For many decades of the 20th century, W.T. Grant Co. stores were common across America. The chain, which called itself “4-stores-in-one,” specialized in clothing, dry goods, home hardware, and variety items and was named for founder William Thomas Grant, an entrepreneur born in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, who spent his childhood in Massachusetts. It was the great success of these stores—at the chain’s peak it had nearly 1,100 locations—that led Grant to establish a foundation in 1936.
“What I have in mind,” Grant said the year he launched the Grant Foundation, “is to assist, by some means, in helping people or peoples to live more contentedly and peacefully and well in body and mind through a better knowledge of how to use and enjoy all the good things that the world has to offer them.” From its inception, the Foundation has supported research in the social sciences—its first grant went to Harvard University for a groundbreaking longitudinal study of human development that’s lasted nearly 80 years. The study has been noteworthy for its finding that the strength and happiness of people’s relationships had a positive effect on both their health and longevity—with good relationships deemed a better predictor of long lives than IQ, social class, or even genes—and that participants with a strong social support network experienced less mental deterioration as they got older.
The Foundation continued to invest in research focused on human development, education, child care, and poverty. In the 1940s, it supported efforts to improve outcomes for Black students through the United Negro College Fund and National Medical Fellowships; in the 1950s, it supported work on child mental health, development, and attachment theory, as well as Dr. Benjamin Spock’s child-rearing studies. During the 1960s, the Foundation funded research on day care and preschool in response to an increase in mothers working outside the home.
By the time of Grant’s death in 1972 (the last remaining W.T. Grant store would close a few years later), the Foundation was investing in advocacy for children and youth and had a major hand in the creation of the Children’s Defense Fund. During the 1980s and ‘90s, it explored the challenges faced by teenagers who don’t attend college—at the time some 50% of children—through its support for the Commission on Youth and America’s Future. This effort spotlighted struggles experienced by the non-college-bound population in a report that became widely known as The Forgotten Half, with findings that included the need for additional government funding and connections such as Job Corps, local youth camps, and lifelong learning programs to provide additional work opportunities.
In the 21st century, the William T. Grant Foundation has focused on two main goals, with its mission statement noting that the Foundation “invests in high-quality research focused on reducing inequality in youth outcomes and improving the use of research evidence in decisions that affect young people in the United States.”
To the William T. Grant Foundation, research evidence refers to “a type of evidence derived from studies that apply systematic methods and analyses to address predefined questions or hypotheses.” Although numerous studies point to specific conditions that support the use of research evidence in public policy or organizational decision-making, less is known about strategies to create or support those conditions. The Foundation believes that new research in this area can create avenues for engagement between researchers and decision-makers in ways that bolster research use and improve youth outcomes. Although achieving this goal is more complicated than it sounds, the William T. Grant Foundation has become known for its leadership on the topic.
“It’s one thing to know how research is used in policy and practice—to understand the conditions that enable thoughtful deliberation and sense-making of the evidence and the infrastructure that supports those conditions,” explained Vivian Tseng, the Foundation’s then-senior vice president, in a recent Foundation message. “It’s another thing altogether to create those conditions and the supporting infrastructure so that research routinely serves the public interest.”
One way the Foundation has worked to create these conditions is by nurturing a cross-pollination of research and policymaking—getting stakeholders involved in the research process earlier on and building partnerships that can integrate multiple perspectives and sources of knowledge. Another is through using key individuals and organizations as intermediaries to help nurture the engagement and relationships between researchers, policymakers, and communities. The Foundation has also funded studies of research use in policymaking to better understand how it can promote youth outcomes.
This lens on using research to create evidence-informed change is where the William T. Grant Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts intersect, with Pew also committed to applying a rigorous analytic approach to improving policy. In a new initiative, the two organizations are working together to promote and facilitate new ways to help research be more relevant to policymaking. The project has gathered and mobilized experts from around the world to identify, implement, and scale promising innovations in increasing the usefulness, inclusivity, and use of research evidence.
Launched in the fall of 2020, the project expanded the Transforming Evidence Funders Network, which connects public and private funders who are interested in supporting a closer connection between research, policy, and practice. The project also convenes the broader Transforming Evidence Network (TEN), a cross-sector community of researchers, decision-makers, and other stakeholders that works to generate and curate knowledge of effective connections between research evidence and policymaking. Of equal importance, TEN intends to build more useful research evidence for policymaking to foster greater equity, diversity, and inclusion.
The evidence project builds off the collective strengths of both organizations.
“Like the William T. Grant Foundation, Pew believes that evidence makes a difference in expanding an approach to scientific research that is inclusive of and relevant to the rest of society,” says Adam Gamoran, the Foundation’s president. “Together we convene government, civil society, and communities to shape research agendas for their needs as well as to foster the use of research to inform policy and practice to benefit society.”
Molly Irwin, Pew’s vice president of research and science, expressed a deep appreciation for the Foundation’s long history in the field. “The William T. Grant Foundation has been on the vanguard of thinking through and supporting the evidence base on how research shapes policy and government programs, and how we can do a better job of making sure that research evidence shapes policy,” she says. “It’s important work, and our evidence project partnership has benefited from all the scholarship and knowledge they bring to the table.”
Demetra Aposporos is senior editor of Trust.