It happens more often lately. You get a knot in your stomach.

Surprises at work.

This time, it’s when you open your browser to unexpected news: the neighboring school district got awarded a six-figure grant from an out-of-state private foundation.

You’ve known Susan, the district's Superintendent, since childhood. She never seemed particularly active with fundraising.

Her district was always...rather sleepy. How did she do it?

When your teachers apply for grants, they get refused 9 times out of 10. Why?

Let’s take a step back to understand the role that grantmakers play in our education system and how you can play along with them.


Everyone in the grant-giving space is currently asking:

Will the centralized, federal efforts of the past twenty-five years continue?

As Cordell Carter (a former school district and ed-tech starter leader) from the Aspen Institute told us in a recent interview:

Grantmakers never actually dealt with a national school system. Instead, they are confronted with sixteen thousand school districts, seven thousand charter school organizations, as well as private schools, nonprofits, and government agencies tugging at the educational experience in a complex system.

The reality is that foundations can’t just push changes through like they do in other countries.

On the other hand, the Federal government certainly tried to drive policy by spending $600 billion with strings attached. But everyone sees that such a strategy has increasing unintended consequences.

The pendulum is swinging...

School experts like Tom Vander Ark believe we are moving from a period of outsized federal involvement to a more decentralized one.

It's a slow process, starting with the ESSA Act of 2015 that put some power back into the hands of school districts, parents, and philanthropists.

Now, it’s accelerating.

This means that schools and school systems - just like yours and Susan’s - are hopping into the driver’s seat.

As power is trickling down to you, what do you need to do to get a piece of the pie like Susan did?

The Tipping Point

The fact remains: philanthropy sprinkles a mere $10 billion on top of federal funding. Over thousands of individual schools, this doesn’t spread very wide.

How do you put these funds to work?

A deluge of data is streaming through the education ecosystem, and it is seriously affecting grantmaking.

While it’s still hard to tally broad measures of success like social-emotional learning, we are getting there. Ed Tech assessment tools like MAP Growth or MIT’s playful assessment are leading the way.

Soon, you will ask a student to play a cool video game for an hour, and it will generate all sorts of comprehensive learning assessments.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

So, you have this growing data stream, together with a number of advances in neuroscience, that are sketching a vivid map of how children learn.

Grantmaking foundations are taking notice.

While teachers and school administrators are on the ground, working shoulder-to-shoulder with students every day, think tanks are mining this data, finding patterns, gleaning insights, and issuing beautiful reports.

Why does this matter for your school system?

Funders are intent on making their puny $10 billion carry its weight against the Federal $600 billion.

And they’ve figured a few things out.

Recently, the Wallace Foundation reviewed 124 afterschool programs that meet ESSA requirements and found that half -  sixty-two programs - showed positive impacts on students. They concluded that afterschool is a strategy that works - a promising practice.

So, afterschool is a winner!

Another example from the Gates Foundation:

In Chicago, we noticed that students’ unexcused absences quadrupled when they moved from eighth to ninth grade. Many students thought they did not have to go to class every day in high school. Yet, absences cause students to fall behind. When students start falling behind, they often get embarrassed or frustrated and start withdrawing further… Research shows that whether students graduate from high school is largely determined during their freshman year.

A spike in absenteeism in 9th grade correlates with a graduation rate decrease.

So, improving absenteeism is a winner!

Sure, you say, I could have told you that from experience in the trenches. It’s different, however, when this data aggregates at a regional or national scale.

When data consolidates in dashboards, incentives align and funds are mobilized.

Source: 2019 KIDS COUNT Data Book, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Funders then begin to craft clear visions of what they want to fund. They cluster together around specific causes.

This way, they can pack a punch.

If you align with these causes too, you get noticed. That’s what Susan did in the nearby district.

The Hewlett Foundation is focusing on Open Educational Resources. It makes sense for them (and a ton of other funders). Free, high-quality instructional resources could bring significant innovation and free up school budgets. At least, that’s what tons of data says.

The Best Buy Foundation - evidently - wants increased confidence in technology skills.

