Local Foundations Shift Strategies on Schools

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For decades, the 50-year-old Donnell-Kay Foundation, a family-based private philanthropy in Denver, saw its work as parceling out grants of $5,000 to $10,000 to nonprofit groups throughout the community. But that "quiet and sleepy" mode of operation started to change about 12 years ago, says Tony Lewis, the organization's executive director.

When Mr. Lewis was hired in 2000, it was with the express purpose of honing the foundation's focus on education. Donnell-Kay now sees itself not just as a grant provider, but also as a catalyst for driving the education improvement conversation in Colorado. That role offers the small foundation, with an endowment of about $28 million, much more potential influence than giving out small, individual grants.

Exerting Leverage

Driven by national trends in the economy and in philanthropy, other city-based foundations are going through the same shift in focus as the Donnell-Kay Foundation. Instead of serving as passive boosters of their communities' traditional public school systems, these organizations see themselves driving a discussion around transformation and innovation that is, they say, agnostic on how schools themselves are governed.

For example, Mr. Lewis serves on the steering committee of the Colorado School Finance Partnership, which released a report this month that recommends a major overhaul of the state's funding formula for schools. By helping convene such conversations, the foundation can leverage the $1 million or so that it spends each year into potentially influencing how billions of other dollars are spent in education.

National Network

The Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust is a 2-year-old coalition of 23 city-based foundations, nonprofits, and mayors’ offices that support efforts to improve local schools through charter school incubation, blended-learning instructional models, and leadership development. The member organizations share strategies and offer assistance to other community groups around the country that are interested in creating similar programs.

"We look around in places we think we can make a difference in education, we'll research these issues, and we'll bring people together for critical thought," Mr. Lewis said.

And as such philanthropies change their mode of operation, they are banding together: Several city-based foundations, including Donnell-Kay, are a part of a 2-year-old coalition called the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust, or CEE-Trust, which allows them to share resources and ideas. CEE-Trust this month released a report intended to guide leaders who want to launch education overhauls in their own cities.

"There's a national consensus among reformers that we need to really step up our efforts," said Ethan Gray, the director of CEE-Trust, based in Indianapolis. "For a long time, we've funded nice programs—not to take anything away from programs that stuff backpacks with food, or tutoring programs, or programs that place a business leader in a school for a week. But if you look at the long-term data trends, those are not transforming programs."

Local foundations are following the lead of the national "venture philanthropists," donors who are looking for measurable returns on their charitable investments, said Janelle T. Scott, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the relationship between philanthropy and school choice in urban communities.

In some cases, the ties between local foundations and national philanthropies are explicit. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation of Seattle, the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville, Ark., all fund local organizations working in the education sphere, including some foundations. (Both Gates and Walton also provide grant support for reporting in Education Week.) The U.S. Department of Education also has supported some of those local foundations through its Investing in Innovation, or i3, grants.

Economic Realities

At the same time, as state and local funding sources are strapped for cash, districts and other education organizations are more receptive to the funding that these private organizations have to offer, Ms. Scott said.

The organizations often share a vision that embraces charter and private and traditional public schools, as well as alternative training programs for teachers and principals, Ms. Scott noted. What is still an open question is whether these city-based foundations are open to views that deviate from those specific types of reform, she said.

"If you already know where you want to go"—and your organization holds the purse strings—"you're setting the terms for how the community can engage with you," Ms. Scott said.

The 6-year-old Mind Trust, which founded CEE-Trust, made a big splash last year when it released a reportRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader recommending a complete restructuring of the Indianapolis district. ("Bold Remake Proposed for Indianapolis Schools," Jan. 25, 2012.) Previously, the organization had focused on incubating education entrepreneurship opportunities in the city.

"If we had presented something that wasn't a comprehensive new vision, it wouldn't have gotten nearly the same attention, I don't think," said David Harris, the founder and chief executive officer of the Mind Trust.

Out of Bounds?

But Eugene G. White, the superintendent of the Indianapolis Public schools, said that the Mind Trust and similarly situated philanthropies mean well, "but they don't really have a real feel for what people say they want and what they need."

He continued, "Sometimes, they get too far into their particular missions. I think that happens to a lot of them, and until their funders see that and stop funding them, they'll keep wandering out in the wilderness."

In some cases, however, foundation leaders said they shifted their missions only after working closely with traditional systems in their communities and finding that the work yielded results that were disappointing or did not last.

For example, Amy C. Hertel, the manager of strategic development, research, and evaluation for the 97-year-old Minneapolis Foundation, said the organization helped conduct a survey of overall education charitable spending in Minnesota. The survey found that in 2010, about $243 million was spent in education philanthropy statewide, with $100 million of that money going to the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area.

But while 65 percent of the charities felt they were funding work that would close achievement gaps among students, Minnesota has some of the largest gaps in the nation. The disconnect between money spent and results achieved presents a new opportunity for the organization, she said.

"Convening and advocacy are things that we can do from our position on speaking on behalf of the entire community," she said.

The Skillman Foundation in Detroit, founded in 1960 to support programs for children and needy families, is one of the organizations featured in the CEE-Trust guide. Under its mandate "to help develop good schools and good neighborhoods for children," the organization "focused on very discrete programs that we thought were silver bullets," said Tonya Allen, the chief operating officer and vice president of the program."A lot of times, people think that because our education results have been so underwhelming, that we haven't done anything in Detroit. We've done a lot in Detroit, but the problem is that the innovations cannot be sustained," Ms. Allen said.

Related Blog

In 2004, Skillman moved from partnering solely with the Detroit district to promoting what it considered to be good schools throughout the city, regardless of whether they were private, charter, or regular public.

One of Skillman's current projects includes supporting Excellent Schools Detroit, which is developing a "school quality review" that will measure the city's charter schools, independent schools, and regular public schools against the same measures, providing some guidance to parents looking for good options for their children.

Excellent Schools Detroit, whose board includes representatives from charters, the district, a parents' group, and other charitable organizations, is an example of a foundation bringing together disparate groups to support items on which all agree, Ms. Allen said.

But Skillman's shift was not received well in all quarters, Ms. Allen said. "We had tremendous amounts of pushback from the union," she said. "But we also gained credibility as someone who is trying to facilitate an honest conversation about the state of education in our city."

Vol. 32, Issue 02, Pages 8-9

Published in Print: August 29, 2012, as Local Foundations Shifting Their Education Missions
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