Arnold Foundation: Grants for K-12 Education

OVERVIEW: John Arnold made his fortune as a hedge fund manager before retiring to focus full time on philanthropy with his wife, Laura. Both have signed the Giving Pledge (read IP's profiles on Laura Arnold and John Arnold. Their Houston-based foundation is one of the largest private foundations in the U.S., and so far education grants have made up the largest slice of its funding pie. The Arnold Foundation's education strategy is focused mainly on charter schools and networks, public policy and outreach, research, and innovative approaches to K-12 education reform. It doesn't fund direct services or accept unsolicited proposals, but is always looking for cutting-edge trends and ideas in education.

IP TAKE: Of late, Arnold has embraced the "portfolio model" school management structure and seems keen on finding outfits that support this model as well. But the Laura and John Arnold Foundation's (LJAF) giving strategy is highly selective, so networking with current or former grantees could help get a first-time grantseeker's foot in the door.

PROFILE: The Laura and John Arnold Foundation's mission is to "address our nation’s most pressing and persistent challenges using evidence-based, multi-disciplinary approaches," and it is no small player.  The foundation has given more than $100 million to education causes in recent years, with many multi-year awards reaching well into the seven figures. As Laura Arnold noted in a recent interview, "Most, if not all, of what we do is policy work of some form."

Within the foundation's Education initiative, Arnold has embraced the "portfolio model of school governance," which "separates school oversight from campus operations." With every potential education investment, the foundation asks whether it has the potential to be transformative, sustainable, scalable, and able to hold schools, teachers, and leaders accountable. Arnold believes that this model will allow for "more school choice for families" and "increased flexibility and accountability for leaders and educators," as well as "address systemic inequities and improve educational outcomes." Because of this emphasis, the Arnold Foundation does not fund direct services, traditionally supports established organizations, and focuses on expansion of existing programs.

In this spirit, Arnold recently invested tens of millions of dollars to apply the portfolio model to low-performing New Orleans schools, which then could be used as a model for the entire country. The city has been a key focus for Arnold, which also "seeded the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University," which describes itself as "a research organization dedicated to understanding the post-Katrina school reforms in New Orleans."

Arnold has also been a major supporter of charter schools, with millions of dollars allocated to charter-aligned organizations. Complementing (and sometimes overlapping with) this focus as well as the general goal "to improve K-12 education," substantial support has recently been given for initiatives that included teacher recruitment, training, and retention, education technology, "blended learning," school effectiveness assessments, and informing families about scholarships, curricula selection, and school choice. Efforts to expand the pool of quality educators and schools receive a huge chunk of the foundation's ed dollars.

Public engagement projects and policy research also play strongly into Arnold's education strategy. In terms of public engagement, Arnold tends to focus on established organizations with a national footprint and that engage with a variety of stakeholders. One example is the KIPP charter network, which has received millions of dollars in funding over recent years.

Along those lines, grantseekers should note that there is often overlap between the various initiatives at Arnold, so the Education program is not the only foundation initiative through which the K-12 set may be eligible for funding. For example, the foundation recently awarded millions of dollars in separate grants to support the creation of online curricula, teaching tools, and high school textbooks through the Venture Development arm of its giving.

Similarly, the foundation's Evidence-Based Policy and Innovation initiative recently funded studies on early childhood education and child abuse prevention. Fundraisers would therefore do well to review all of the initiatives in the foundation's list of recent grantees to get a more complete picture of its approach.

Arnold has generally only funded around 40 education grants each year and does not accept unsolicited proposals, but that doesn't mean the foundation isn't looking for new grantees. Its staff promises to review every inquiry it receives, and the Arnold Foundation's philanthropic philosophy means that it proactively works to identify potential new grantees through networking efforts and observing the national educational landscape.

The bottom line: this is a foundation that wants to achieve systemic change in U.S. education rather than a series of one-off improvements. Networking with current or former grantees or sending an initial inquiry are two possible avenues to get this funder's attention

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