Prescription for Change: The Pharma Giant Investing in Local Public School Students

The global pharmaceutical company AbbVie recently pledged $55 million in grants to three nonprofit organizations that work with public schools in Chicago. The goal is to improve graduation rates, lower dropout rates and close the achievement gap for low-income students.

The gift is part of a growing trend in corporate philanthropy, which increasingly takes on causes and strategies traditionally addressed by foundations. More companies are making big commitments to complex, entrenched challenges—think JPMorgan Chase’s work on urban poverty or Salesforce’s engagement with its local public school districts—and they’re going about it in strategic ways.

From this set of gifts, it looks like AbbVie may be joining that list of strategic corporate givers.

Even among corporate givers, the new set of grants from AbbVie is impressive. For comparison, earlier this year,, the company’s philanthropic arm, promised $15.5 million to Bay Area public schools, but it took years of collaboration between the company and the districts to reach that level. That brought the cash total Salesforce poured into Bay Area school districts to $50 million over the course of five years.

AbbVie is sending out $55 million in this round alone. Of that, $30 million will go to Communities in Schools, $15 million will go to the University of Chicago Education Lab and the final $10 million will go to City Year.

“A solid foundation in education can be life-changing for all children and allows them to gain the confidence and tools they need to recognize that their potential is limitless and their futures are bright, irrespective of where they grow up,” said Laura Schumacher, executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary, AbbVie. “We are stepping up for children in our backyard of Chicago and across the nation by elevating the missions of our three new partners who have all demonstrated that their programs make a deep impact for students.”

Not only do these nonprofits include traditional public schools in their work—an area that traditional foundations avoided for a long time after years of investment yielded few returns—but they’re working with some pretty cutting-edge ideas.

Communities in Schools and City Year are both committed to the idea that kids need more than just better schools and teachers. Both organizations connect kids with caring adults who give them the support they need in and out of the classroom. Some call this approach educating the “whole child.” It’s attracted the support of newer funders like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Ballmer Group.

AbbVie’s third grantee, University of Chicago Education Lab, is focused exclusively on innovation. The lab partners with local leaders and nonprofits to identify and test innovative ideas to improve outcomes of vulnerable youth. The lab tests the ideas in Chicago and shares and scales them nationally if successful.

So where is AbbVie’s funding going? There’s a big emphasis on local here. The three nonprofits work with schools all over the country, but have significant presence in Chicago. AbbVie is based in nearby North Chicago. A portion of each of the grants will support the organizations’ Chicago-based work.

This isn’t unusual among corporate funders—or among foundations, frankly. Salesforce, one of the leaders among the corporate giving world, works extensively with local school districts in the Bay Area and Indianapolis, where the company has major hubs. AbbVie is taking a similar approach here, though a portion of the grants will advance the nonprofits’ national ambitions and long-term strategic plans, as well.

Communities in Schools is the biggest winner this round. The nonprofit works with public schools to make sure at-risk kids are connected to community resources. That could mean making sure students get help with schoolwork, support for emotional or behavioral issues, or meeting basic needs like healthy food, a safe space to sleep and reliable transportation to and from school. The goal is to increase graduation rates and decrease dropout rates among vulnerable students.

Of the $30 million, $6 million will support Communities in Schools’ work with 16 high-need public schools in Chicago. Another $11.5 million will go to expanding work in states where Communities in Schools already works—the hope is to add 125 new schools. The rest of the funding will establish relationships in states where the organization doesn’t already work. The funding will help Communities in Schools to reach its goal of adding 141 more schools to to its network a full three years ahead of schedule.

The gift builds on several big grants the organization has scored in the past two years. Earlier this year, Communities in Schools received $17 million from the sunsetting Edna McConnell Clark Foundation to scale up its work. In 2017, it got $15 million from the Ballmer Group, a frequent collaborator with McConnell Clark. The organization also counts Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Ford Foundation and Wallace Foundation among its backers.

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

The $30 million from AbbVie is the biggest corporate donation Communities in Schools has ever received. There’s a reason for the recent slew of big gifts. Communities in Schools has been around since 1977, but recently started a five-year strategic plan to expand its reach. In 2017, the organization worked with 2,300 schools and reached an estimated 1.6 million students. The plan is to reach 300,000 more students within the next five years. The AbbVie gift will help Communities in Schools get there.

Switching gears a little, City Year will also put a significant portion of the AbbVie gift toward expanding its work in Chicago. The nonprofit places AmeriCorps volunteers in struggling schools to serve as tutors, mentors and role models. Half of the $10 million grant will expand the number of Chicago schools with which City Year works to 36, which would allow the nonprofit to reach 18,000 students in the city.

Another $3.4 million will expand the organization’s National Math and Literacy Academic Services nationally. City Year wants to get the program in 385 schools by 2022. The remaining $1.6 million will go to City Year’s work in San Jose, Calif., to promote science, tech, engineering, art and math education.

It seems like the $15 million for the University of Chicago Education Lab will be staying in Chicago. The gift will strengthen and expand the lab’s partnerships with Chicago public schools.

Keeping an eye on the big picture, AbbVie’s total giving for 2018 reached $350 million. The company lists its interests as K-12 education, disaster relief and helping sick kids and their families. WIth this gift, AbbVie is showing it has the strategic vision and deep pockets to become a leader in corporate philanthropy. And that could be very good for Chicago public schools.