School & District Management

Education Is the Darling of Wealthy Philanthropists, But K-12 Is Losing Its Luster

By Christina A. Samuels — January 29, 2020 | Updated: February 04, 2020 | Corrected: February 03, 2020 5 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified Tony Lewis of the Donnell-Kay Foundation in Denver.

When high-wealth families around the globe are looking for causes to support, education is at the top of their list.

A new survey found that more than one quarter of charitable giving by these families goes to education causes, from early childhood to postsecondary.

Those investments in education far outpace the next largest area of support, health, which receives 14 percent of philanthropic dollars by these families. The third largest area, arts, culture, and sports, accounts for 10 percent of the charitable giving conducted by these families.

The survey of 201 families—whose average net wealth is $1.2 billion—was conducted by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and Campden Wealth. Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors guides donors in their charitable giving; Campden Wealth provides networking services for high-wealth families.

The survey also revealed a growing interest among donors in time-limited giving. Families are drawn to that form of giving because they want to see results of their donations during their lifetimes, create a narrower focus for their giving, or prefer transfer their wealth to charitable giving sooner rather than later, according to the survey.

Amir Pasic, the dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, said the survey’s findings matched his institution’s research. Religious organizations are the largest beneficiaries of charitable giving overall, but after that, it’s education, he said—though noting that much of that giving is to colleges and universities.

But education overall is a powerful draw, Pasic said.

“What we’re seeing is the issue of making an impact on society through education, to educate the future leaders, future citizens, future workers of the world,” Pasic said. “Education can be a transformational experience.”

‘Sense of Urgency’

The growing interest in time-limited giving is also something Pasic has seen, in contrast to organizations that have long outlived their original funders, such as the Rockefeller Foundation, The Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Ford Foundation.

“Currently, there’s been a whole new crop of very wealthy people who have a certain sense of impatience and a sense of urgency,” Pasic said. “They feel that they can deploy their smarts and others they bring to the table to tackle issues today.”

Many billionaires have also signed on the “Giving Pledge,” a nonbinding commitment to give away at least half of their net worth over their lifetimes or upon their deaths. Bill and Melinda Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are among the signatories to the pledge; both couples have been deeply involved in K-12 giving through their family foundations.

Among other signers of that pledge is the Omidyar Network, created by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, and his wife Pam. The network recently spun off its education investments into a new global organization, Imaginable Futures.

As part philanthropy organization, part investment firm, Imaginable Futures will donate money to groups and well as invest in for-profit entities that support learning, said Amy Klement, the managing partner.

The appeal of supporting education “quite simply, is humanity,” Klement said. “It’s children. It’s the future. There’s fantastic organizations out there doing transformational work, and it only takes a spark to have multigenerational impacts.”

Wonderschool and All Our Kin, two organizations that help families start in-home preschools or day-care programs, are among the programs supported by Imaginable Futures.

Beyond K-12 Philanthropy

That early-childhood focus is part of a trend. On the domestic front, a growing number of funders are looking outside the K-12 system to focus their giving, said Celine Coggins, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a consortium of philanthropists focused on supporting learners of all ages.

That means focusing on children before they start school as well as postsecondary education, rather than the K-12 space specifically, she said. And it also means examining education and its connection to other concerns.

“Education is increasingly being seen as an intersectional issue. There’s the issue of education and mental health, education and criminal justice, education and the arts,” Coggins said.

Grantmakers for Education conducted its own research on education philanthropy in the United States in a report released last year.

“What we saw in our recent study was that members were more thinking about the whole learner and moving away from just thinking about the academic standards,” she said. Working outside the boundaries of the K-12 system is seen as a way to have more impact, as well as more freedom from governmental controls.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation, created to improve public education in Colorado, is an example of a charitable organization that is moving away from trying to influence education at the K-12 level, said Tony Lewis. Once known as the executive director of the Denver-based foundation, Lewis said he eliminated staff titles about a year ago, to create a more egalitarian structure in the organization.

“Over the past five or six years, we’ve gotten frustrated with the lack of progress in improvement in the K-12 system,” Lewis said. “We’ve tried hard, and our partners have tried hard and everyone is still trying hard. The results have been disappointing at best. That’s a Colorado story and it’s a national story.”

Lewis said the organization has pulled back from areas such as school performance frameworks, district accountability, and “turnaround schools” because the gains have been minimal. The organization is also less involved in supporting new charter schools and in early-childhood education than it was several years ago.

Instead, Donnell-Kay is now taking a closer look at the out-of-school space, including afterschool and summertime. That’s where children spend most of their time, he said.

“We keep layering more and more work on schools, reading, math, STEM, nutrition, mental health,” Lewis said. “I don’t think loading more onto the school day is actually the answer any more.”

But, he continued, “What if you really intentionally maximize the time in the out-of-school space? You can make a huge difference in both academics and in life skills.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 2020 edition of Education Week as Education a High Priority for Family Foundations


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