice. I also hope that these organizations can benefit from a more closely-knit professional community. Whether the program is embedded in higher education, regional communities, faith-based organizations, or the after-school context, there are opportunities to connect with like-minded professionals. With over 800 applicants for this funding competition alone, we know there are a lot of organizations interested in strengthening their work on character.

What should people interested in applying for funding know? What are you looking for?

One somewhat uncommon feature of JTF funding, especially in the character development area, is that we accept ideas from around the world. We will continue to advance this global focus in the coming years. Another feature of JTF funding is that we seek to elevate research-informed practice. If your program incorporates the latest science of character development, you are a good fit for us! Finally, we are interested in understanding how we can help youth flourish in the digital age. What does science tell us about leveraging technology for positive development? How are programs incorporating technology to enhance the delivery of their materials? How can programs balance high-quality, in-person programming with digital options?

Still Curious?

Explore featured grants in Character Virtue Development.