Effective Education Grantmaking

For two years, Ohio Grantmakers Forum has taken on the issue of education in the State of Ohio. In 2006 Education for Ohio’s Future framed the motivation for the undertaking stating,

“As the new century unfolds, Ohio stands at a crossroads. Over the past 20 years, our state and local leaders have worked to improve student, school and system performance. We have seen progress in some areas, but our education system falls far short of preparing all students for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century. Consider how far we still must go.”

Ohio was not alone in addressing the critical issue facing education in the United States. In March 2008, The New York Times Magazine published a conversation with philanthropists from large foundations that have invested heavily in education reform. The article, “How Many Billionaires Does it Take to Fix a School System” captured the reflections of people who, with abundance of money, “can-do,” and (to quote from the article) “armed with controversial ideas about education and some very different approaches to giving their money away.” decided to take on education reform in cities including New York. Their conversations reveal the complexity of such an undertaking and, at times the frustration in trying to reform a system where change can appear elusive and at times obscured. They discussed two camps, the “fix-the-system side” and the “replace the system side.”

Philanthropy can easily be co-opted into funding programs that fit into either of these camps. At the Nord Family Foundation our funding in education is relatively small but our goal is to fund a variety of projects – some in public education, some in private, some faith-based schools and diversity our portfolio in a manner that would reflect our financial investment strategy. Our purpose is to support projects, find out what seems to work and find out why. Our responsibility is to share that information with other Grantmakers and policy makers with a hope that our learning can be brought to scale.

As the Trustees and members try to consider where its funding should be directed in the future one area to consider is what you consider to be effective grantmaking. The shared knowledge is an opportunity to learn what from grantees and benchmark what can be considered areas for successful grantmaking. Research is showing us that the one-size-fits-all model can no longer work to address new knowledge in brain research on learning. Innovation in technology is producing disruptive technologies that are changing the way people learn. Clayton Christensen’s new book Disrupting Class will challenge the huge system called education in ways the current system cannot sustain.

As trustees your job is to share thoughts about where the foundation has been in defining education and perhaps glimpse into the future as to where we as a sector might have a role in shaping an educational system that will truly prepare students to be life-long learners able to meet the challenges we have not even imagined for the 21st Century.

I referenced Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Class. I recommended this book to the OGF Working Group which is focused on the issue Preparing Students for a Global Economy. The book has been a huge success and changed the way we are making recommendations to the governor’s task force. Of particular interest is Dr. Christensen’s discussion of the role disruptive technologies are having in the way people learn in ways that were unimaginable before innovations in social networking. It is a challenge for public schools to adopt a bureaucratic flexibility to be able to incorporate these changes into their business. How did IBM adopt (too late) to the laptop computer? Dr. Christensen makes an appeal to philanthropies and foundations in the last chapter.

“Help fund this disruption. Generous people and institutions have wasted enormous resources on innovations that well-tested theories of innovation could predict would have little impact. Computers in conventional classrooms; dominant-intelligence software that assumes that all students learn similarly; pay-for-performance schemes for teachers and descriptive research that correlates the attributes of schools or teachers with their average performance all will do little to improve schools. Similarly, the very raison d’etre for chartered schools is architecturally innovation. If the vision of their founders is to try harder to make conventional curricular architecture succeed, don’t fund it.

Instead fund research that helps us learn how different people learn; how to identify those differences; and how different students can best educate themselves and each other. Such investments will create inestimable and enduring value because this is the only that learning will become intrinsically motivating to all those who need to learn. Prosperity remember is stripping schools of extrinsic motivation that has driven so much of our learning in the past.”

2 thoughts on “Effective Education Grantmaking

  1. John M

    Hi John,
    Now to put all my feelings on education into a ‘comment’!
    I think that you and the NFF are on a great path. Especially here in Ohio, where recent studies found the public school system to be fairly poor, finding new approaches and alternatives that do encourage / empower / and educate students is a must.
    As someone who believes strongly in both the power of consensus/cooperation as well as supporting local agriculture and farming I am a big fan of the Putney School ( http://www.putneyschool.org/index.php ) and would absolutely love to see such an endeavor here in rural Ohio. It’s a well known fact that ‘people learn best through instruction’, so what could be better then a school founded on the idea that everyone (students and teachers alike) contributes, leads, works, teaches, and supports one another?


  2. Jeff Jaroscak

    The Center for Leadership in Education is investigating the REDF (Roberts Enterprise Development Fund) methodology for measuring social return on investment (SROI). We are experimenting with different metrics that demonstrate the Center’s impact.

    As the economy tightens, foundations are increasingly concerned with the value that is created by their awards, and rightly so. Without pointing fingers, I have found that many philanthropies bemoan the fact that schools cannot “think outside the box” while those same philanthropies continue to fund “inside the box.”

    The SROI metric might allow non-profits to compete with one another on a level playing field. By using common metrics to measure impacts, proposals can be compared to one another in a more objective manner.

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