Doing and Seeing: Barbara Dalio’s Immersive Approach to Education Philanthropy

photo: Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

photo: Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on July 3, 2018.

Barbara Dalio could become one of the most prolific education philanthropists in the United States. If the possibility has occurred to her, she hasn’t let it shake her from her humble, hands-on approach to giving.

Dalio is married to Ray Dalio, who is the founder of Bridgewater Associates, one of the most successful hedge funds in the country, and has an estimated net worth of about $17 billion. Back in 2011, the couple signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give away at least half of their fortune.

Lately, the Dalios have been ramping up their giving. Since its founding in 2003, the Dalio Foundation has quietly made $1.3 billion in grants, with over $100 million going out the door in some recent years.  

And there's plenty more where that came from. If the Dalios give away even half of their current assets—as they’ve publicly pledged to do—that would mean $8.5 billion in charitable giving. That’s enough to dwarf well-known funders the size of the Carnegie Corporation of New York or the Rockefeller Foundation. 

It’s that scale and potential that make the Dalios important people to watch. Since the couple started the foundation, their key interests have included education, the environment, community building and health. Barbara is the big driver behind the foundation’s education work, which has been focused on Connecticut.

The Process

When I spoke to Dalio recently, I was struck by the humility she brings to her work. She decided to get involved in education philanthropy after her four sons left home about 10 years ago.

“I’m not the type to just write a check. So I thought, I really need to understand what I’m writing the check to,” she said. “I thought, well, art is what I really know, ironically, but I thought the museums were well funded.”

Going into this, she hadn’t worked in education before. As a Spanish immigrant, she hadn’t even experienced the system as a student. Everything she knew about the U.S. education system she’d learned through her sons. But she felt she had a responsibility.

“I grew up in Spain, where it was difficult at the time to climb the socioeconomic ladder. When I came to live in the United States, and observed the American Dream,” she said. “It was thrilling for me to see how education gave everybody endless possibilities, yet it was heartbreaking to learn of the achievement gap in Connecticut, so I wanted to help diagnose and close the gap.”

Despite its affluence, Connecticut has pockets of entrenched inner-city poverty and many struggling schools filled with high-needs students.  

“When I started, I said I really don’t know anything about education,” Dalio said. So she set about learning it.

Dalio started an immersive process that involved talking to stakeholders all over the system. While wealthy K-12 donors have often been accused of parachuting into complex education landscapes with preconceived reform ideas, Dalio has worked very differently. 

“The way I learn best is by doing, seeing, and by talking to people,” she said. “When I started to get involved with public education, I realized that the best way to help was for me to understand the districts, teachers, principals, superintendents, union leaders, social workers and students, and ask questions so I can find out how to help.”

To get started, she reached out to someone she knew from previous work the Dalios had done with after-school programs. That contact brought together people from across the district to speak with Dalio and answer questions. Included in that group was a teachers union leader, who became a mentor to the budding education philanthropist.

Teachers unions are often pitted against education reformers who insist that bad teachers—insulated from accountability by rigid contracts—are responsible for unmet learning outcomes. Charter schools are popular among among some education funders because they’re not beholden to union contracts negotiated with traditional school districts.

In light of that context, it was a friendship between two perhaps unlikely partners, but speaks to Dalio’s commitment to understand every piece of the system and learn from all of its members.

“He was very straightforward, very kind. He was passionate about education, students and his teachers,” she said. “I like to really feel the perspectives and be in touch with everybody in the districts that we deal with. We all have the same goal.”

Around the same time, Dalio started spending a day a week in a local alternative high school to learn the ropes. Then, one day became several days a week. 

“I talked a lot to the teachers, to the principal, the social worker, and I was really a student. I wanted to learn,” Dalio said. “The issues are complex. Education is complex. I never felt I was qualified to tell them what to do, or judge them, or anything like that.”

The years Dalio spent visiting the high school were formative and the lessons she pulled from those classrooms are still visible in her work today. Recently, the Dalio Foundation has scaled back some of its education work to focus its efforts on supporting the Connecticut Opportunity Project, which works with kids who are unengaged and disconnected from their schools, and the Connecticut RISE Network, which works to empower and get resources to public school teachers.

Dalio’s time at the high school is a big reason students of that age are the main focus of the foundation’s education work, now. She also met unengaged kids while she was there, which inspired the foundation to start the Opportunity Network, which specializes in keeping kids in school and helping the ones who drop out to find their way back.

The experience also added to her empathy and respect for teachers. It’s a stance that’s become more popular among education philanthropists, recently—as we've reported in regard to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, for example—but that wasn’t always the case. The time Dalio spent in classrooms, though, helped her identify early on that teachers were central to the goals she was trying to accomplish.

“I myself have felt the influence of amazing teachers,” she said. “I relied on teachers for my sons to inspire them and be able to figure the best way to teach them, and find the way they learn.”

Dalio realized that teachers were underappreciated. She saw firsthand the challenge of teaching to a test, while also making the classroom a dynamic and magical place. At the same time, budget cuts hit teachers hard, especially in inner-city schools where teachers are asked to play multiple roles for their students, she said.

It’s easy to see the influence of these observations in the foundation’s support of the Connecticut RISE Network, which collaborates with educators and several school districts to empower teachers. The network partners with East Hartford Public Schools, Hartford Public Schools, Meriden Public Schools, and New Haven Public Schools to provide programmatic supports, tools and resources.

In recent years, Connecticut has made significant progress on some education challenges, especially high school completion. The graduation rate for black students was 80.1 percent in 2017, up 8.9 points since 2011. The graduation rate for Latinos was 77.7 percent in 2017, up 13.4 points since 2011. 

Scaling Up and the Future

The relationships Dalio built while visiting schools and talking with district stakeholders have served her well and allowed her to take a deeply collaborative approach to grantmaking. She describes her work with grantees as brainstorming. Dalio brings suggestions to grantees, and they come to her with theirs. She then brings the resources they need to carry out their ideas.

Dalio says it’s very important that the ideas she supports originate in the communities. “They know. You sit with them and they know what their challenges are. They know what they need, what they don’t need. They live it. It would be counter-productive to really tell them what to do.”

Direct contact is important to both of the Dalios, which is admirable. The bigger question, though, ties back to the billions they’ve promised to give away. The foundation has scaled up a ton in the last decade. Dalio’s work and support system have scaled up accordingly in the last decade, too. She started off with an assistant, but no office and no staff. Now, she has both.

But eventually, the foundation will need to move grant money on a much larger scale if the Dalios are to fulfill the Giving Pledge, especially since Ray's fortune is likely to keep increasing.  

Barbara says her plan is to scale the work at the rate that is sustainable and continues good, collaborative work. She plans to keep her focus on Connecticut, since that’s where she raised her family and wants to give back.

The foundation has actually cut back on some of its earlier education work to focus more fully and strategically on the Opportunity Project and RISE Network. “We are digging deeper, maintaining those direct connections and stay[ing] a bit less wide ranging,” she said.

“We’re just trying to do what we’re doing now, well,” Dalio said.