What’s Hot (and What’s Not) in Education Philanthropy Right Now

MB Images/shutterstock

MB Images/shutterstock

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 11, 2019.

Although big gifts to education often make headlines, smaller gifts can get lost in the shuffle. Big grants can act as bellwethers for the field, but the sheer number and diversity of private foundations can make it difficult to track the trajectory of education philanthropy as a field.

For that reason, research that provides a snapshot of the field, even if limited in scope, can be incredibly useful when it comes to identifying enduring and emerging priorities for education funders.

The Grantmakers in Education recently released one such report, Trends in Education Philanthropy. The affinity group first conducted this benchmark study in 2008 and most recently in 2015, so it paints a picture of not only where grantmaking is now, but also how it compares to previous years.

The group surveyed 91 education funders, including 65 of the affinity groups own members for the report. It’s a small group relative to the large number of funders active in this space, but the report is still a valuable source of broad trends within the field.

Of the group, more than half identified as family, private or independent foundations. About two-thirds fund at the local level, though a good portion work at the state, regional and national levels.

The report charts the rise and fall of several trends within education philanthropy in recent years. Let’s delve into the winners and losers in education giving.


1. The “Whole Learner”

Approaches that emphasized a child’s development beyond academics or prioritized engaging support systems outside of school walls have lately surged in popularity.

Grantmakers identified social and emotional learning as a trend most likely to lead to positive changes in education  in the next five years. A third of those responding to the survey said they funded social and emotional learning efforts, with half of those sharing that they planned to increase funding over the next two years.

The approach emphasizes the development of the whole child. That often includes a focus on instilling softer skills like handling emotions, feeling empathy for others, forming relationships and making responsible decisions.

Related: Inside the Growing Push for Social and Emotional Learning in K-12 Education

The field is backed by a growing body of evidence and has picked up some notable supporters, as we recently reported. The NoVo Foundation, which carries out the giving of Warren Buffett’s youngest son, Peter, and his wife Jennifer, is a longtime supporter of the field. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is another prominent backer.

Funders also highlighted the the inclusion of trauma-informed practices within a social and emotional learning approach. Trauma and its long-term effects are a growing interest of foundations outside of education, as well. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is taking on this work through its public health lens, and some of that grantmaking has included work in schools.

Personalized learning, which some see as related to a social and emotional approach, saw modest support among grantmakers; 16 percent said they funded it. Personalized learning emphasizes tailoring lessons to each student’s needs and pace. The idea has been around in some form or another for years, but new innovations in technology may make it more achievable in practice. A third of grantmakers supporting personalized learning said they planned to increase funding in the next two years.

Related: Is Personalized Learning the Next Big Thing in K-12 Philanthropy?

Also under this umbrella, initiatives that engaged families and communities had strong backing. That work found support from 60 percent of grantmakers, who said they anticipated increasing funding during the next two years. Family and community engagement are seen by many foundations as a way to level the playing field outside of school walls and counteract the effects of poverty on student outcomes.  

The Carnegie Corporation of New York is a prominent supporter of family engagement. The country’s oldest foundation has been instrumental in developing and growing the field as it relates to K-12 education. Previously, family engagement largely fell under the purview of funders working on early childhood development, in part out of necessity. However, that dynamic is starting to change.

Related: Support by Education Funders for Family Engagement Is Growing. Why Is That?

In some ways, the enthusiasm around social and emotional learning, and family and community engagement can be read as a reaction to the education reforms of the last decade, which emphasized assessments and curriculum standards.

Many within education attribute the politicization of the Common Core Standards and resulting backlash to a failure to engage and educate parents and communities. Family engagement initiatives are a way to counteract that dynamic and ensure parents and families feel empowered to develop their child’s education, not steamrolled by government policies and private money.

Additionally, years of reforms emphasizing testing and academic outcomes failed to yield results reformers sought, leading some to look for other methods to encourage student development. As much as social and emotional learning prioritizes facets of student development that fall outside of traditional academics, the approach has benefited from research that links its methods to stronger academic performance.

