A K-12 Funder Reviews Its Strategy, With an Eye on Racial Equity

photo: Blend Images/shutterstock

photo: Blend Images/shutterstock

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation is a leading K-12 funder in New England that we’ve been following for a while, now, largely because of its ambitious plans to reinvent K-12 education and how its been pushing changes at the state and district levels to advance student-centered learning. This is a good time to check in on NMEF because the funder has been engaged in strategic planning, looking at its grantmaking through the lens of racial equity.

Since the start of the year, Nellie Mae’s president and CEO, Nick Donohue, has been blogging about this process and offering some insights into what’s going on. Unlike many foundations that approach strategy overhauls with hushed tones and behind closed doors, Nellie Mae is trying to do things a bit differently.

Donohue, who has been leading the foundation for the past 11 years, has been talking a lot lately about equitable distributions of student-centered practices and addressing how the foundation serves low-income students and students of color. To help guide the foundation through the equity process and conduct an equity assessment, the funder enlisted the help of a couple consultants, Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk. NMEF is still working with them, as well as the TCC Group, which is leading the ongoing strategy planning process.

“Philanthropic organizations are rooted in the historical and racial inequities stemming from white privilege and power, and profits reaped from those less privileged,” Donohue wrote. “This is not a new or original insight. But what is new is our own organizational commitment to address these issues.”

We got in touch with Donohue to hear more about his thinking about philanthropy and white privilege, how NMEF is evolving, and what lessons there may be here for other foundations. He told us:

I believe that as a public charity, we have a duty to examine these privileges and understand how they shape our organizational strategy, operations and culture and determine ways that our work can combat racial inequities. For us, this has meant starting by taking a look in the mirror through an equity assessment process. Our vision of ensuring that all New England students are college and career ready is simply unattainable without specific and targeted attention to the racial inequities that exist in our region.

Geographic targets are something that NMEF is considering as part of its strategy review, but specific cities, counties, and states in focus under a new plan have yet to be revealed. It also isn’t clear yet whether the foundation’s focus will remain on high school-level education or if it will shift in any way to other age groups under a new racial equity strategy. Instead, and at this stage in the process, NMEF is mainly trying to learn more about the various factors that affect racial disparities and college outcomes and to take a deep, internal look at its own organizational structure. Among other things, it's looking at how the foundation "can work intentionally at becoming a preferred workplace for people of color."

The foundation is well aware that the kind of re-assessment it's engaged in can create jitters among nonprofits that depend on its support. 

“We are mindful that any time a foundation undergoes a strategic planning process, it may raise concerns amongst grantees,” Donohue said. “We are committed to transparency and making sure we are thoughtful about how and when we communicate any changes in our organizational strategy to our grantees.”

Something that potential grantseekers should know is that there is no official halt on grantmaking during NMEF’s strategy review process. However, the funder doesn’t plan to start any new grant funds during this time period either. To learn more, you can read Donohue’s most recent blog post about the foundation’s equity assessment process here.