Is PepsiCo’s Gift to Diplomas Now Another Case of “Soda Philanthropy”?

Few education organizations have experienced the rapid growth of Diplomas Now. Back in 2008, researchers with Diplomas Now, a brainchild of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, could claim that one middle school in Philadelphia was trying its approach to dropout prevention. Now, with an initial investment of $11 million from the PepsiCo Foundation, and a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation Fund, the program serves 31,000 primarily African-American and Latino students in 40 schools in 14 cities.

And more expansion is on the way, with the PepsiCo Foundation recently announcing a new $5 million gift to Diplomas Now to help “serve an additional 33,000 students and support Diplomas Now operations through 2016-2017.”

PepsiCo’s largesse is not the only reason that Diplomas Now has taken off. Its formidable growth is due in part to perfect timing: Diplomas Now offered a powerful approach to identifying and helping struggling students at a time that No Child Left Behind put heavy pressure on education leaders to improve underperforming schools.  

Diplomas Now is based on co-founder Robert Balfanz’s finding a decade ago that just 1,424 high schools produced half of the nation’s dropouts and that it was possible to identify 75 percent of all eventual dropouts between sixth grade and ninth grade by simply looking at attendance and other non-school factors.

Balfanz’s solution was to target resources at the most vulnerable students -- resources that run the gamut from extra adult support for tutoring and therapy to funding basics such as food, clothing and healthcare. Policy leaders in Washington bought into the idea, and so have a number of private funders, including not just Pepsico, but AT&T, GlaxoSmithGline, the United Way, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, and the Schusterman Family Foundation.

But one question about PepsiCo’s support of Diplomas Now must be asked: Is this yet another example of what the Center for Science in the Public Interest has called "soda-based philanthropy," a type of self-interested giving that allows PepsiCo to appeal to the young minority demographic they depend on for a large bulk of their sales?

Should we be concerned that part of the latest PepisCo's $5 million commitment is in the form of an in-kind contribution that allows PepsiCo employees to “mentor students, working with them to improve their interview and resume-writing skills and increase their financial literacy?” Or that at least in two schools in the Chicago area, the PepsiCo Foundation is funding “career academies” staffed with PepsiCo volunteers to help prepare students for the work world?

These very visible signs of PepsiCo’s philanthropy come at a sensitive time when the company finds itself on the defensive as studies claim that the soda industry targets minorities and fuels an obesity crisis.

Robert Balfanz argues that there is a critical role for the private sector in strengthening U.S. schools and wants even more companies to swing behind Diplomas Now. PepsiCo's money is making a difference, but, as is often the case with corporate funding, it's not without complications.