Scaling Up: With Another Big Cash Infusion, This Education Nonprofit Is Set to Grow

photo: MB Images/shutterstock

photo: MB Images/shutterstock

Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that places coordinators in schools to connect vulnerable students and their families with community resources, has gotten a big investment from a sunsetting supporter to kick off its new strategic plan. The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) recently announced a four-year, $17 million grant in support of the plan, which involves scaling up the number of schools and students reached by the nonprofit. Last year, the Ballmer Group, which works closely with EMCF, awarded $15 million to the organization.

For some time, there’s been a debate among education advocates about how best to improve student outcomes. Reformers focused on promoting choice and accountability have argued that huge strides can be made by changing how schools operate to create a stronger teaching corps and empowered school leaders. Progressive reformers tend to place more weight on factors outside the classroom when it comes to student success. They argue that we can’t expect to see big gains in educational performance without addressing poverty.

Communities in Schools has pioneered a middle way by meeting students where they are and making sure they can access resources they need. That could mean many things, including help with schoolwork, support for emotional or behavioral issues, and meeting such basic needs as healthy food, a safe place to sleep and reliable transportation to school.

The Ballmer Group and EMCF aren't the nonprofit's only backers. CIS has also won support from other heavy hitters, including the Ford Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Wallace Foundation, and several corporate funders. 

The nonprofit’s main goal is to decrease the drop-out rate, especially among low-income students and in poor schools. CIS sees reaching the 14.5 million kids living below the poverty line as an urgent imperative. Too often, it says, the students who need the most help are the ones getting the least help. As the organization said in its five-year strategic plan,

Teachers are doing their best, but they simply lack the time and resources required to meet the needs of low‐income students. Schools in poor neighborhoods often lack tutors, computers, laboratories, after‐school programs and extracurricular activities. Not surprisingly, these are the schools where kids drop out the most, perpetuating the cycle of poverty for another generation.

Communities in Schools isn’t new to this work. The organization started back in 1977. Over the next five years, with a serious infusion of new funding, it's aiming to scale up its work. In 2017, CIS worked with 2,300 schools, reaching an estimated 1.57 million students. The plan is to expand that reach to 300,000 more kids within five years.

That’s where the McConnell Clark Foundation comes in. The foundation is a longtime supporter of Communities in Schools. Its total support of the foundation adds up to $33.5 million. The $17 million is its largest and last contribution to the nonprofit for an interesting reason: In 2016, EMCF decided to spend down its endowment and close up shop over the next decade.

The foundation was founded back in 1969, so it’s been around awhile, and had come to seem like yet another legacy foundation that would exist for many more decades to come. But as EMCF's president, Nancy Roob explained in late 2016, the Clark family actually didn't envision it as a perpetual foundation when they created it. Instead,

They made clear that they wanted the foundation to make decisions based on what would produce the best results. In the words of Hays Clark, one of EMCF’s founders, “If we found a good opportunity, we would bet the farm on it.” Thanks to a lot of learning over the past two decades, we are now ready and committed to do just that.

In the years leading up to its decision to spend down, EMCF had established itself as a leader in mobilizing new capital to invest in nonprofits helping disadvantaged youth. As we've reported, it catalyzed the creation a few years ago of Blue Meridian Partners, a collaboration of deep-pocketed funders that's working to scale up high-performing organizations in this space. By setting a deadline for the foundation to disburse its assets, EMCF has been able to throw much more money into its work to help poor children than would otherwise have been the case. Its gift to Communities in Schools is a good illustration of that. 

The big new money flowing to CIS from EMCF and the Ballmer Group is another indication of a shifting education funding landscape. For years, most of the largest gifts in this field went to ed reform groups, and especially charter organizations. Now, we're seeing substantial resources flowing for a wider range of groups and approaches. Examples of this diversification include CZI's investments in personalized learning, the Emerson Collective's quest to reinvent high school, and Charles Butt's nine-figure gifts to improve school leadership in Texas.

A challenge on the minds of many funders is how better to scale education improvements in order to reach more students. This has been a stumbling block for many promising ideas in the education sector. It’s an issue that charter schools have struggled with. Personalized learning is another model that has been around for a while, but has been tough to implement in classrooms. CZI is betting that recent technological developments can be a game changer for scaling personalized learning, but it's still too early to see if that's the case. 

An appeal of Communities in Schools is that its model isn't exactly rocket science, and it has a long track record of reaching lots of students with strong results. Now, it's poised for some major growth.