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AJA Foundation

September 20, 2023

AJA Foundation Empowers, Connects Ed Program Grantees through Innovative Conference Sponsorship

In April, 400 education professionals from across the U.S. joined together in Boston at the 14th annual conference of the National Partnership for Educational Access (NPEA). Coming from a wide range of K12 and higher ed spaces, attendees were eager to break out of their silos to connect with the people, practices, and innovations essential for all students to thrive. A creative sponsorship by AJA Foundation built capacity for several of its education grantees to participate. The $10,000 sponsorship intentionally created a unique experience of shared learning, not only covering the cost of conference attendance but also NPEA membership for AJAF grantees. And, what is more unique: AJAF attended the conference to learn alongside them.

NPEA Conference attendees listen to keynote speaker Dr. Malik S. Henfield, Full Professor and Founding Dean of the Institute for Racial Justice at Loyola University Chicago

Going “Beyond the Grant”

Based in Nevada, AJA Foundation “seeks to help those who have done everything society asks of them, yet for whom access to essential resources and the probability for advancement that comes from them remain elusive at best and structurally impossible at worst.” They focus specifically on advancing human rights including equal access to clean water, quality education, and essential healthcare.

Executive Director Colleen McKenna was charged by AJAF’s founder, Andy Astrachan, to ”think out of the box” with regard to support for grantees. With a wide range of experience across tech, communications, and marketing, in both for-profit and nonprofit spaces, Colleen offered the experience of both grant-seeker and grant-maker. She was up for the task.

Colleen McKenna, Executive Director of AJA Foundation (center) attending NPEA 2023 with Dionne Henderson, President and CEO of Partnership for the Future (left) and Kelly Glew, President of Steppingstone (right)

“Supporting an organization through financial assistance is one thing,” Colleen recognizes, “but making time to provide consulting experience when appropriate can be very impactful as well.”

While speaking with leaders of organizations focused on college access and success, it became apparent to Colleen that most were not connected with organizations doing similar work. Incidentally, Steppingstone founded NPEA in 2007 for this very reason.

“Through research seeking best-in-breed college access programs, I came across NPEA and Steppingstone,” Colleen recalls. “When I learned about the conference, I thought it might be impactful to introduce my grantees to one another, give them a membership to NPEA and help them with registration for the conference.”

Forming a Community Among Grantees

Attending the conference as a group made for plenty of time to connect. “In the mornings when we sat together as a group listening to the keynotes, it was fun to feel part of a team and a community,” Colleen reflects with a smile. Grantees called the experience “life-changing” and followed up with Colleen to say that they hoped to bring more colleagues to the conference next year. “They were so inspired to meet others engaged in the same work and to know that there was such a large community of people working in this specific area of education.”

Brenda Romero, a college counselor at Fulfillment Fund Las Vegas, an AJAF grantee, speaks to this impact: “For me personally, it can sometimes feel like a desert for intentional college access programs in my community, but this conference allowed me to not only learn from so many individuals but be able to dream bigger than what I have seen and start to implement that in my work.”

NPEA conference attendees networking over breakfast

A Strong, Impactful Investment

“It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career,” Colleen emphasizes, “to bring our grantees together, to sit with them and share a meal and talk, and for them to meet each other and to have formed into their own AJA Foundation cohort.” She adds, “It was exciting to be a part of the interactions in real time” as grantees processed the content of each session and considered how they might implement their learning.

“It made me reflect that there are so many smaller foundations like mine, where people are engaged in impactful grant-making. But, to have the opportunity to ‘walk the walk’ with grantees was rewarding on a different level.”

And, grantees notice the difference. One grantee confided in Colleen that AJA Foundation is one of the only funders who “really takes the time to know us” and to understand how to provide assistance beyond funding. The value beyond dollars, for both grantees and AJAF, is palpable. For funders interested in attending the NPEA conference, Colleen underscores additional benefits:

“If you desire an up close and personal experience with the people on the front lines working to change the face of education in our country, there’s no better opportunity to meet so many program leaders at one time. What I was able to accomplish in a few days probably would have taken me a year of research, calls, and Zooms.” It’s not only the grantees who benefit from connecting with similar organizations. “I know from speaking to other leaders of small foundations that we often find ourselves working independently.” As Colleen describes it, trading virtual meetings for in-person connection was “priceless.”

NPEA conference attendees enjoying conversation

A “Win-Win”... Everyone Rises Together

In Colleen’s eyes, providing a sponsorship through NPEA both directly impacted grantees and invested structurally in a community dedicated to educational access.

“I was pleased to be able to work with NPEA to provide capacity-building grants in the form of NPEA memberships and registration fees for our grantees. Funneling it through NPEA was a win-win.”

“I believe that investing in education through grants that support learning for non-profits allows everyone to rise together.”

If you are interested in sponsoring NPEA membership and/or conference attendance for education professionals, please contact Karin Elliott at

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