The "Big Bet" of a Funder That Hasn't Forgotten Traditional Public Schools

If you're only half tuned in to the education philanthropy space, you might think that most funders could care less about traditional public schools as they rush to pump money into charters and education nonprofits. Of course, that wouldn't make much sense, given that 95 percent of U.S. K-12 students still go to regular district schools. And sure enough, as we so often report, there's tons of philanthropic action around these schools involving both local and national funders. 

One funder that's deeply involved in working with district schools in its own community is Salesforce.org, the philanthropic arm of Salesforce.com, the Bay Area technology company. Its commitment, which involves much more than money, has been growing, and it's interesting to examine more closely. 

Last year, the company's chief philanthropy officer, Suzanne DiBianca, filled us in on the backstory. She said that Salesforce's commitment to the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) emerged after a meeting with the mayor and superintendent. “We decided this was a place to make a big bet,” DiBianca said.

Salesforce saw an opportunity in helping the SFUSD because not many funders were getting behind the city's traditional schools. “Nobody is doing it,” DiBianca said, calling the state of public education “abominable.”

Salesforce started with a $2.7 million gift to SFUSD in 2013. Then, in 2014, it gave $5 million. In 2015, it raised the amount to $6 million. Much of this grant support went to fund infrastructure and technology improvements, an area where the school district is particularly weak. But Salesforce also made $100,000 available to each middle school principal through an innovation fund to spend as they see fit. 

Related: Inside the Salesforce Foundation: What's This Leader in Corporate Philanthropy Up to Now?

Now, Salesforce has increased its commitment further, putting another $8.5 million behind its successful partnership with San Francisco Unified School District, and adding their neighbor across the Bay, Oakland Unified Schools. The primary focus of the new funding will be supporting computer science education, with Salesforce sticking to an area it knows well.

Outsiders should be paying attention to what's happening here. 

Many observers have commented on the dismal state of computer science instruction across the country (roughly only 25 percent of schools offer computer science classes). But this private-public partnership has empowered San Francisco Unified to become the first school district nationwide to establish a computer science curriculum for all grades, which is notable amid wide agreement on the need to boost the STEM skills of tomorrow's increasingly diverse workforce. With 19 full-time coaches and teachers hired for math and technology instruction, the district has been able to reduce class sizes for eighth grade math from an average of 33 to 24 students per class. The district reports that such class size reductions have led to improved student achievement as measured by increased grade point averages.

Reading the fine print of this latest commitment, San Francisco will get $6 million of the total contribution, granting $100,000 to principals at all 21 middle schools in the district, the hiring of new math and technology teachers, and the improvement of Assistive Technology Innovation Centers for students in need of special services. Oakland Schools will get $2.5 million at the outset of their partnership with Salesforce.org. The district will similarly use the fund to pilot a Principal’s Innovation Fund across six middle schools, increase STEM programming to develop robust career pathways, improve math instruction, and launch Future Centers to expand college and career awareness among students.

But the other interesting thing, here, is how Salesforce is putting resources besides money behind its effort to help schools. 

As part of CEO Marc Benioff’s pioneering 1-1-1 philanthropic model—which encourages companies to contribute 1 percent of their products, employees’ time, and equity—Salesforce employees will also volunteer 20,000 hours of their time in San Francisco and Oakland schools during the 2016-2017 school year, building on the thousands of hours they've committed already. Last year, DiBianca told us that the volunteer component was really important, given that so many Salesforce employees live near district schools and like the idea of giving back in ways that tap their specialized knowledge. 

Building on a partnership between sf.citi and Circle the Schools in 2015, Salesforce.org adopted 20 San Francisco school campuses. Circle the Schools is an initiative that allows companies to adopt schools and develop relationships with principals. Employees from local companies focus on literacy in elementary schools, STEM in middle schools, and college and career readiness in high schools. 

At a time when there is so much rancor in the Bay Area over rising inequality, and anger at tech companies for driving this trend, it's interesting to watch Saleforce trying to address stratification in a hands-on way. As we've reported, Benioff has also been a visible and leading proponent of more giving by tech companies to local anti-poverty groups. 

Related: Message: We Care. Marc Benioff Leads Tech Anti-Poverty Coalition

Of course, Saleforce is a global company, and its philanthropic reach extends beyond the Bay Area, with global grantmaking that we've also chronicled at IP. So it may be no surprise to hear that the Salesforce.org plans to expand its school adoption program, expanding Circle the Schools internationally to 19 additional schools around the globe.