2.  The Bookends to K-12 Education

Initiatives that address a child’s life before kindergarten or after high school rose in prominence in 2018, the report found. That’s not to say that K-12 giving doesn’t still dominate education philanthropy. With 82 percent of grantmakers reporting that they fund K-12 education, it does. However, work supporting developmental stages outside of K-12 saw significant gains in 2018.

Post-secondary education enjoyed continued support in 2018. Support among grantmakers for this space has been consistently strong since the survey started a decade ago, but reached new heights last year. More than half of responding foundations said they fund post-secondary education, which accounted for 42 percent of grant dollars.

The support is likely to increase as grantmakers see post-secondary education as one of the best ways to prepare young adults for a complex and rapidly changing labor market that increasingly requires advanced education.

Correspondingly, support for workforce development and career readiness was also high among grantmakers. A little more than 40 percent said they funded work in those areas, which was an increase from 2015. Those programs were ranked third by grantmakers as the trend with the most potential to make a positive impact on education in the next five years.

Workforce development is another area that enjoys support outside of education circles. Programs that train youth and adults for better jobs are also popular among funders trying to move the needle on poverty. The Ballmer Group, the giving vehicle of Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie, includes workforce development in its push to move kids and families out of poverty.

On the other end of the education spectrum, early childhood learning saw gains with the promise of increasing its reach. One-third of grantmakers said they supported early childhood education, which attempts to close the gap for low-income kids who are more likely to start kindergarten already behind their more affluent peers. The growing foundation interest in early learning has matched increasing funding from the public sector.

This work can happen in formal settings or through engaging parents and educating them on things they should do at home to boost their child’s development. Sometimes, interventions can be as simple as encouraging parents to read, talk and sing to their child, or work other age-appropriate activities into daily life. In this case, the survey emphasized formal settings like pre-schools.

Related: On the Same Page: An Early Childhood Education Collaborative With Some Big Backers

J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Foundation is a huge supporter of early childhood learning. J.B. Pritzker is something of an evangelist for the field, and in the past, he has criticized his peers for overlooking it. Pritzker is one the heirs to the Hyatt hotel fortune and was elected governor of Illinois back in November.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is another notable longtime backer of early childhood learning. Several foundations carry out this work on the local level, including the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation in Oakland, Calif.

Though a high number of grantmakers said they support early childhood education, funding only accounted for 3 percent of total grant dollars. However, 58 percent of those funders said they planned to increase support in the next two years—the highest of any trend included in the survey.

While both college and career readiness and early childhood education enjoyed support from the education establishment, the two fields also picked up powerful new allies in 2018. Michael Bloomberg emphasized the importance of preparing students for college and the workforce in his speech announcing his plans to spend $375 million on education in the next five years.

Jeff Bezos announced in 2018 that he planned to get into philanthropy in a serious way. The tech titan plans to put $2 billion into the Day One Fund, which will focus on homeless families and early childhood education. The Day One Academies Fund will launch and operate a network of full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired pre-schools.

3. Local Advocacy

A little more than half of grantmakers said that they were involved in public policy or advocacy work. It looks like local and community work will be the way forward for funders active in that area. Tellingly, it comes at a time when many funders have expressed fears about federal leadership and policies.

About three quarters of responding funders said they felt local policy environment were amenable to their priorities. About half said they felt that was true on a state level. Those numbers seem to come at the expense of faith in the federal government. Only 11 percent of grantmakers said they felt the federal policy environment was friendly to their priorities.

The focus on local advocacy tracks with a realignment to community-based work that many education funders are making with their grantmaking work. Within philanthropy in general and in education work specifically, the last few years have seen a move away from what some criticized as work that was too top-down in favor of work that engages more local stakeholders and community voices.

Bonus: Charter Schools

Charter schools have had a time tough lately, with news of high-profile political setbacks, clamoring opposition from teachers and their unions, and a continuing struggle to scale. However, support for charter schools among education grantmakers has remained steady, the survey found. This was true even as support for new school models more broadly fell. About a fifth of responding foundations said they supported charter schools.

