This Funder Bridges the Gap Between Philanthropy and the NYC Department of Education

 photo:  Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

photo:  Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

Created in 1982, the Fund for Public Schools, which works to support the New York City Department of Education, has been a pioneer in forging public-private partnerships in education. Over the past 35 years, it's raised $440 million from foundations, individual donors and businesses. Quite a bit of that money was raised during Michael Bloomberg's 12 years as mayor, when New York's wealthy class rallied behind an agenda to reform a K-12 system with 1.1 million students across 1,800 NYC public schools. The fund hasn't fared as well under Mayor Bill de Blasio, although it's still going strong. It operates like a venture philanthropy outfit, working to facilitate "partnerships between the philanthropic community and the NYC DOE to pilot innovative projects; accelerate promising, outcome-driven initiatives; and respond quickly and strategically to emerging needs across the NYC public school system."  

To learn more about how the Fund for Public Schools works and where its grant money is going, we spoke to Executive Director Sarah Geisenheimer, who’s finishing up her second year at the helm. She previously worked as an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation, where she led Digital Jobs Africa, a $100 million youth education and employment initiative, and advised on the foundation’s strategy and organizational performance.

Geisenheimer and her team told us that the fund’s theory of action is “seed, track, scale.” What this means is that private funds directly develop new initiatives, support the district in testing them while building capacity, and then help the district scale these initiatives across the system.

The Fund for Public Schools raises money by partnering with an array of foundations, donors and companies. In 2016, it raised about $17.5 million, and this year, the total is about $15.4 million. Recent major backers include the Gates Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Hutchins Family Foundation and the Paulson Family Foundation. 

Unlike many other public school-focused funders in New York City, the fund’s primary grantee is the Department of Education. Grant money comes from foundation partners andis passed on to the DOE. But the fund is more than just a transactional agent or a way for foundations to get their money over to the Department of Education. Geisenheimer emphasized that the fund takes a very active role in the grantmaking process and maintaining the work and relationships through all stages.

While a majority of dollars go through DOE central, individual schools have received direct funding from the fund, as well. This typically happens when a particular donor or foundation has a specific school in mind to serve as a model for a program that will be expanded later on. But in the end, most grants support schools directly in one way or another.

A great example of the fund's hands-on role is its central role in DOE's Computer Science for All initiative. When the program was launched in fall 2015, less than five percent of New York City public school students were receiving computer science education. The goal is to bring that up to 100 percent by 2025. This is a true public-private partnership, with approximately 50 percent of funding for this $81 million initiative coming from private support. Key funders that have partnered with the fund include CSNYC, Robin Hood Foundation, Math for America, Robin Hood Learning & Technology Fund, Oath Foundation, Alexandria Real Estate, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, the Ron Conway Family and Hearst Foundations.

The fund partners with a diverse range of foundations on a regular basis. For example, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation and the New York Community Trustthe Fund for Public Schools launched the NYC School Finder, an online resource that allows users to sort through New York's 440 high schools by a variety of criteria. Another big priority for the fund right now is pre-K, engaging in work with backing from such funders as the Altman Foundation, Deutsche Bank, the Catherine & Joseph Aresty Foundation, the Edith Glick Shoolman Children's Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The fund is also advancing a major effort to support dance education in New York's public schools with backing from Jody and John Arnhold. 

One way to understand the fund for Public Schools is that it's a versatile platform that allows private funders to engage in improving education in New York in a variety of ways. Some initiatives, such as dance education, may be quite specific and reflect the passions of a particular donor like Jody Arnhold. Others draw in a wider array of backers. The fund engages in a fair amount of matchmaking as part of its work. Geisenheimer said:

Funders really see the potential for impact in the system, and the conversation begins with what the funder is interested in. Computer Science for All is a great example because of the wide variety of stakeholders invested. This isn’t just about providing a new content area in schools, but also preparing students for college and career. It’s a big goal that’s so widely applicable with the support of poverty-fighting foundations like Robin Hood, private foundations, and individuals like Fred Wilson who are involved in the tech space and know how critical these skills are.

Geisenheimer added the important caveat that "what’s really important to us is that the work we support is a priority of the DOE.” 

In terms of metrics and measurement tools, the fund has a monitoring and evaluation component for its big Computer Science for All initiative, a partnership with the NYU Research Alliance and the Education Development Center.

We wrapped up our conversation with Geisenheimer and her team by asking how the fund’s work will look different in 2018 than it has in 2017 since the new year is just around the corner. Geisenheimer said that the fund will continue with the seed-track-scale approach and emphasize sustainability and learning from what works and what doesn't. It will also continue to explore ideas for new initiatives. There has been some interest in social/emotional intelligence lately, so the fund may soon begin to do some work in that area.

But one of the most notable upcoming changes is that Geisenheimer will be leaving the fund. She made the decision that it’s time to move on, and the fund is seeking her permanent replacement. In the meantime, Deputy Executive Director Julianne Rana will manage the fund after Geisenheimer’s departure. Rana previously worked at the domestic anti-poverty organization Single Stop USA, and led foundation and corporate giving for the Children’s Aid Society in New York City.