State of Flux: Five Things To Know About K-12 Education Philanthropy Right Now

photo:  lkunl/shutterstock

photo:  lkunl/shutterstock

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 25, 2017.

When I first started paying attention to philanthropy in the mid-1990s it was a relatively calm—if not sleepy—world. Large-scale grantmaking was dominated by a set of legacy foundations that had been around for decades. And while they were often trying new things, the pace of change tended to be slow.  

Things are moving exponentially faster today in the philanthrosphere. Big new living donors keep arriving on the scene; legacy funders are upping their game; donor-advised funds and other intermediaries are growing by leaps and bounds.

One place where all this dynamism can be felt most acutely is in the realm of K-12 education. Improving America’s schools is something of a Holy Grail for funders—and also a famous graveyard for ambitious philanthropic schemes.

The difficulty of this challenge has spurred an enormous amount of experimentation, along with high-profile failures, major pivots by top foundations, and lots of trips back to the drawing board. But there have also been some real successes. The field is fascinating to watch—and can be both inspiring and heartbreaking. Here are a few trends that we’ve noticed lately about K-12 philanthropy.

1. New Donors Are Shaking Things Up

Nothing is static when it comes to philanthropy’s quest to improve schools. There’s been a remarkable level of fluidity in this area lately, created by a few factors—starting with the arrival of new donors. Major grantmakers are appearing, almost out of nowhere, with big plans and deep pockets. And many of them are charting their distinct path on education.

In just the past two years, we’ve tracked the emergence of two big new national players in K-12 philanthropy: the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Ballmer Group. While CZI is focusing heavily on personalized learning, with a strong emphasis on technology, the Ballmer Group is keenly focused on the nexus between education and poverty. It’s made tens of millions of dollars in grant commitments in just the past year, including a recent $60 million pledge to StriveTogether, an organization that says it’s founded on a simple principle: “Those who care about a community’s children — from parents and educators to civic leaders and local employers — can accomplish more by working together than by working apart.”

Billionaire donors like Steven and Connie Ballmer and Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg are just the tip of the new donor iceberg. If you drill down locally, as we do all the time at IP, you’ll find plenty of new donors with much smaller resources who are also emerging on the scene and trying different things.

2. Veteran Funders Keep Evolving

Last week’s news that the Gates Foundation was shifting its K-12 work, with a new focus on backing locally driven solutions, was just the latest pivot by a funding giant that sees experimentation as a core operating tenet. While critics love to jump on Gates for its missteps, which can, indeed, produce much disruption in communities, this funder is notable in the way that it’s been ready to publicly acknowledge large-scale failures and move on to find the next big thing. Likewise, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have evolved dramatically in their thinking about K-12 education since 2010, when Zuck helped underwrite an ambitious reform effort in Newark.

Other top ed funders have kept moving, too. The giving of Laurene Powell Jobs—long a major if quiet player in the K-12 space—has changed markedly in the past few years, as she’s invested in a push to reinvent high schools. Some critics have had some choice words—wondering aloud whether the Emerson Collective really had digested the lessons of past efforts to reinvent high schools. All the same, it’s hard to deny that Powell Jobs is a philanthropist who’s impatient to find new paths forward and is ready to keep trying new things. And speaking of reinventing high schools, it’s worth noting that the Barr Foundation in Boston recently engaged in a major overhaul of its K-12 grantmaking, and is also backing new approaches to high school.

3. The Hegemony of the Reform Funders Is Dead

For a while there, it seemed like every new major donor who showed up in the K-12 space had the same vision: support charter schools along with organizations like Teach for America that backstopped those schools and pressed for policy changes. The reform funders are still going strong. The Walton Family Foundation is doubling down on charters and even with Eli Broad stepping back, the Broad Foundation is continuing its dramatic push for more charters in Los Angeles, as well as its backing of other reform work. Again, these name-brand national funders are just the tip of the iceberg; lots more local charter supporters, especially donors from finance, are still writing big checks.

