How Partnerships and Policy Fuel Emerging Trends in Education Philanthropy

Richard Tagle and Celine Coggins

Education-focused foundations exist to address deep societal inequities. Their goals — ensuring quality K-12 education for all students, improving student access to post-secondary opportunities, expanding formal learning experiences for children prior to kindergarten — point to a need for system-level changes. A new report from Grantmakers for Education captures this ambitious agenda — and reveals some of the necessary course corrections funders must make if the philanthropic sector is to achieve its lofty goals when it comes to education.

Trends in Education Philanthropy: Benchmarking 2018-19 is based on the 10th anniversary edition of a survey administered by Grantmakers for Education, a network of almost 300 education funders across the nation. Grantmakers for Education has conducted the survey five times since 2008, most recently in 2015. The most current report, based on the responses of 91 education funders, including 65 members of Grantmakers for Education, analyzes trends in the areas of giving and grantmaking practice.

One clear issue gaining momentum in the education funding community is attention to the social and emotional dimensions of learning. This trend may be a response to the emerging evidence base in brain science, which shows that learning is rooted in relationships and that students’ life outside the classroom affects what happens inside it. That growing understanding appears to be shifting philanthropy away from the academic-centric reforms of the last decade and toward investments that focus on the whole learner.

Consider the data. Respondents to the survey rank social and emotional learning first among all issues (30 total) for its potential to have a positive impact on education. Further, the majority (56 percent) anticipate increasing funding in this area over the next two years while, notably, not a single respondent anticipates making cuts. According to one respondent, this growing belief in the value of social and emotional learning reflects “increased recognition that the ‘whole child’ matters and that schools play a critical — not solitary — role in ensuring that students receive more holistic support.” Related topics like wraparound supports and restorative justice practices that attend to students’ social and emotional needs were also areas where funders anticipate increases, the report finds.

However, despite funders’ significant reported interest in this area, funds are not yet flowing to match. While more than one-third of those surveyed report funding in the social and emotional learning space, grant investment in this area only comprises 3 percent of overall dollars reported.

That doesn’t add up.

We aspire to fundamentally change the education system to consider the broad array of needs of learners — especially those who are enormously disadvantaged. This is an expanded notion of both the role of schools (beyond just the academic) and the role of other community entities (to provide comprehensive learner supports). To get there, we must re-evaluate our use of two strategies in education philanthropy: collaboration and public policy.

Funder Collaboration

The systemic and structural challenges faced by today’s education sector exceed the capacity of any single foundation to address independently.  Given this, it’s encouraging that education funders place a high value on engaging with peers through formal networks, participating in shared learning, aligning grant priorities, and even pooling their grants. Overall, 91 percent of respondents report participating in some type of collaborative activity, the study finds.

Education funders should consider several important questions to ensure that we are making the most of our collaborative work. Do we have the relationships in place — both with one another and with partners in other sectors — to have a meaningful impact on the priorities we have identified? How can we deepen relationships and access to shared information? Which strategies work best and generate greatest impact?

Public Policy

Second, to achieve any change at scale, education funders must engage in public policy. Yet, the share of respondents participating in public policy is shrinking, the report finds. In the 2012 survey, 59 percent of respondents reported involvement in policy. Today, that has dropped to 53 percent.

This decrease corresponds with a loss of faith in the federal government to play a leadership role in education. Only 11 percent of respondents to the latest survey see the federal government as favorable to issues of concern to them. By comparison, 72 percent consider the local policy environment to be moderately or very favorable to addressing policies consistent with their current priorities. There is opportunity at the local level for funders to engage in activities that build public will and awareness for social and emotional learning.

Funder collaborations to address local and regional challenges are happening across the country. From Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning initiative to Austin’s summer learning investment hub, foundations are finding value in working together and aligning goals and grants to create systemic changes. We are also beginning to see the need to use public policy change as a key lever in attaining greater and deeper impact to close achievement gaps. Through partnerships and policy work, education philanthropy can gain the momentum required to not only improve public education, but also create and sustain learning-centered communities that ensure everyone thrives and succeeds.

Richard Tagle is the CEO of the Andy Roddick Foundation and Celine Coggins is the executive director of Grantmakers for Education. Follow them on Twitter at @RAnthonyTagle and @Celine_Coggins, respectively, and Grantmakers for Education at @Edfunders.

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