About That Latest Big Gift for Teach For America

For an education nonprofit, Teach For America is in a class by itself. In the 25 years since founder Wendy Kopp hatched the idea for a kind of Peace Corps of education, in which top college graduates would commit to teach for two years in some of America's neediest classrooms, more than 30,000 TFA interns have taught in low-income urban and rural classrooms across the country, reaching more than 3 million students.

We'll leave the perennial duel over TFA's impact to others. What fascinates us is that the organization's funders read like a who's who of education philanthropy—including the Gates, Walton, Fisher, and Arnold foundations. As well, we're fascinated by the magical powers that TFA seems to wield among Wall Street big shots. Yes, we can think of hedge fund guys who've yet to write a check to TFA. But not a lot of them. 

TFA has also been brilliant in reaching out beyond its ideological base to attract funding from a wide array of sources. One of TFA's smartest fundraising strategies is developing a number of special initiatives, including those for early childhood, LGBTQ, veterans, and STEM education. Okay, we know: These efforts are not just about tapping niche sources of financial support, but they've certainly paid dividends on the funding front. 

Take TFA's STEM initiative, which began in 2006, well before the current STEM funding craze. TFA has stuck with this area for a number of years, as it has become hotter and hotter, especially among corporate funders. Back in 2006, the Amgen Foundation was a key partner in launching TFA's STEM work. And now TFA has pulled in another donor from Big Pharma, the Biogen Idec Foundation, which has awarded it $5 million to support the organization's efforts to recruit, train, and develop STEM teachers.

Biogen Idec Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Cambridge-based pharmaceutical firm Biogen Idec. The funder made its presence known in the STEM funding arena in early 2014, with a $2.5 million grant to the Boston Museum of Science. Prior to that, Biogen Idec Foundation grants were smaller, mostly ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.

Related - The Fantastic Way Biogen Idec Foundation Funds STEM Education

Like many corporate funders, Biogen Idec concentrates much of its funding in the communities where it has a presence, which is good news for Massachusetts and North Carolina. The funder's grant to TFA will enable STEM teachers in those states to collaborate with Biogen Idec employees at the company's community laboratories. The grant also will support hands-on learning opportunities for students in these states. The funding will, however, enable TFA to expand its efforts to recruit STEM teachers from the ranks of college graduates and professionals. This is not Biogen Idec's first collaboration with TFA. The funder gave $100,000 to the organization's Massachusetts and North Carolina regions in 2012.

With the national shortage of educated professionals with STEM degrees, the challenges associated with recruiting young men and women from these fields into public education are even greater. Even with many school systems offering salary incentives to qualified math and science teachers, the shortage is likely to persist for the forseeable future, which means there is a lot of room for creative solutions designed to attract and develop more STEM teachers. What's more, there are funders such as Biogen Idec ready to support these initiatives.

So, yes, while TFA is something to behold on the fundraising front, vacuuming in cash from everywhere, other education groups should rest assured: When it comes to STEM funders, there's plenty of other fish in the sea. 

Related - Eight Ways to Land K-12 STEM Funding