Another Place Where K-12 Funders Are Keen to Connect the Dots for Greater Impact

A source of frustration among many funders is that the education space is rife with uncoordinated, duplicative efforts that don't get the desired results. One solution is for funders to pool their investments through umbrella efforts that can better align multiple programs and projects, aiming for collective impact in reaching educational goals, including improved standardized test scores, higher graduation rates, and greater college readiness.

We've written about collective impact before, looking at the work of Say Yes to Education in New York State which is currently being evaluated by scholars at Teachers College at Columbia University with support from the Wallace Foundation. We've also written about the funders pushing collective impact to improve K-12 through the Cradle to Career Accelerator Fund, launched last year with support from several funders, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation. 

Related:

The logic of collective impact also informs other funder efforts in K-12, including a multi-funder coalition known as Minnesota Comeback.

Earlier this month, Minnesota Comeback made headlines in Minneapolis media when it announced $2.7 million in grants to support higher-quality education in Minneapolis schools, including district, charter, and independent schools.

The grants include nearly $575,000 for the Minneapolis Residency Program to diversify the city's teacher work force, and $475,000 to benefit two high-performing charter schools, Prodeo Academy and Hiawatha Academies. Another grant, worth $1 million, will fund improved parent engagement. The Achievement Network will receive $250,000 from Minnesota Comeback to improve leadership training for teachers and school leaders in district, charter, and independent schools.

So, what is Minnesota Comeback?

The organization is an umbrella group of more than two dozen local and regional funders interested in improving education in Minneapolis. Some of these funders include the Cargill, Bush, Joyce, General Mills, Minneapolis, and McKnight foundations. At least one prominent national funder, the Walton Family Foundation, is part of the Minnesota Comeback coalition. Minnesota Comeback's stated goal is to create an additional 30,000 high-quality seats in Minneapolis schools for students from low-income backgrounds.

This goal has raised a few eyebrows in Minneapolis, raising questions about how those high-quality seats will be created and speculation that Minnesota Comeback will pull resources away from the city's public school system in favor of charter schools. The involvement of Walton, the nation's most prominent — and best bankrolled — charter school funder, adds fuel to this speculation.

Minnesota Comeback's executive director, Al Fan, denies that this is the organization's intent and has emphasized that educational success in Minneapolis will require collaboration among traditional public schools, charters, and independent schools. Fan is a former General Mills executive who previously served as founder and executive director of Charter School Partners.

Minnesota Comeback is actually a rebranding of a group that began three years earlier. That group, the Education Transformation Initiative (ETI), began as a coalition of educators, funders and community members to reduce the achievement gap in Minneapolis. After extensive research and brainstorming, ETI decided to create a new organization for implementing its ideas. That led to the creation of Minnesota Comeback as a community rallying cry.

Fan told the MinnPost website that funders have grown frustrated with fragmented education work and are looking to Minnesota Comeback to coordinate their investments. He works with the 28 funders and a 12-member board of directors to ensure the work is focused on the vision of creating those additional high-quality seats.

The K-12 funding landscape is vast. While big-name players like Gates and Walton grab most of the headlines, there are dozens of other funders, ranging from national to local foundations. In this crowded environment, fragmentation and even duplication of effort is almost inevitable without greater coordination through umbrella groups such as Minnesota Comeback. This is a key area where funders can play a constructive role in getting people to work together — assuming they themselves are capable of collaboration.