New Funder Survey Explores the State of Ed Philanthropy and Where It’s Headed

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Grantmakers for Education (EdFunders) just unveiled “Trends in Education Philanthropy: Benchmarking 2023,” the first national survey of education funders since before the pandemic. The findings reveal a sector with high ambitions and deep concerns — and a lot of work to do.

The survey of 142 grantmaking organizations (70% are members of Grantmakers for Education) underscored three distinctive themes: (1) Education funders believe the U.S education system needs to be redesigned and transformed, and are allocating funds accordingly; (2) ed funders are worried about the politicization of education; and (3) they increasingly back a whole-learner approach and the expansion of social and emotional supports for students.

As Ulcca Joshi Hansen, co-interim executive director of EdFunders, noted in the forward to the report, there has been a significant shift in focus in education philanthropy since the organization’s first survey was released in 2008. That survey “coincided with an era in education that was largely defined by a focus on standards, assessment, school turnaround and teacher quality,” she wrote. “By 2018, we saw education funders expanding their definition of educational equity to include not only academic outcomes but also social, emotional and personal outcomes. Funding priorities shifted accordingly. The 2023 report shows that these trends have continued, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

While some education experts worry that this ongoing shift will result in a lowering of education standards and outcomes, Hansen believes that it’s not a matter of either/or. “Schools can’t simply focus on core academics,” she told me. “Grantmakers are saying that there needs to be a broader role for education.” Hansen, who was an author of the report, expanded on this point when it was announced. “This year’s report indicates that grantmakers continue to look beyond learning standards and testing goals to define student success. Students cannot succeed if they do not have a whole range of needs met through supports — both inside and outside of school.” 

The report identified some other interesting trends. Charter schools, once loudly championed by many funders as the way to fix the education system, received little mention from respondents, indicating that interest in the model continues to wane. Still, 25% of survey respondents fund school choice, including charter schools. (However, that support does not appear to be growing significantly — only 17% plan to increase school choice funding; 71% are maintaining current levels, and 11% are decreasing funding.)

At the same time, few funders surveyed supported the education vouchers currently being pushed in many states, as IP reported recently. Respondents indicated increased support for out-of-school programs, like aftercare and summer programs, that provide opportunities for mentoring, enrichment and recreation. Initiatives that promote postsecondary and career pathways are a top priority for funders. Finally, ed funders believe their role is more critical than ever today, given diminished trust in government.

We caught up with Hansen to find out more about the survey findings and their implications for education, now and into the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What surprised you most about the survey findings?

For me, the biggest surprise was how many respondents support educational redesign and transformation — 68% of respondents said they currently fund efforts to redesign and transform the system, and that was ranked first among 37 priority areas in the survey. 

We dug into the data and concluded that funders define educational redesign in different ways. For some, that means supporting a whole child approach to education, and providing wraparound services in schools. 

In general, we saw a lot of support for the whole learner approach: social emotional learning, mental health and trauma-informed support. I think this reflects a change in the way funders view the role schools should play and that schools should have a broader role in kids’ lives. 

Other funders saw redesign and transformation as a more fundamental overhaul of the education system — re-examining the very purpose of education and intentionally designing the system to support what we now know young people need — and they had a number of ideas about what that transformation should entail.

The survey also found that many ed funders are worried about how politicized education has become. This was the top concern when respondents were asked what they think is most likely to negatively impact education in the next five years.

That didn’t surprise me, given what we’re seeing in the news and the discussions we’ve been having with our members. Among our members and other survey respondents, there is a big focus on equity, and the conflict and polarization in education is creating concern that the equity strides we’ve made will be reversed. 

Over the last 20 years, there has been a push to address the needs of the population of students who have historically not been served well. We heard concern among respondents that the debates over critical race theory and how history is taught, the book bans, and more recently, the attacks on gender-nonconforming students, will undermine that progress. They expressed concerns that some of these campaigns are being supported by those with an interest in privatizing or taking dollars out of public education and that undermining the public’s support for public schools will further that goal.

Funders suggested a lot of concerns, but we didn’t get a lot of details about how they are responding; some talked about increasing advocacy and supporting student organizations and other groups advocating for education locally.

You found more support than in the past for addressing education equity among survey respondents. Could you talk about those findings?  

A report we published last year found that 72% of respondents were using a racial equity lens in their grantmaking, and the recent survey found that a deliberate focus on considering race or ethnicity is on the rise. We also found that support for equity was broader than just race and ethnicity. Funders are prioritizing first-generation college students, students with special needs, and others that haven’t been served well in the education system. For some, that means addressing resource inequities in schools; for many funders, it also means addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in their own organizations. 

The number of funders that provide support for early learning was 47%, an increase from the last benchmarking survey. But the survey also showed that “current funding levels do not match the level of interest.” What do you think explains that discrepancy? 

I think education funders are well aware of the importance of early learning, but few funders have it as a primary area of giving. We’ve learned so much about the importance of early education in recent years, but it is still treated as a narrow and specialized part of the field. I think education philanthropy traditionally has been really siloed — organizations can be siloed in their mission, visions and portfolios — and it is hard to get out of those silos. Transitioning to investing dollars in areas not in a funder’s immediate purview can be a slow process. I think there are ways to create more flexibility in funding, and to think bigger about systemic-level impact. 

This survey was the first time EdFunders asked about philanthropy practices that are “inclusive of grantee voice and attentive to power relationships.” Can you talk about what you learned? 

Just about half of respondents said they were considering or engaging in trust-based philanthropy, participatory grantmaking and that type of inclusionary practice. For some people, that might mean giving general operating grants. For some it might mean simplifying the application process. So there's a wide range of what people would call trust-based philanthropy, but it was striking how many folks are thinking about this and thinking very explicitly about power dynamics. It will be interesting to see how much people are actually going to lean into the things they say they want to do. 

Many funders also talked about centering student voices. That goes along with listening to communities, listening to stakeholders, because in education, young people are the stakeholders, and over the years, we have not always listened to their voices or considered what they need and want.

The report ends with five questions for funders to consider as they shape their goals and strategies into the future. Will Grantmakers in Education be creating forums or other platforms to convene funders to consider those questions?

We'll be getting a new executive director soon, and I think some of that will be determined by the person who takes that position. But I would say that this is what we see as our role (and what the benchmarking report does): To look at the landscape and help people make sense of it. And at least from a programming standpoint, we've already been bringing people together for conversations about equity and grantmaking, for example, and what it means to try to more explicitly think about power and race and privilege in the context of grantmaking. And the question of education transformation that came up in the survey, what does that mean, and what does it entail? We’ve already having those conversations, and the survey gives us even more information to work with. 

In terms of funder collaboration, 91% of our respondents said that they engaged in some sort of collaborative activity. For the vast majority, this meant being part of organizations and networks like ours, where they are learning and meeting peers. Far fewer dollars are going into collaborative investment, even though people said they realize the work is going to require a lot more investment than a single funder can do on their own. And even though, for the first time, a majority of respondents said their organizations had engaged in pooled funding over the past year, that was less than 5% of total giving. So one of our biggest challenges is trying to create space for our members to work together in authentic, long-term, meaningful ways that are about shifting dollars, and exploring what that will look like and what it will take.