Funding for Education: An Example from a Family Foundation

The Context

Foundation

  • West Coast family foundation, funds regionally
  • Focuses on children and youth
  • Is deeply involved in improving schools and improving education policy; prefers projects that develop and spread innovative practices, inform policy improvements, and build nonprofit capacity
  • Willing to support initiatives over the long term, but adjusts portfolio based on periodic reviews

Field or Community

  • Public education, where foundation resources are dwarfed by large public funding streams
  • School systems under political and consumer pressure to improve performance
  • Instructional improvements often pioneered on a small scale; successful innovations spread and funded if school systems adopt them
  • Innovative nonprofit organizations often led by skilled educators who lack business planning experience other funders
  • Many funders, each with specific geographic and/or thematic interests
  • School systems sustain, replicate, and fund some successful innovations

The Strategy

Program

  • Support design and piloting of innovative professional development practices that strengthen teaching and students’ learning
  • Evaluate rigorously for impact on teaching and learning; support formative assessment in the early phases and move to summative assessment, if warranted, as the project matures
  • Fund nonprofit providers, but require cooperation and co-funding by school system clients and other private funders
  • Help innovative work get off the ground, then support successful projects through the “maturation stage”

Exit and Beyond

  • Help mature projects “figure out how to scale up” by providing additional grants and technical assistance
  • Treat “scaling up” as a new design problem requiring new strategies, organizational capabilities, and funding
  • Continue evaluation through the scale-up period
  • Invest in communications to help essential audiences understand the work
  • Help develop a diverse funding base, anchored by public support if possible

Lessons and Advice

Stick with promising grantees as they grow. “Very often, grantees who are brilliant educators have never actually managed an enterprise that needs to go through the second- and third-stage challenges of moving an idea more broadly into the field. It calls on different skill sets that need to be woven into the work . . . . I’ve stuck with a number of grantees as they’ve done this, and some of them have gone through some false starts. In one case, they tried four different strategies until they got it figured out.”

Help communicate results to essential audiences. “I contacted the superintendent personally and asked him for a meeting so we could congratulate him on this wonderful work going on in the district and tell him about the results we had. I brought the evaluators, both qualitative and quantitative. And we actually didn’t include the project director because we wanted to brag behind her back about the work. We worked with a communications consultant on this meeting and prepared a two-page bullet point briefing paper.”

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