Be Nice: Funders With an Eye on the Social and Emotional Needs of K-12 Students

 photo: Rawpixel.com/shutterstock

photo: Rawpixel.com/shutterstock

Since 1999, all 50 states in the U.S. have enacted laws aimed at stopping bullying in public schools. And in some states, funding is available for education and prevention efforts in this area. 

So far, though, philanthropy's role in preventing bullying and fostering empathy among K-12 students has been modest. Few funders have staked out this space in a big way; most education grantmakers are focused on other priorities, such as fostering charter schools or improving teacher quality. 

That's why two unusually large gifts to fight bullying and social isolation among adolescents are worth a close look.

The physical safety and emotional wellbeing of children has been at the forefront of the news of late, as survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting publicly dealt with the emotional fallout of the tragedy, often in front of TV cameras. It’s particularly difficult to ignore the specter of the Parkland shooting in at least one of the gifts, though the donation is part of a larger initiative that predates the tragedy. Stoneman Douglas High School’s district recently received $3 million to counter social isolation among middle schoolers over the next three years. The Community Foundation of Broward County provided the grant, the largest in the funder’s history.

The gift is part of the foundation’s School is Cool initiative, which focuses on absenteeism, behavioral issues, and math and reading achievement. The foundation says it found a link between academic struggles and social isolation through its previous work on the initiative.

Much of the work on this grant will focus on that connection. The plan is to hire 20 additional staff across 10 middle schools to provide social and emotional support, as well as intense academic support, to struggling students. The plan includes individual learning plans and personalized attention, as well as peer mentorship.

The community foundation has some surprising company in its focus on social isolation. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the biggest public health funder in the country, is interested in this topic, directing $2.5 million in grants to work on social isolation last year. 

Historically, social isolation work has fallen under the purview of foundations that focus on aging and sometimes LGBTQ issues. The AARP Foundation announced last year it intends to tackle social isolation in seniors.

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However, social isolation is something that affects more than just the elderly and the many negative health outcomes associated with loneliness caught RWJF’s attention. RWJF is opening its work in the space to include lots of different populations, including kids and teens.

The second gift worth noting is a $1.5 million grant to tackle bullying in a public school district in North Carolina. The gift comes from the Harvey L. Miller Family Foundation. It will fund a four-year initiative to train teachers in social-emotional learning, bullying prevention, youth engagement and understanding bias.

Gifts to prevent bullying are typically small and don’t get a lot of attention. But the Miller Foundation is not the only funder working to make a kinder America. Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation includes encouraging kindness as part of its core mission.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street investor David Einhorn has made it his philanthropic mission to promote empathy. Einhorn is worth about $1.2 billion as the founder of Greenlight Capital, so his interests are worth noting. Through the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, the billionaire has given big to several organizations that work to create a more empathetic world, including a $1 million gift to Roots of Empathy and a $1.25 million donation to Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative.

The grant from the Miller Foundation is not only unusually large for anti-bullying work, it’s also much bigger than the family foundation’s typical grants, which tend to run in the $5,000 to $80,000 range. For perspective, the foundation’s total annual giving for both 2015 and 2014 was $1.8 million; this gift is $1.5 million.

The Miller Foundation keeps a pretty low profile, but based on tax documents, we know that this isn’t the only time the funder has supported anti-bullying measures. One of the nonprofits playing a big role in this initiative, the National School Climate Center, received financial support from the foundation in the past.

The nonprofit promotes safe, supportive learning environments that nurture social and emotional, civic, and academic growth for all students. Anti-bullying work is one its priorities. The center will be in charge of training teachers at the five schools participating in the latest grant. The hope is that the efforts will reduce bullying and encourage better cultural competency.

There aren’t a ton of gifts quite like this one from the Miller Family Foundation or Broward’s community foundation’s support of social isolation. However, more funders are taking into account the well-being and development of the whole child with their grantmaking. Social-emotional learning, for example, has been gaining greater traction among education funders. And more K-12 funders are expanding to look at the  conditions outside of schools that affect student outcomes, like poverty and homelessness.

Tragedies like the Parkland shooting and the student-led activism that followed serve as a reminder that in some ways being a kid is more stressful now than it’s been in a long time. It’s a good thing that funders like these two are taking note.

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