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Disrupting Philanthropy: Three ways to change for more equitable and system-level results

Disrupting Philanthropy

It’s impossible to ignore that despite more than 40 years of effort, in education we have many “bright spot” school and community examples, but few that represent the full systemwide progress at scale that we desire. If we can continue to dissect how we operate in philanthropy and if we can be open about particular approaches that may be hindering that progress, we can also design how philanthropy can do its work differently and better to expedite progress.

As a program officer at three foundations, running a nonprofit and throughout my tenure at Education First, I’ve supported and participated in more than a dozen funder collaborations and led a 12-year partnership with the NoVo Foundation on the SEL in Action Fund that invested directly in teachers, schools and districts. Across all of these initiatives, I’ve seen that the ability to change systems and create change across generations will require new and different ways of working from within philanthropy.

To help identify the new ways of working and reflect on what the field needs now, last month we convened a diverse group of philanthropists, as part of the planned wind-down of the SEL in Action Fund. While the conversations were grounded in SEL, the participants realized that the entire K12 philanthropic community faces similar challenges, especially given the increased focus on place-based grantmaking by many national and regional funds.

Education philanthropists often are engaged in “intractable” problems that will never be “solved,” once and for all—so the people and solutions we invest in require ongoing innovation, creativity and adaptability. But we in the philanthropic community need to name the patterns that we might be perpetuating in education systems; define specific actions we can model for education leaders and constituents; and directly support building more adaptive capacity to catalyze the change we collectively seek.

Many of these patterns originate in how the philanthropic community engages in the strategy development process and how that creates the roadmap for implementation. If we can disrupt the following three major patterns, then the way funders operate will be more equitable and more likely to produce system-level results.

  1. Seeing beyond our siloes. We spend important time and capacity identifying the strategies and outcomes that we believe are most vital or ripe for action for our organization. Yet we often do not name or understand the other systemic inequities outside of education that affect our historically marginalized students.
  2. Becoming experts in change. We often become experts in the content, knowledge, research and practices of education, but we don’t spend enough time developing our expertise on how change happens or philanthropy’s role in effecting change.
  3. Directly engaging with those most proximate to the problems we seek to solve. We spend a lot of time falling in love with our strategies, relying on the expertise of grantees, researchers and consultants, but not directly engaging with the “people most proximate” to ideate potentially better solutions to the problems we seek to solve.

Recommendation 1:

Seeing beyond our siloes: How might we acknowledge the non-education systemic inequities that affect our historically marginalized students, while focusing on changing our public education system?

Historically marginalized students, families and communities don’t see solutions as only occurring within schools, and while we want to see the breakdown of silos both within education and across systems, we infrequently model cross-sector (or even cross-strategy) collaboration. Funders ultimately have more flexibility in influencing cross-sector work than public institutions on their own. Districts have to spend their resources almost exclusively on what happens in schools and other government programs (funded by state and federal dollars) are likewise siloed.

At our convening, several funders articulated how they are trying to push the boundaries on what is possible from their vantage points, when faced with having specific academic or performance outcomes in education. For example, a local education fund is working to support meaningful connections across within-school system partners to external partners. The fund recognized the limitations of the school system to meet the needs of students and families, while acknowledging much of that expertise lives outside the school—with non-profit partners and trusted (often informal) leaders in the community.  While the fund is squarely focused on improving education outcomes, it provides resources to build the capacity within the education system to work more effectively with external partners. This ranges from a focus on data sharing agreements to partnerships with health, housing and legal organizations so that students and families get what they need within a system that is coherent and communicates across its parts.

Recommendation 2:

Becoming experts in change: How might we hone our expertise in how change happens? And how might we fund change strategies?

As foundations engage in strategy development processes, we recommend that funders spend more time learning about how change happens—including exploring different theoretical models, novel processes and case studies—and then embedding those insights intentionally in strategic implementation plans. For example, as a group of funders, we discussed the need to build adaptive capacity, such as the capacity and skill building for shared leadership, participatory decisionmaking and shared decisionmaking processes. We know that co-design with different constituents—such as educators, families, students and community providers—requires patience, trust-building and relationship-building. District leaders need a way to set the culture to enable caring, trusting relationships with the community and set the tone for all constituents in the school system to believe they belong and that their voice matters. However, we acknowledged that funding processes do not often account for the support education system leaders might need to manage toward a culture of belonging. Or, grantmaking timelines do not always account for the individual learning and skill-building, or the development of trust with community members, that are essential to build the foundation for leading system-wide change.

We see a few foundations leaning into this challenge. For example, a large national family foundation has funded multiple efforts to bring together measurement experts, district leaders, nonprofits and community advocates to focus on new ways of measuring success and driving for more equitable outcomes. The work has gone slowly to go far, by supporting leaders to cultivate trusting relationships, share tools and resources for critical feedback, model collaboration across organizations that might not typically collaborate and tell their stories.

Recommendation 3:

Directly engaging with those most proximate to the problems we seek to solve: How might we both fall in love with our own strategies and trust the expertise of the people most proximate?

The concepts of trust-based philanthropy and ceding power have traditionally been in conflict, but they need to evolve to become “both/and,” instead of one or the other. But the realities of the organizations many of us work in do not necessarily allow for that evolution. So how do we find the balance? For this convening, we brought into the room a norm that the privilege we hold as philanthropists means “we can instigate change for the practitioners, students, families and communities we all hope to support. And, while philanthropists as a whole cannot and should not create solutions to big challenges alone, they do have expertise that comes with the role. One local foundation focused on addressing the needs of middle school students, particularly students of color and those experiencing poverty, identified key challenges, including educator retention and chronic absenteeism, but no longer determines the strategy until after undergoing an intense empathy-driven data collection process. Another foundation is making a push towards shared governance and participatory budgeting, while providing significant training and capacity-building for all stakeholders to succeed in the process.

Do you see these themes in your work? Do you see other opportunities to modernize education philanthropy through our grantmaking strategy processes to accelerate change? Let’s start a conversation about actions we can take together.

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Kelly James

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