Tipping points can be created around specific causes but also around specific geographies. The Walton Family Foundation targets “specific cities that meet conditions for systemic change.” The Kern Family Foundation, a major player in charter schools, also gears its efforts towards systemic change.

The Albertson Family Foundation formulates a deep strategy around rural schools in Idaho. They fund:

  • Teach for America Idaho
  • The Rural School Leadership Academy that trains rural school leaders
  • Bluum that develops model schools around Idaho
  • Leveraging Learning on the Fifth Day to help rural communities in Idaho operate on a 4-day school week

This is a thoughtful approach designed to create a tipping point: a situation when a group of people suddenly changes its behavior by widely adopting a common practice.

Making a (positive) practice spread like a virus.

Funders now believe they can achieve these virus-like effects. They see education as a complex system, and their role is to be an engineer of tipping points.

This is how they want to use their $10 billion to complement the Federal $600 billion. If you understand this concept, you can leverage it to your school’s benefit.

Technology accelerates these tipping points even further. An example in a nearby industry:

  • With the support of technology, Bill Gates wants to eradicate 4 diseases before 2030
  • A global reporting network is helping eradicate polio.
  • Genome sequencing and data visualizations are used to fight malaria.

Can you imagine?

Who, in all of history, sincerely believed that he could eradicate a disease? These funders now have ambition and enormous leverage.

Will these high-leverage strategies transfer over to education? Grantmakers think so.

The NewSchools Venture Fund is exploring how scientists like Everett Rogers describe the diffusion of innovations. Funders are trying to replicate this diffusion of innovation in schools.

Positioning Your School

Scanning through all the research papers, reports, and speeches made by grantmaking bodies, you can spot trends. Certain promising practices rise above the fray - repeatedly cited by funders.

To name a few of the top ones:

  • Invest in student equity
  • Create leadership pipelines
  • Use data for professional development
  • Use data for high-quality assessments
  • Improve early learning outcomes (e.g., preschool)
  • Add afterschool programs
  • Boost outdoor education (e.g., playgrounds)
  • Support college access & success
  • Improve education in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM)
  • Support the unique needs of English language learners and students with disabilities
  • Promote digital learning models
  • Bring the community into the classroom
  • Build multiple and stronger pathways to success
  • Enhance social-emotional learning
  • Invest in open educational resources
  • Shift to project-based learning
  • Build public understanding & demand for school change

The Carnegie Corporation of New York has an excellent graphic that summarizes the essence of what funders are currently excited about.

Do you see your school needs fitting into any of the above themes?

  • If you need vans to make more field trips, you are improving social-emotional learning
  • If you are buying Chromebooks, you are building new learning designs
  • If you are going to a conference, you are investing in professional development
  • If you are unifying your enrollment systems, you are ensuring that all families have equitable access to schools.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not talking about simply cloaking your request in the language that funders are using (although it does make sense to speak the same language as your benefactors).

Instead, I am claiming that you should leverage the desire that they have to make an impact.

Inform your strategic plan based on promising practices that are based on the research.

Don’t you have an afterschool program yet? Maybe it’s time to implement one. It will differentiate your school and improve learning outcomes. At least, that’s what the think tanks are saying.

Maybe an afterschool program does not fit your strategic objectives. Fine. It could be a STEM lab you are after, or an enhanced arts program, or STREAM, or service-learning.

Pick something from all the trends they are buzzing about. Chart a course!

Your job as a school leader is to steer through all these best practices and decide which patchwork is right for your school and your community. Then, find the clusters of grantmakers that are rooting for those strategies that suit you.

Whether you lead a large school district or a tiny school, you can play a positive role as a lab for school innovation in the community.

Bill Gates' primary concern with the K-12 ecosystem? It is one of the only sectors without a serious R&D lab.

Be that R&D lab.

You can help trigger the tipping point that funders are after. Remember, they are thinking of innovation diffusion. You don't need to be huge. You can be a trigger - a spark.

And they are feeling more optimistic and powerful than ever.

If you align your goals with the research-based strategies that grantmakers are pursuing, you stand a chance to get your grants awarded, just like Susan.  

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