A Tech Company Known for Backing Public Education Zeroes in on Leadership in Schools

M B Images/shuttestock

MB Images/shuttestock

Salesforce.org, the philanthropic arm of the software company, recently announced a $2 million gift to New Leaders, a nonprofit dedicated to preparing and nurturing leaders in schools. The company has a long track record of supporting public schools in cities where it has offices, especially San Francisco, but this grant represents Salesforce’s biggest gift to an education nonprofit to date.

Giving to support and empower teachers has long been a popular cause among K-12 philanthropists, but much of that funding in the past two decades has flowed to Teach for America and other nonprofits aligned with the education reform movement—a movement that often painted rank-and-file teachers and their unions as the culprits behind poor student performance.

More recently, with the emergence of newer givers less tied to the charter versus traditional public school ideological divide, we’re seeing support for a broader array of efforts to support teachers, principals and other education leaders. A case in point is the $100 million gift last year from the grocery story billionaire Charles Butt to train district administrators and principals in Texas, which has the nation's second-largest public school system. Earlier this year, we reported on a round of grants by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative for the professional, social and emotional support of teachers. Meanwhile, the Wallace Foundation has put more than $100 million into initiatives aimed at improving programs and pipelines for developing school principals, which research suggests is a high-leverage strategy for improving schools.


With its recent gift, Salesforce joins this larger push to bolster the quality of leadership within the U.S. public education system.

New Leaders’ goal is to improve underperforming schools by training educators to be better leaders. New Leaders works with districts, charter schools and networks. The nonprofit also advocates for state and federal policies it believes will foster strong school leaders. To date, New Leaders has worked with just shy of 4,000 educators.

In the past, Salesforce has prioritized its local public school districts when it comes to the company’s education giving. The relationship between the company and local public schools is notable in a funding landscape that still tends to favor charter schools and networks.

Most notably, Salesforce, which is headquartered in a soaring new tower in downtown San Francisco, has been building a strong relationship with Bay Area public school districts. In the five years since it partnered with the San Francisco Unified School District, Salesforce has poured $50 million into the district and its sister across the bay, the Oakland Unified School District.

Related: More Than Money: A Tech Giant's Commitment to Public Schools

The gift to New Leaders is the biggest donation to education nonprofit in Salesforce.org’s history. Given the company’s past support of school districts, the gift may seem like a bit of a departure. However, in a lot of ways, the New Leaders grant builds on several principles the company brought to its partnership with public schools.

First, there’s the emphasis on leadership. For several years, as part of its annual gifts to Bay Area public schools, the company has made investments in local school principals. In the past, middle school principals have received $100,000 to spend as they see fit. Each year, Salesforce has expanded the number of schools and principals that receive grants.

In a 2017 interview about the grants, Ebony Frelix, now Salesforce.org’s chief philanthropy officer, told Inside Philanthropy that the organization sees principals as the “the CEOs of the classroom.” Principals, she reasoned, are uniquely positioned to see and understand what their schools and students need.

The grants allow principals to pilot programs they feel would benefit their students. Sometimes, successful pilots are expanded to the entire district with help and funding from Salesforce.

In 2016, a principal in Oakland used the $100,000 to hire social workers to provide academic and emotional support to students who were recent immigrants or refugees. The pilot was so successful that Salesforce included funding for social workers to work with such students across the whole school district.

Through its past work with school districts, Salesforce has already demonstrated a deep trust in and commitment to principals, their understanding of students’ needs, and leadership. This grant to New Leaders is another way to help school leaders, including principals, hone their skills and get the support they need.

Another way this New Leaders’ gift builds on the company’s past commitments is location. New Leaders works with schools all across the country, including in the Bay Area. In the announcement, the organizations specified that Salesforce’s $2 million commitment would improve leadership in schools where the company’s employees live and work.

Like many companies, Salesforce has shown a commitment to pursuing philanthropic projects in the cities and regions where it has offices. Most recently, Salesforce.org started working with public schools in Indianapolis, the city that hosts what will become the company's biggest hub outside the Bay Area.

Salesforce pioneered what it calls the “1-1-1” model for corporate giving. That means it pledges to give away 1 percent of the company’s equity, 1 percent of its products and 1 percent of its employees’ time.

Employee time is one reason Salesforce’s giving tends to be local. Many of the employees end up volunteering in the school districts that the company donates to. So even though New Leaders works with schools across the country, the language in the announcement and the company’s giving habit make it likely that at least some of the $2 million will stay local.

The last pattern worth mentioning is that Salesforce.org tends to give on the lower side at first, and then hand out increasingly larger gifts as its partnership grows—not that $2 million is low, necessarily. The company’s partnership with Bay Area schools started with a $2.7 million grant to the San Francisco Unified School District. The partnership later expanded to include the Oakland Unified School District. In 2018, the grants to both districts totaled $15.5 million.

That could spell good things for New Leaders, if Salesforce.org’s partnership with the nonprofit continues—not that the organization is hurting for money. In a recent year, it reported almost $30 million in revenue.

The nonprofit already has a long list of powerful backers. Salesforce joins a long list of corporate givers, including the 3M Company, Boeing Company, Capital One, Cisco Systems, Inc., the FedEx Corporation and NewsCorps. In terms of institutional philanthropy, New Leaders counts many of education philanthropy’s heavy hitters among its supporters, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, CZI and the Walton Family Foundation.

At one time, it may have been unusual to see all those names on the same list of donors, but businesses increasingly give in a way that mirrors their foundation counterparts. It’s increasingly common to see companies give big, strategic gifts, often to the same organizations supported by foundations. Salesforce is part of that growing movement.