Still, there are a few warning signs for charters. Of the 91 foundations that responded, only one named charter schools as a trend with the most potential for a positive impact on education in the next five years. In fact, charter schools and networks were ranked the fifth most likely to have a negative impact on education by funders who responded to the survey. Though charter schools continue to draw consistent support from foundations, several respondents to the survey said they were concerned about the emphasis on school choice coming from the federal government. Grantmakers worry that the policy amounted to the privatization of public education and fear that it would undermine equity.


1. The Federal Government

Compared to 10 years ago, grantmakers have stepped away from education initiatives with ambitious, national focus. It’s a sharp contrast to responses to the first survey administered back in 2008, when President Barack Obama took office.

Under Obama’s tenure, federal grant programs like Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation established an active role for the federal government in shaping education and provided ample opportunity for foundations to jump in with support. Many did. Those efforts included supporting states that participated in Race to the Top, supplementing federal grants and establishing or increasing their public policy efforts.

A decade later, the picture looks quite different. Fewer than a fifth of grantmakers responding said they believed the federal government’s current policies were favorable to the foundation’s priorities. Even more tellingly, funders identified federal education leadership as having the greatest potential for a negative impact on education in the next five years.

Some of this comes down to the changing of the guard. A different administration with different views and policy priorities is in power now. However, authors of the report also attribute funders’ lack of engagement with federal initiatives to changes during the Obama Administration, including backlash to some of the policies the administration promoted.

On the other hand, some grantmakers said they saw programs like Rise to the Top as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to engage in programs on the national level. They said they always planned to retreat to local and state-level work afterward.

2. Obama-Era Education Priorities

Support for Obama-era education priorities saw a sharp drop-off from 2015. Initiatives that tackled new school models, school turnarounds, standards and assessments took a hit in the last three years.  

Fewer than 10 percent of grantmakers reported funding work to support the exploration of new school models in the recent survey, down from 32 percent just three years ago. The big exceptions to this were charter schools and networks, which continue to attract supporters.

Funders working to turn around low-performing schools also diminished in the last three years. In 2018, 12 percent of funders said they supported school turnarounds, down from 30 percent in 2015.

The report’s authors speculated that support for new models and school turnarounds could be down for a number of overlapping reasons, but weren’t able to determine with certainty which factors contributed to the decline. The change in administrations is one explanation for grantmakers’ declining support. They may anticipate fewer benefits from investing in these priorities without continued support from the top. It’s also possible that disappointing results dissuaded funders from future investments, the authors theorized.

Support was also down for data systems, standards and assessments, another Obama priority. The portion of grantmakers supporting data systems dropped by around half to 15 percent from 2015. Only about a quarter of supporters plan to increase funding over the next two years.

Results were even more bleak for assessments. Support among grantmakers dropped down to 4 percent from 35 percent three years ago. None of the grantmakers who fund assessments plan to increase support during the next two years; 12 percent said they plan to decrease funding during that time frame.

Over the past 10 years standards and assessments have become increasingly controversial reforms within education, so it’s not surprising to see funders pull away.

Preparing teachers and school leaders was another priority of the Obama Administration. It’s fared a little better than some of the other policies mentioned.

A little more than a third said they supported teacher preparation. That number was closer to two-thirds back in 2015. It’s a big drop, but still, far more funders reported supporting teacher preparation than other Obama-era priorities. Moreover, the grantmakers that fund teacher learning said they plan to increase support during the next two years.

Anecdotal evidence backs this up. While the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has stepped away from its ambitious efforts to evaluate teachers, it’s continuing to fund teacher preparation work, while newer funders like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have also entered this space.

3. Board Diversity

Equity remains a guiding light for education grantmakers. Three quarters of the responding funders said that they supported work with a specific focus on leveling the playing field for low-income students, students of color or who identify as LGBTQ, immigrants, refugees, women or students with disabilities.

However, funders’ boards rarely reflect the diversity of the populations grantmakers work with. Just fewer than 30 percent of grantmakers reported having written policies in place. Nonprofit boards, including foundations, are not any more diverse than they were two years ago, according to research from BoardSource.

Still, researchers found reasons for hope. Some funders responded that though they don’t have written policies in place, they actively recruit for their boards with diversity in mind, and others said they were working on putting formal policies in place.