STEP 4: Build Capacity

About that large, unexpected donation: CodeVA began on a shoestring. Tuition fees for summer coding camps for children paid for training teachers to teach coding classes in their schools.

Meanwhile, Rebecca’s national stature in the coding world caught the eye of tech billionaire Hadi Partovi. In 2013 as CodeVA was starting up, he, too, was just launching his own education nonprofit, Mr. Partovi asked Rebecca to be on his advisory board. When he saw CodeVA on her resume, he offered to fund the training programs to the tune of $2 million over four years.

It was a dream come true. Except, Chris explains, “That was more than we had capacity for.” They didn’t have enough money to pay for the operations required to handle that much program funding.

So Chris and Rebecca went to the state education department and asked if they were interested in working together to take advantage of all that program funding. The education officials’ response: “We have plenty of computers.” They equated computer science with hardware, not coding.

At that point, Chris says, “We decided, stupidly, to underwrite operations ourselves.” They took a deep breath, dipped into their personal savings, and put the program funding to work.

Within a year they’d made a measurable impact on teacher training and policy making. Yet CodeVA still had no operational funding except the Dovis’ savings account. Chris recalls, “We were doing our thing, having all this success. And we were scared, because our savings were not much.”

Around the same time that CodeVA finally received nonprofit status, Chris heard about a big innovation grant competition funded by Robins Foundation. He applied, and CodeVA made it to the final round. But when the winner was announced, CodeVA came in second.

Chris and Rebecca were out of money. They calculated they could keep things going for another two to three months, but then they’d have to figure out how to hand off to someone else to continue the effort. The problem was, there really wasn’t anybody to hand off to.

Then one day Chris’s phone rang. It was Robert Dortch, Robins’ director of community innovation. “Are you sitting down?” Robert asked.

It turned out that after the competition, the Robins board of directors had continued to look at CodeVA. According to Robert, “Chris and Rebecca had a big idea that was transformative. That’s just what we’re looking for.”

A number of things set CodeVA apart:

  • visionary leadership focused on impacts at both the macro and micro level
  • an internal culture of innovation, curiosity, risk tolerance, and risk readiness
  • a mission that tackles systemic issues with the goal of changing the whole system
  • persistent, tenacious policy advocacy to achieve that goal
  • programs that provide student support in ways that are holistic, inclusive, and address existing inequities

The only cause for concern was that CodeVA had just received their 501c-3 status. They were brand new. “Still, CodeVA had a great track record of idea leadership,” Robert explained. “We knew additional support would be required to build capacity.”

And so, when Robert called Chris, he said, “We believe in what you’re doing for students and for the community and we want to be a part of it. We’re going to give you $100,000 that you can use however you need to grow your programs.”

Most donors are more interested in funding programs than operations. “Robins, however, has been very innovative in looking at why nonprofits fail, sometimes even though they have lots of programmatic funding. So they will fund things in innovative ways,” says Chris.

That made the difference for CodeVA. As far as Chris is concerned, “The Robins Foundation is why computer science exists in Virginia.”

group photo-diverse coders

“We believe in what you’re doing for students and for the community and we want to be a part of it.”

Robert Dortch

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