Case Study

Charting the Path to 100,000 Learners: 
Merit America Opens the Door to New Careers

By investing in Merit America, the Clark Foundation demonstrated the power and the payoff of taking a risk on strong leaders, who needed only capital to translate their crystal-clear vision from a 15-person pilot to a thriving organization that has prepared more than 7,500 people to succeed in new career paths.

Transformative Career Training with Scale and Self-Sufficiency

Merit America’s founders, Rebecca Taber Staehelin and Connor Diemand-Yauman, were committed from the start to three major goals: Developing fast, flexible pathways to remunerative careers for people in low-income jobs and without college degrees; designing a technology platform that would enable the organization to easily scale up; and bringing in enough revenue to eventually make the organization self-sufficient.

The founders focused on participants who needed to work while enrolled and providing them individual coaching to create accountability and support. With their previous experience in online education at Coursera, Taber Staehelin and Diemand-Yauman proposed a program platform where coaches, administrators and participants could operate in the same space and track progress in real-time.

Merit America’s model included building relationships with large and small companies to learn about their pressing needs. Equipped with that knowledge, the organization could steer participants toward in-demand professional certificates and connect them with employers that pay salaries high enough to transform lives. 

“We wanted to create an organization that delivers on the promise of the American Dream for 53 million talented Americans who are stuck in low-wage jobs by allowing them to get the skills, certificates and coaching they need for great new careers – without quitting their day jobs, without taking on tons of debt before being certain that there is a successful outcome, and with the support that we know folks need to really succeed,” said Taber Staehelin.

We wanted to create an organization that delivers on the promise of the American Dream for 53 million talented Americans.

Rebecca Taber Staehelin
Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Merit America

An Unproven Concept & Risk-Averse Funders

In pitching their idea to philanthropies, Diemand-Yauman and Taber Staehelin received enthusiastic responses, but no funder wanted to commit money to a nascent, unproven organization, no matter how exciting the concept. Foundations and other funders generally like to see a track record of success, because there’s little financial incentive for supporting a high-risk concept, leaving Merit America in a bind. Without adequate funding, they couldn’t launch; but without a track record of success, they couldn’t attract funding.

Through a mutual connection, Taber Staehelin met Joe Del Guercio, Clark Foundation President and CEO, who was seeking innovative ideas to address labor force challenges. Del Guercio and Clark Foundation leaders told her they were impressed with the concept and thought her background was ideal for the venture. When Clark suggested she come back to them after attaining some results, Taber Staehelin asked what would make the Foundation more comfortable in becoming the catalytic investor needed for the organization to launch. Del Guercio asked for time to think it over. 

The Foundation followed up asking for the founders’ business forecasting and more details about their concept, projected impact and goals. Clark Foundation leaders were impressed by Merit America’s emphasis on the learner experience, which would be shaped by identifying participants with the potential to succeed; developing an efficient and inclusive education platform; and aligning training to directly meet employers’ needs.

The Clark Foundation believed in Merit America’s focus on adaptability and scalability, along with the long-term revenue strategy, fostered the potential for significant impact and longevity. But most of all, Clark Foundation leadership took a chance on the nascent organization because of the people behind it. The Clark Foundation agreed to become the catalytic investor with $500,000, hoping its funding would be an incentive for others to contribute to a matching amount. 

“Mr. Clark was a big believer in betting on people that he believed in, because he thought people like that make immediate and significant change,” said Del Guercio, referring to A. James Clark and his philosophy of strong leadership and investing in people that has guided the Foundation since its inception. “It’s pretty rare to find a combination of a really unique business idea, a focus on sustainability and an incredibly talented entrepreneur who’s leaving the business world to come to philanthropy.” 

Diemand-Yauman and Taber Staehelin were equally impressed by the thoughtful questions that Foundation staff posed to them, and were ecstatic to win their support. “Disbelief and the utmost gratitude,” said Taber Staehelin of her reaction to the Foundation’s involvement. “Every funder says they want to be catalytic but then they don’t want to take the chances. The Clark team was unique because they were truly willing to be a catalyst for change.”

Trust-Based Philanthropy Yields Results

As with all its grantees, the Clark Foundation trusted Merit America’s leaders to decide how to best utilize its funding. “We defer to the staff and the organization. They’re the ones who know the work, they have the vision for what needs to be done,” said Del Guercio. “So we trust in them to make the most of the funds. Our number one priority is to learn and understand what you’re doing and to ask how we can be of the most help.”

With this trust-based approach and flexibility, the Clark Foundation prioritizes comparing results to goals – and helping recalibrate if needed – over rigid benchmarks and excessive reporting. The Foundation and Merit America’s leaders share a commitment to long-term data and milestones, which provide measurements for success, create a basis for in-depth conversations between funder and grantee, and enable the organization to make a strong case to other potential funders. 

The partnership fostered by this approach allowed Taber Staehelin and Diemand-Yauman to speak candidly to the Clark Foundation about challenges as well as wins, and how lessons learned informed adjustments in strategy. “That level of honesty is something we see as central to our partnerships. It’s a crown jewel in a lot of our relationships,” said Del Guercio.

Exceeding Expectations

Having bet on Merit America’s founders, Clark Foundation leaders say that the organization has exceeded its expectations at every step of the way. As a result, the Foundation invested an additional $750,000 in 2019, which would allow Merit America to continue scaling its efforts, hire additional staff, and recruit and educate larger cohorts of participants. 

By that time, the organization had successfully scaled its programming, going in 15 months from a 15-person pilot to supporting more than 230 learners. Merit America also demonstrated its impact on participants; of the 125 alumni at the time of the second grant, 85% were working in new careers with over $15,000 in average annual wage gains.

Merit America had also established corporate partnerships, including with Google, Amazon and JP Morgan Chase, which have the resources to validate the program model, hire graduates and provide sustainable revenue. And with independence a priority for both the grantee and the funder, Merit America had successfully leveraged the initial Clark Foundation grant to raise $4.9 million in funding. 

Today, Merit America is the largest nonprofit of its kind in the country, with proven impact and unprecedented scale. By the end of 2023, Merit America will have enabled 10,000 people to embark on new careers paying a projected cumulative total of more than $400 million in near-term salary increases. Eighty percent of its learners complete the program, and alumni move from average pre-program salaries of $26,000 to average salaries of $50,000 three or more months after completing the program, a change that alumni describe as life-altering. The future earning potential of Merit America alumni also increases, often accompanied by better benefits and working conditions. Even more importantly, learners move from feeling stuck in a low-wage job to having a career they love with potential to grow.

Merit America now operates nationwide with a staff of more than 190, evolving as it matures. The organization is forming partnerships with smaller, local businesses and adjusting its programming to meet the needs of those employers, as well as the corporate titans that have employed its alums. 

Before the organization launched, training programs for people without college degrees reached fewer than a total of 100,000 people each year. By contrast, Merit America aims to enroll 100,000 learners in its own program annually by the end of the decade, and is ahead of its target to drive a total of $1 billion in wage gains by the end of 2025. In addition to attaining the scale that its founders envisioned, Merit America is on its way to becoming financially independent, with partial payments from graduates and fees paid by partner employers.

Believing in strong leadership and an innovative model paid off for the Clark Foundation, Merit America, and, most importantly, the people whose lives have forever changed because of the Foundation’s willingness to invest in the founders’ vision.