All that said, the dominance of pro-charter reform funders in the K-12 space has dramatically diminished in the past few years. One reason for this is that the challenge of scaling high-performing charter schools has become more apparent over time. With the vast majority of K-12 students still attending traditional district schools, many funders understand that improving how students learn in these schools and how big public systems operate, is all-important. A great example of this awareness is Charles Butt, the billionaire grocery store magnate who recently pledged $150 million to improve schools in Texas. Butt chose to focus on bolstering the leadership within the nation’s second-largest public school system, hoping for wide-scale impact. The Wallace Foundation is another funder that’s investing heavily in a similar approach, with a focus on better recruitment, training, and support of school principals.

4. Localism and Collaboration Are Gaining Traction

Another indicator that the hegemony of reform funders has declined is that the top-down mindset long associated with these donors is being explicitly rejected by many funders, both old and new. The Gates pivot toward a more localized approach is the most dramatic example, along with the post-Newark mea culpas of Chan and Zuckerberg, who have pledged to engage local education stakeholders and respect local knowledge.

But there are other indicators of movement toward a more respectful and community-oriented K-12 philanthropy. Such a mindset seems to be central to the Ballmer Group’s approach, judging by its recent investments in organizations with long track records of working collaboratively in communities with various stakeholders.

Related to this, there’s been growing attention to collective impact approaches to improving education that engage local stakeholders across a range of sectors. StriveTogether, newly infused with Ballmer funds, embraces this kind of approach. The Wallace Foundation has been at the forefront here, supporting Say Yes to Education—a leader on collective impact—and new research to evaluate such work. This field still has a long way to go, and there have been setbacks, but it’s reflective of larger trends in philanthropy: More funders appreciate that complex societal challenges require multifaceted responses that engage everyone, and especially those closest to the problems. This view, in turn, is the exact opposite of the technocratic faith of earlier K-12 reformers—and some remaining diehards—who imagined that the problems in America’s schools could be licked by bringing in squads of McKinsey consultants to dynamite the old system and build something new and better in its place.

5. Funders Are Looking Beyond Schools

The reform crowd has some good reasons for wanting to keep the focus on what happens inside schools as opposed to grappling with all the big socioeconomic problems that affect kids. Better teachers, principals and learning environments can make a huge difference in education outcomes, and focusing here makes this problem feel more manageable (while conveniently ducking the kind of tough questions about inequality that hedge fund managers don’t like to engage).

That said, both research and common sense point overwhelmingly to the need to address the socioeconomic factors that undermine student success. At various points in the long history of K12 philanthropy, the problems of poverty, segregation and funding inequities have been front and center in the minds of leading funders. During the reign of the reform funders, though, such issues were moved off the front burner—if not off the stove altogether.

But now, things are changing again. Amid a broader national discussion of equity and race, there’s a growing focus among K-12 funders on addressing the systemic obstacles to student success. Top new donors like Priscilla Chan and the Ballmers get it. And the Gates Foundation seems to be moving in this direction. As we’ve reported, Gates is now funding a deep dive into U.S. poverty, working with a who’s who of leading experts. When the results of this work are complete, we could well see new experimentation by the foundation to address out-of-school socioeconomic factors. Gates is already engaged in such approaches in its local grantmaking in the Northwest, which can be seen as something of a laboratory for work it could take national at some point—informed by its new poverty research. Even the Walton Family Foundation recently made a big grant to back new charter schools in New York City that are based upon research findings that show that students do much better when they attend schools that are integrated by race and income.


These are just some off-the-cuff observations about K-12 philanthropy based on recent reporting in Inside Philanthropy of developments at both the national and local levels. Of course, much else is happening in this field that I could mention, such as interesting new work to help students build real-world competencies and make the transition from career to classroom; a growing movement to promote social and emotional learning; major new efforts related to early childhood education and brain development; and more.

Again, the thing to keep in mind about education funding is just how dynamic this field is right now. It’s a good moment to put aside whatever generalizations or stereotypes you may have about K-12 funders—especially the new donors—and instead keep your eyes open. For nonprofits, it’s a moment with lots of fresh funding opportunities and potential—including for organizations that don’t directly work on public education, but instead address socioeconomic issues.