Education Donors Shift Priorities, Survey Suggests

Survey tags ‘whole learner’ investments

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Education philanthropy groups may be moving away from big new investments in areas with a K-12 academic focus—teacher preparation, turnaround of low-performing schools, new school models, and the like—in favor of “whole learner” investments, according to a new survey of education funders.

That means more attention and money could be spent on supporting social and emotional learning, families and community engagement, and wraparound services, according to “Trends in Education Philanthropy: Benchmarking 2018-2019,” written by Grantmakers for Education.

Grantmakers is the nation’s largest and most diverse network of education funders dedicated to improving educational outcomes; nearly 300 organizations and 1,800 individuals are members of the organization. Grantmakers surveyed 91 funders, 65 of which are members of its organization and are collectively responsible for nearly $800 million in philanthropic spending in their most recent fiscal year.

Spotting Trends

Changing Focus

Grantmakers for Education, an organization of education philanthropists, interviewed 91 funders responsible for nearly $800 million in education funding to find out about their priorities. The survey found that education funders have:

  • Markedly increased their focus on the learning stages before and after K-12 education.
  • Ramped up support for strategies embracing the whole learner, while moving away from the academic areas of focus that characterized the prior decade of education reform.
  • Lost confidence in federal government leadership on and funding for education reform.

Because the organizations represent a fraction of funders, Grantmakers said that the findings should be seen as suggestive of funding trends and priorities, but not conclusive. However, the survey does offer a snapshot of where some funders are seeing the best bets for future investments—as well as areas that are potential concerns.

The funders surveyed also said they were focusing their spending on the time periods before and after the K-12 years, which means renewed or continuing interest in early-childhood education and in postsecondary education.

The amount of money spent in early childhood, however, was dwarfed by the funding spent on postsecondary programs. About a third of respondents said they funded early-learning projects in fiscal 2018, but that accounted for only 4 percent of the money spent by those surveyed. In contrast, 66 percent of respondents said they spent money on “postsecondary education and workforce/career readiness,” and that accounted for 49 percent of the money that these funders allocated in fiscal 2019.

Of particular interest in the postsecondary area are programs that expose children to college classes or career training early, and that help them stay in college once they enroll, said Celine Coggins, the executive director of the Grantmakers group.

“What it takes to get through college and be successful in college is very different from what we’ve tended to focus on in the past,” Coggins said. “If a student can’t buy books and does not have a place to live and is hungry, then we need the same supports around that person at the postsecondary level that we did at the K-12 level. Those challenges don’t go away.”

Focus on Equity

Another focus among funders is on educational equity, but that is defined broadly in the philanthropic field, including racial, gender, and socioeconomic diversity, Coggins said.

A last trend noted among the survey respondents is a loss of confidence in the federal government as a leader in education reform. That may be one reason why the funders in this study have moved away from large-scale efforts and renewed their focus on local and state-focused initiatives.

“There is a moving away from the belief that the federal government is the main thought leader in the field,” Coggins said. And, while philanthropy is essential, that money cannot replace the gap created by inadequate state and federal funding, she said.

In the coming years, one issue to pay attention to is if the interest in topics such as social-emotional and early learning is followed up by large investments, and if the move away from academic reforms continues.

“Is this a shift away from something, or is this an evolution where we’re recognizing it takes all of these things to educate students?” Coggins said. “What the survey doesn’t tell us is if people feel like the [education reform] job is done” or if the shift in focus has come because some of the large investments in educational reform initiatives have had mixed or negative results, she said.

Vol. 38, Issue 24, Page 7

Published in Print: March 6, 2019, as Shift in Grant Priorities for Education Donors
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