Standing Behind At-Risk Students, With the Help of Powerful Funders

When you hear about philanthropy's role in K-12 education these days, it's often the big reform funders who get all the attentionfoundations like Gates, Walton, and Broad that back things like charter schools and teacher accountability. 

Yet, as we often remind IP's readers, there is plenty else going on in K-12 philanthropy, with nonprofits raising lots of money for efforts to boost students that have nothing to do with the kind of "systemic" reforms that are so in vogue right now. 

Communities in Schools is a great example. It's a federated network of about 165 separate 501(c)(3)s in 25 states and the District of Columbia. “We put poor kids on a path to unleash their potential and graduate by putting a caring adult in their lives,” Debra Montanino, the national chief strategy officer at CIS, told Inside Philanthropy. “We work in high-poverty schools and help to address the barriers that kids living in poverty bring to school. That could be hunger, housing, or counseling for trauma. It could be a whole host of things from gangs to teen pregnancy. We place a site coordinator, employed by CIS, on the management team of the school. He or she works closely with the principal, the counselors and the other administrators to very systematically assess what the needs are of that school.”

While many of today's ed reformers are fixated on what happens within schools and draw criticism for ignoring the socioeconomic challenges poor kids face outside the classroom, CIS is squarely focused on exactly those obstacles to success. “We identify the 10 to 15 percent of the population most at risk of dropping out and we literally case manage those kids,” Montanino said. Judging by its fundraising successCIS pulled in around $19 million in cash support in its last fiscal year and far more in-kind supportthis approach has strong appeal among many funders. 

Although CIS is nearly 40 years old, Montanino credits a push by former CEO Dan Cardinali for really supercharging the group's work and fundraising beginning a decade ago. The organization's reach is impressive. In the last academic year, CIS worked with 1.5 million students in 2,300 schools. Ninety-nine percent of them stayed in school, 93 percent were promoted and 93 percent of seniors graduated. These numbers are the key to Montanino’s fundraising philosophy: “Really focus not just on need but outcome, and what a donor can expect to see from an investment.” She says the fact that CIS is “data driven and evidence based” in delivering measurable results is a major draw for donors. 

Corporations, foundations and individuals each contribute about one-third of CIS funding, although the percentages fluctuate. “Our biggest funders include the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, AT&T, Costco, Altria, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Hudson Group, and the Bank of America,” Montanino said.

The group's budget is now around $20 million a year, with an endowment that has spun off about $1.2 million annually, and CIS faces a heavy fundraising lift. And like all the fundraisers we talk to, Montanino has been keen to diversify the group's sources of income. She says that CIS has lately built a much broader base of individual supporters, bringing in 1,500 new donors in the past three years, and it's also been working hard at increasing its bequests. CIS doesn't do direct mail, but does have an eye on online fundraising. "People do come in over the transom via the website," Montanino said. "We got a good bump because Nick Kristof of the New York Times in his annual charity column around the holidays wrote that we were a nonprofit organization worth the investment.”

CIS doesn’t routinely hold events, although it did do a black tie gala in New York two years ago in honor of Board Chair Elaine Wynn, during which CIS raised $2 million. Wynn has been involved with CIS for two decades and board chair since 2007. As we've reported before, Wynnwho made her fortune in casinosis a major player in the philanthropy world right now and the kind of ally who can do big things for a nonprofit like CIS. The group's next event, in May, is its 40th anniversary bash in Los Angeles.  

Beyond the support of high-level movers and shakers, CIS also is looking to build support and visibility through the people who know the group best: Its alumni, who've come together in a new leadership network. "Some of it is to help build their voices in their communities," explains Montanino. "Some of it is to help us raise the profile of Communities in Schools for policy and fundraising and other kinds of ways. It’s a very exciting new aspect of our work.”

One key member of that alumni team is Rey Saldaña, 30, who came from a low-income community with parents who didn't graduate high school and didn't speak English. Thanks to the help of CIS, Saldaña got into Stanford University, where he graduated with a Master's degree at the age of 23. Now he’s a councilman in San Antonio, Texas, and volunteers with CIS.

After working for 36 years in the nonprofit sector, what advice would Montanino give to other nonprofits? “Really articulate your case for support. Understand the societal context in which you’re working. Don’t feel entitled, but help people understand why you’re asking for an investment and how the world will be a better place because of it.”