Is there a role for philanthropy in education?

Education is a tough space for philanthropy.  In my view, the only tougher area to support is environment. The things that make environment funding tough are the exact same in education.  In each you are faced with complex issues at a policy and local delivery level and ultimately, the things that impact on outcomes may have nothing to do with the context in which you are working.

So why would philanthropy even pretend to be a player in the education space? When you examine all the dollars governments put into schools annually any philanthropic commitment, singularly or combined, adds up to little more than small change.  It’s rare to speak with trustees of trusts and foundations who don’t wrestle with this underlying feeling of ‘what’s the point?’ 

I read with interest an interview with Bill Gates in the Wall Street Journal this week.  Gates is a learning philanthropist,  constantly looking at what’s working and what isn’t with his Foundation’s grantmaking.  This past week, in what is a rarity for philanthropy in general, he spoke about failure and more specifically, the Gates Foundation’s failures in its approach to supporting education in the United States.

The Gates Foundation approach to education funding was set around an objective of increasing college attendance. It included an investment of $100 million in 2004 into the establishment of 20 ‘small’ high schools across several States. The objective of the ‘small school’ model was simple – smaller classrooms provide higher levels of teacher/student engagement, which also promotes increased attendance, better classroom behaviour and the development of significant ‘adult’ relationships for students. While the programs they supported helped to increase outcomes for students on an individual level, they did not make a dent into the overall objective of improving college attendance.

There’s no point getting into a conversation about the approach the Gates Foundation decided to take in investing in education, or even the overarching value of supporting an objective of improving college attendance.  Here in Australia our education system and environment is vastly different, so it equates to comparing apples and pears.

Regardless of the differences between our policy contexts, there is an interesting issue for philanthropists on both sides of the Pacific to consider.  The Gate’s interview picks up on one of these issues nicely:

This understanding of just how little influence seemingly large donations can have has led the foundation to rethink its focus in recent years. Instead of trying to buy systemic reform with school-level investments, a new goal is to leverage private money in a way that redirects how public education dollars are spent.

“I bring a bias to this,” says Mr. Gates. “I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. “That’s partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don’t think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research.”

Education research is underinvested in here in Australia.  But worse still, the evidence and research we do have within the Australian context for improving outcomes for all students is too often ignored in policy and it’s here that the funding paradox exists for philanthropy.

Education research involves implementation within the classroom (or equivalent) setting and rarely can we say with any conviction after a typical 12 month trial whether any of these programs have worked. In philanthropy we often express the need to ‘prove’ innovation works so that government might come to its senses and fund these programs and approaches in the long term. But the reality is that there are very few trusts and foundations with the stomach and patience for the really long term stuff. Add to this the cost involved with genuine research and evaluation and what you create is a tough environment to be a philanthropist in. Even Gates, who is committed to backing research to influence education policy, recognises that the big bucks are required; he’s investing $335 million over the next five years to find the formula to ‘effective teaching’.

The real losers in this funding challenge are schools and their students. Schools that can identify their needs rarely have the resources to fund the solutions in the long term (or the short or immediate term). The schools that do know how to present a case to philanthropy for support are often hamstrung by tax issues or a simple lack of capacity manage the resources (financial and time) required to seek the support. On the flip side, philanthropic organisations who want to be effective in their education funding can find knowing how to find and work with school partners difficult. And under it all there remains at trustee level that underlying feeling of it all being just too big an issue for philanthropy to help.

It is for all these reasons that I am personally excited about the potential for the Leading Learning In Education and Philanthropy research that is being undertaken by ACER’s Tender Bridge.  I’ll declare my hand, I’m on the project team, but despite my obvious bias I am genuinely excited about this work for two reasons:

  1. It’s an investment in philanthropy in Australia
  2. It’s about learning how schools and philanthropy can better work together

Education is not an area philanthropy can walk away from.  Quite the opposite.  What we actually need is a philanthropic sector better equipped to understand how our limited resources might actually benefit the people that matter most; students.  But first, there needs to be a process of openness, we need to know more about what we do and don’t do well as a sector, but we also need to ask schools where they think our strengths are. There’s already too much ‘top-down’ in education policy, philanthropy should avoid adding to the noise without genuine reason and it’s my view that the only genuine reason to enter this space is in support of education partners.

So while it might be disheartening for some smaller philanthropists to see the Gate’s of this world despair about the role of philanthropy in education, I for one am more resolved about the opportunities the education challenge presents. To have an impact in the education space trusts and foundations are forced to be more thoughtful about their giving approach. The really innovative philanthropists will find new ways of working and will commit to longer term approaches with an ability to pivot when things aren’t going well. There’s a lot to be positive about and equally, when you consider the outcome potential, there’s a lot to be excited about too.

You can follow the musings of Caitriona on Twitter @cat_fay