The State of Education Philanthropy

Education is an engine of opportunity. That is why, around the world, the fortunate have invested in education when seeking to give back. In the US, famous individuals such as Bill Gates have led the charge on 21st-century school reform. In other places, the names are different but many of the motivations and ambitions are the same. While there’s much to admire about these efforts, they also need more scrutiny than an appreciative public and grateful policy-makers tend to give them.

Philanthropy in the US
In the US, philanthropy plays an outsized role in education. The share of the world’s ultra-rich who live in the USA, along with tax laws that encourage charitable giving and the nation’s creedal commitment to opportunity, have yielded a vibrant philanthropic role in educational improvement. Consequently, US foundations tend to be larger than foreign foundations, and philanthropic giving to US education is enormous by international standards. The top 10 donors gave a total of about USD 800 million in 2016 to US K–12 education, with more than half of that provided by the top two givers — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Those are big numbers, but they’re dwarfed when the spending is considered alongside the total public investment in US schools. Total philanthropic spending on K–12 schools in the US is somewhat less than USD 5 billion a year, or well under 1% of US school spending. Indeed, all reported national giving to US K–12 education was less than 25% of what New York City alone spent on its schools in 2016. Philanthropic contributions are just a drop in the ocean. Yet, while philanthropic funds are just a sliver of overall school spending, they can matter greatly when used to shift policy or promote particular reforms. How has this philanthropy affected schooling in the US?

Back in the 1990s, in the US, all eyes were fixed on the USD 1.1 billion Annenberg Challenge. Launched by Ambassador Walter Annenberg at a 1994 White House ceremony, the massive gift failed to spur obvious educational improvement. Committed to bottom-up reform across a host of communities, the effort was frustrated by the sticky realities of ineffective schools and dysfunctional policies. When a new generation of billionaires jumped into education philanthropy in the first decade of this century, the disappointments of Annenberg helped influence their thinking. Having made billions in technology, energy, and retail, they shared an impatience, an entrepreneurial bent, and a focus on measured outcomes. They focused more on systems and policies than on pedagogy. These donors often eschewed traditional education staff in favor of hires with management or policy backgrounds.

These new philanthropic efforts experienced mixed results. In one ambitious reform, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also known as the Gates Foundation, invested more than USD 200 million in a seven-year Effective Teaching Initiative. The goal was to help school systems evaluate teachers more effectively and then use those systems to revamp teacher training and pay. A 2018 RAND Corporation evaluation, however, found the venture to be a disappointment, reporting that it didn’t “achieve its goals for student achievement or graduation”. Charter school efforts found more success, with the aid of hundreds of millions in support from the Gateses, Waltons, and many other foundations. These quasi-autonomous schools posted positive results on reading and math tests, offered examples of outstanding performance, and grew from 2,000 schools in 2000 to more than 7,000 by 2018.

Put simply, there’s little evidence that there is any one right way to give to education or assurance that a given strategy will make a difference for students.

Bill and Melinda Gates at the second annual Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Goalkeepers event in September 2018. The event hosts influencers from around the world with the aim of developing solutions to address global causes


International Education Philanthropy
In the international arena, things look different than they do in the US. According to the Foundation Center, in 2016, the three nations besides the US with the largest amount of total private foundation giving for primary and secondary education were the UK (USD 27 million), Switzerland (USD 11.7 million), and Australia (USD 5.2 million). While much smaller in their total giving than their counterparts in the US, the foundations in these nations can have a similarly outsized impact for two reasons: First, the philanthropic gifts can go a long way because of the relative poverty of many recipient countries, which are in the developing world; and second, policies in many of the recipient nations are heavily influenced by what donors do.

What are these providers doing when it comes to education giving? Most of their efforts can be grouped into one of three buckets.

  • They invest in creating better schools

One appealing investment is the effort to expand educational opportunity by building new schools. UK-based researcher James Tooley, for instance, has reported that the majority of children in countries such as India, Ghana, and Nigeria are schooled in low-cost private education and benefit greatly from the presence of even cheap private schools. Tooley’s work has been the impetus behind much philanthropic support for private schooling in the developing world. An influential example is Bridge International Academies, a network of schools that first opened in Kenya in 2008 and has raised over USD 140 million in financial backing from donors including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the Gates Foundation.1 Bridge now has over 500 schools and educates over 100,000 children across India, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Uganda. Relying on a central team to prepare content and monitor student progress, Bridge equips its teachers with tablet computers and downloadable daily lesson plans. The network has displayed strong academic results. In Kenya, for instance, 86% of children score well enough to pass into secondary school compared with a national average of 76%.2

  • They invest in providing better teachers

Some funders have focused on improving teacher quality either by recruiting higher-caliber teachers or by increasing quality of training. As one example, since its founding in 2007, Teach for All — a network that includes the US-funded and operated Teach for America — has recruited and trained more than 50,000 teachers through partnerships with locally led and funded country-level affiliate organizations. With backing from more than 50 different philanthropic organizations, Teach for All now has about 15,000 current teachers in 48 nations.3 The organization boasts that, across all network partners tracking data, on average, 73% of its alumni are working in education or in support of disadvantaged communities.4

  • They invest in constructing better systems

Other funders have been focused on improving educational systems and policies around the world. The US-based Michael & Susan Dell Foundation has invested in “comprehensive system reform” in India.5 The effort includes strategies to create a more robust, market-based model of education that helps parents choose better schools by providing more data on educational options and quality. This effort encompasses projects that can store data for more than two million students and 100,000 teachers, making it possible to monitor school quality and track academic progress. The UK-based Paul Hamlyn Foundation, which spends more than USD 30 million a year on education and healthcare issues in India and the UK, has taken a different approach. In India, it has invested in Childhood Enhancement Through Training and Action (CHETNA), an Indian venture that helps enroll street
children in school. In a 2010 evaluation, it was reported that CHETNA’s outreach had helped enroll and support more than 1,000 children in schools and training programs across the Indian state of Jharkhand.6

Lessons Learned
Education philanthropy is set to play an increasingly outsized role around the world in the years ahead, as the importance of schooling increases and the affluent seek to expand opportunity. Given this, there are at least two crucial lessons that we should keep in mind.

  • Philanthropists should embrace critical feedback

Either because of philanthropists’ choices about ho is in the boardroom, or because of reformers’ fears of speaking out, philanthropy is too often greeted by acquiescence and reflexive cheerleading. After all, nobody likes to offend rich people, especially generous funders writing cheques. But prickly scrutiny is healthy. It raises hard questions and points out overlooked problems. Philanthropists do well to listen carefully and view such feedback as a valued resource.

  • Philanthropists should care whether investments actually work

It’s easy for philanthropists to get caught up in the excitement of a new idea. But education philanthropy is inevitably about outsiders trying to change schools, teachers, and systems in someone else’s community. This is necessary and important work, but it also requires that funders do everything they can to ensure they’re doing more good than harm. This means monitoring their efforts, studying outcomes for students, and taking every opportunity to ask what is or isn’t working.

We need to value the energy that a new generation of philanthropists brings to education reform while also hoping that they proceed with an awareness of lessons learned and with the thoughtfulness that can increase the odds that their generous gifts will indeed help to improve children’s lives.

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