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Informal Coalition of Grantmakers To Form Nonprofit Group

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San Francisco

An informal coalition of foundations that support K-12 education has announced that it is transforming itself into an independent nonprofit organization and broadening its focus beyond precollegiate issues.

Since 1980, grantmakers that support school-reform efforts have shared ideas and information under the aegis of the Precollegiate Group, one of 30 "affinity groups" recognized by the Council on Foundations.

Such groups are made up of grantmakers that share an interest in a particular issue or segment of the population.

The announcement of the new education organization was made here last week during the annual conference of the Council on Foundations, an association that represents more than 1,300 foundations.

Since the Precollegiate Group was established in 1980, it has grown from 35 to nearly 400 members.

Though the lion's share of foundation grants to education still goes to higher education, the percentage going to K-12 education has been increasing. In 1980, K-12 education received 13.6 percent of education grant dollars. By 1993, that figure had increased to 25.9 percent.

The new group will be known as Grantmakers for Education, a change intended to reflect the decision to broaden the group's focus to include early-childhood and higher-education issues.

"The new group is not intended to reject the past, but to bring the past into the present," its chairwoman, Leslie J. Graitcer, the executive director of the BellSouth Foundation in Atlanta, told group members during their regular meeting at the conference.

Joseph Dominic, the education program officer at the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh, reminded group members of the pivotal role played by the late Edward J. Meade in getting the group started and turning it into an "electric arena" for discussion. "If only he were alive today to see how active his vision is," Mr. Dominic said. Mr. Meade, the former director of education programs at the Ford Foundation for more than two decades, died last May.

Mr. Dominic and others also highlighted the contributions of Mary Leonard, who served as the Precollegiate Group's director for 14 years before resigning last summer.

"She was not just a staff person, she was the conscience and collective memory of the organization," said Peter H. Gerber, the director of the education program at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago.

Cultivating Connections

Much like educators, foundation officers have learned that "it is easier to talk about communicating, sharing, and collaborating than it is to achieve it," says an outline of the group's transition plans released at the meeting.

Some foundation officers do not have the time or information to form relationships with their colleagues, the report says, and others have managed to do so but have difficulty sustaining those contacts.

"Nearly all education funders," the report concludes, "find it difficult to develop connections that help them better understand the broader context of education improvement or how it can inform their own work."

In a speech at the conference, Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust at the Washington-based American Association for Higher Education, said that this absence of cooperation and collaboration has meant that schools may find themselves dealing with as many as 100 distinct and often disconnected programs, each with its own rules and reporting requirements.

She urged funders to work together to help schools adopt a more systematic approach to reform.

Getting in Touch

Because the precollegiate grantmakers' group traditionally has met only twice a year--once on its own and once at the Council on Foundations conference--it has not always been able to help members stay abreast of cutting-edge education issues, Mr. Gerber of the MacArthur Foundation said.

"It wasn't fast enough," Mr. Gerber said of the Precollegiate Group. "It wasn't nimble and frequent and flexible, so it wasn't useful to people," he said.

Joan Lipsitz, the program director for education at the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis, agreed. She also noted that as the group expanded in size, its membership diversified to include veteran grantmakers as well as less experienced ones, each with his own set of needs.

While continuing the usual twice-a-year meetings, the new group plans to add smaller and more frequent gatherings or conference calls about particular topics.

In addition to continuing to publish a newsletter and a directory, the Washington-based group is looking to technology as a communications tool.

It hopes to compile a database with information on funders' goals, interests, and strategies and use computer networks to share information on a day-to-day basis.

"I think we're all ready for gutsier conversations," Mr. Gerber said of the changes in the group. "I think foundations are going to be asking educators more challenging questions, but will also be more understanding about what it's going to take to make a difference."

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