Schools, Tools, and People: How a Venture Philanthropy Fund Works on K-12

photo: wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

photo: wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

The NewSchools Venture Fund was created at the height of the dotcom era in 1998 by social entrepreneur Kim Smith and venture capitalists John Doerr and Brook Byers. The idea was simple: using the venture investing tools that powered tech innovation to improve public education. The founders aimed to provide entrepreneurs in the K-12 space with access to early-stage capital and strategic guidance to scale their organizations. 

Fast-forward nearly 20 years. NewSchools says it has now invested $250 million in 150 education entrepreneurs who've established 450 schools serving over 171,000 students and who've created education technologies touching the lives of more than 60 million students and their teachers around the globe. Along the way, NewSchools has attracted support not just from its original VC founders and other tech givers, but from a who's who of top ed funders, including the Walton Family Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and others. While venture philanthropy funds were still new in the late 1990s, NewSchools is now part of a broader ecosystem of such outfits that also includes New Profit (founded around the same time), the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, and newer funds like Chicago Beyond. 

In early 2015, NewSchools adopted a refreshed giving strategy, and we've written about a few of its moves since then. Meghan Amrofell, COO at the fund, recently filled us in on what NSVF has been up to lately—and where it's heading.

The big picture is that NewSchools invests in both nonprofit and for-profit organizations working to improve public education. Its venture portfolio includes more than 150 organizations across the United States working in three general areas that NewSchools describes as "schools, tools, and people." Working across these areas, the fund supports schools it views as innovative, including many charters, while investing in new tools with the potential to improve how students learn, and backing initiatives that cultivate new leaders for the education sector, including from communities of color.

If you poke around here to see the full range of ventures that NewSchools backs, you'll find a few familiar names like KIPP, but what's most striking is the number of ed outfits NewSchools funds—most of which are probably unfamiliar, and many of which are still fledgling startups. 

Which is exactly the idea. Education entrepreneurship remains at the heart of NewSchools' vision. “We invest very early stage, while others tend to invest at a later stage,” Amrofell says. “We’re used to going to areas that are underfunded, where innovation is lagging. Where realities on the ground are not matching what students and teachers say they need.” NewSchools says that a willingness to take risks on relative newcomers with big ideas is among its key values, and this reflects a key tenet of venture capital investing. Transformative enterprises are rarely hatched by the usual suspects. 

NewSchools is an important player in the charter school movement. But as mentioned above, it also looks well beyond the challenge of designing and scaling new schools. It's also keenly interested in revolutionizing how students learn, which—as we often report—is a growing focus of a growing number of ed funders, including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (another major backer of NewSchools.) “The kind of schools we need are not the ones we've had for the past 100 years,” Amrofell says.

Technology occupies a prominent role in NewSchools' approach, reflecting its Silicon Valley roots. Offering alternative learning options for kids via the introduction of cutting-edge technology and teaching methodologies is at the forefront of NewSchools’ giving strategy. The fund dedicates significant time and resources to backing new learning tools and making sure they are designed and implemented in ways that work for students and teachers. Such tools include Ardusat, which brings space exploration into the classroom by enabling students to run code on satellites orbiting Earth to explore and understand the world around them. Similarly, CueThink is a web and tablet application focused on enhancing critical thinking skills and math communication of students in grades two to 12. And Lab4U uses apps that transform the built-in sensors of mobile devices and turn them into science instruments. (You can see NewSchools' full portfolio of tools and services here.)

However, NewSchools has made some changes in how it invests in ed tech. “We used to make equity investments in educational technology companies, but we’ve now spun off our equity arm," Amrofell says. "NewSchools Capital is a separate organization pursuing that part of the business at present. We’re moving forward with grants instead of direct equity investments." 

That doesn’t mean its investment in ed tech has dried up, though. NewSchools recently announced up to $1.5 million in new funding opportunities for ed tech entrepreneurs. This follows about $20 million the fund distributed during 2016 to fund ed tech products and entrepreneurs.

NewSchools is also looking to reach students who've been bypassed by advances in ed tech. Market research it conducted found that ed tech has the potential to address a number of critical areas of need for students with disabilities. “We need innovation everywhere,” Amrofell says. So in February of this year, NewSchools opened up the NewSchools Ignite Special Education Challenge, inviting entrepreneurs to showcase products and tools designed to support pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students in special education. In addition to funding in the range of $50,000 to $150,000, NewSchools will provide management assistance and facilitate knowledge sharing and broad collaboration among the award recipients. This latest initiative, which is about much more than financial backing, reflects how NewSchools seeks to ensure the success of organizations in its portfolio. Of course, this strategy is also borrowed from the venture capital world, where VCs often take a board seat and play a hands-on role in helping startups succeed. 

As for what lies ahead for NewSchools, the organization just published a new study on diversity, Unrealized Impact, that explores the "staff experience, workplace practices, and demographics across the education sector." These diversity issues are a growing area of attention by NewSchools, reflecting a pattern we're seen more broadly in the K-12 funding world. 

With new philanthropic dollars flowing more heavily in Silicon Valley and beyond, and many donors drawn to the tough challenges in education, it's a fair bet that NewSchools will experience even greater growth in coming years. If you want to get a sense of the organization's grandest hopes for improving K-12 education, check out a report that Amrofell co-authored with NewSchools' CEO Stacey Childress, "Reimagining Learning: A Big Bet on the Future of Education." It lays out ideas for how "$4 billion in philanthropy over 10 years could dramatically improve the performance" of U.S. schools. 

We're betting that if anyone can rustle up that kind of big money, it's NewSchools.