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Grantmakers for Education Chief on Philanthropy’s Response to Coronavirus

By Rick Hess — April 29, 2020 8 min read
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As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we’ll be looking to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Celine Coggins is executive director of Grantmakers for Education, the largest network of education philanthropists in the nation. Celine is also a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and previously founded and ran Teach Plus. I reached out to see what Celine can share about how education philanthropists are dealing with the coronavirus. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick: How are funders responding to the coronavirus crisis?

Celine: I think funders immediately recognized how important it was for them to get dollars out the door quickly and flexibly. They know students, families, and nonprofits are in immediate jeopardy, so many are converting specific program grants to general operating support and waiving reporting requirements. They are using a staged approach that began with rapid response, is now entering the intermediate, more strategic stage, and will have a longer-term component that supports recovery in a time of recession.

Right now, funders are thinking about how to ensure strategic alignment with stimulus dollars. That means a variety of things from making sure their grantees know about paycheck-protection options for nonprofits to ensuring education advocates with compelling research are informing state leaders as they allocate new federal funds.

Rick: What funder priorities are emerging?

Celine: The headline in terms of where the dollars are going is to support the basic needs of students and their families, such as food, shelter, and safety. At Grantmakers for Education (GFE), we did an analysis of funds deployed in the first month of the COVID-19 crisis (through April 10). We evaluated 606 unique funds using three sources: the Candid database, the Giving Compass database, and our own data collected from members. Here is what we found:


  • The vast majority of all relief funds allow dollars to be used to cover basic needs.
  • Roughly 93 percent of all funds do not have a specific focus on student learning, beyond meeting children’s need for food, shelter, and safety.
  • Only 7 percent of all funds include addressing disruption in students’ learning needs as a possible use of dollars.
  • Of the 7 percent that do allow grants to fund student learning, fewer than half (or 3 percent of the total) have student learning and/or teacher support as their primary focus.
  • Within the GFE membership, only 30 percent of funds include education as a possible use of dollars.

We are starting to see more attention to student learning, but it was rare in the first wave of response.

Rick: Where are foundation staff getting their sense of what’s important to fund right now?

Celine: Funders learn from one another, and I think they are taking their role as learners very seriously in this moment where none of us knows which end is up. We have hosted three or four webinars every week since the crisis began. Funders are volunteering to lead these (which, of course, involves a ton of prep work), and huge numbers join each time.

I also see funders acting with a level of humility about who they are turning to as “trusted partners.” Especially in a crisis, it is difficult to know what is happening in our most vulnerable communities. How can we keep in touch with homeless students? What is the experience of immigrants and refugees in accessing government supports? I hear many funders pushing themselves to reframe “trusted partners” away from their own “trusted partners” in the longest-standing, biggest nonprofits to “partners most trusted in local communities.” These people might be less visible to a program officer because they are newer to leadership, but their voice is essential in giving strategy that reaches the most in need most quickly.

Rick: How easy or hard is it for funders to pivot from one initiative or focus to another?

Celine: I have been impressed by how quickly funders pivoted to the first stage of COVID-19 response. My observation was that there was a lot of positive (and intense) peer pressure among both local and national funders toward their funder colleagues to meet this moment where their donations could literally save lives. A lot of giving happened in a critical window where the government was still getting its act together.

Rick: What are some of the challenges funders are facing that people might not know about that they should be aware of?

Celine: As we move past the “emergency” or “rapid relief” fund period, the work will be more complex. Funders care about their “regular” grantees, and they are weighing how to balance strong support for existing programs with “special” COVID-19 needs.

To maintain its charitable status, each foundation must give away roughly 5 percent of its endowment annually. Many hew closely to that 5 percent with a long-term impact in mind. The crisis we are in now is calling on philanthropy to give more generously than ever before. The question of cutting deep into long-term funds to keep more Americans afloat in the present is a complex one that many trustees and foundation leaders are debating.

At the same time, the emerging recession means that foundation endowments are shrinking substantially. Thus, even if a foundation donated a greater percentage of its endowment this year than last year, the total dollar amount it gives could be lesser. Navigating the recession with strong financial stewardship is an important priority right now as well.

Rick: What kind of role should funders be playing right now? What sort of role have they played in past crises?

Celine: In the last recession, there was a coherence among many funders around the reform agenda that was codified in the Race to the Top grant program (in shorthand: test-based accountability, teacher evaluation, and charter schools). This time, several context factors are different. First, very few stimulus dollars to date have been focused on education. Second, funders would not be supportive of a heavy federal role. Finally, there is no clear national vision for philanthropy to participate in shaping and then supporting.

The common denominator I see driving funder concerns now is equity. It is showing up in a few different ways. In terms of resource equity, research shows that spending gaps between high-poverty and low-poverty districts widened in many states following the Great Recession and never narrowed. Funders are thinking about the policy and advocacy levers needed to ensure that does not happen again. There is also movement toward addressing digital equity in a range of ways from device access to broadband infrastructure. Finally, many funders have spent much of the past decade prioritizing racial equity in education, especially by supporting community-based ventures founded by leaders of color. I hear a strong commitment to ensuring that these newer leaders have the financial backing to withstand this challenging moment.

Rick: What’s the most heartening thing that you’ve seen your funders do?

Celine: The people and organizations that lead after-school and summer learning are more vulnerable right now than district and school educators who continue to be fully employed. There are a group of close to 50 funders, including the Mott Foundation, S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, and the Wallace Foundation, who have met for the past five Fridays in a row—from the moment the crisis hit—to develop collaborative strategies and approaches to support these “out-of-school time” entities. They’ve been both fast and thoughtful about how to work with both national and local partners to listen to needs from the field, identify best practices, and deploy resources quickly.

I also see so many of my colleagues who are on social media learning about, posting about, and generally working to destigmatize mental-health challenges. I know this is filtering into grantmaking strategy as well.

Rick: What advice do you share when funders ask?

I think we need good tracking and research on two strands of investment: basic needs and distance learning. That needs to happen now. As schools resume, they’ll be facing cuts. Maybe we can learn something about use of technology that allows us to create efficiencies. Maybe those efficiencies can free up greater resources for basic-needs supports in high-poverty areas.

I think of school closures as a moment of extreme clarity where society had to answer a pop quiz on the question: What is the most important thing that schools in high-poverty areas do? The answer, in every corner of America, seems to be: provide at-risk kids with food, structure, and safety. We cannot lose focus on academics, but we also cannot ignore our collective response and its implications when school reopens. If funders had a rough tally of their collective spending on basic needs in this moment, it might drive a different policy conversation about school funding.

On the flip side, my kids are suburban teens with devices and a stable home. Distance learning has been OK. I’d volunteer them for one-day-a-week of distance learning in the future if the cost savings could go toward remediation in the districts where the majority of kids lost out on learning this spring. For that to happen, we’d need research that says more people than just me see some redeeming qualities in the use of technology. Al Shanker used to argue that the teacher’s work week should be four days, with kids doing remediation with support professionals and project-based learning on the fifth day. Maybe it’s time to revisit his idea.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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