We are an independent, solution-oriented think tank at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.Learn More.

The Post-Pandemic Role of Education Philanthropy 

The past 15 months have been tremendously disruptive for the nation’s education system, with students and families of color being disproportionally impacted by school closures, interrupted learning, and the health effects of Covid.

And though the pandemic seems to be coming to its long-awaited conclusion, the months ahead are going to be daunting, as school systems face the dual challenges of learning recovery and acceleration, while supporting both students’ academic and socioemotional needs. Foundations can help with this important work.

First, philanthropy can encourage nonprofits to listen to fast-evolving educator and student needs. In moments like these, it’s essential for nonprofit organizations that support the sector to deeply understand the communities they serve. As funders, it is our job to ask organizations questions about what real versus perceived needs are, how those needs are evolving, and how nonprofits are adapting to meet them.

Perhaps more importantly, we can encourage nonprofits to ensure that their solutions center the experiences of their target populations. Tools to gather this data include industry benchmarks like the Net Promoter Score as well as services like Listen for Good, which offers simple and systematic ways to build high-quality survey-based feedback loops with end users, especially those whose voices are least heard.

Second, given its greater flexibility relative to government funding streams, philanthropy has a unique opportunity of providing innovation and risk capital to nonprofits to help them meet their target populations’ needs more effectively. Practicing trust-based philanthropy and providing organizations flexible grant dollars to innovate as needed will be critical in the months ahead. Ideally, funding takes the form of unrestricted general-operating support to give organizations the flexibility to use it as they see fit.

Third, philanthropy should fund learning and measurement to ensure that the organizations it supports truly understand the impact their programs are having. Philanthropy historically has had more interest in supporting program delivery than funding data systems and other infrastructure necessary for meaningful measurement and learning to occur. Providing funding for this sort of capacity building, including understanding performance patterns at the student subgroup level, can help organizations make smart resource decisions and achieve the greatest possible impact.

But giving organizations flexibility in the sorts of research they pursue is also critical. While randomized controlled trials remain the gold standard in educational research, organizations can also gain valuable insights through short-cycle evaluations and real-time learning cycles.

[Read More: Three Lessons for the Post-Pandemic Education Sector]

Fourth, funders can help nonprofit leaders stay “tight” on mission by acknowledging that mission creep can be a real challenge, especially as leaders feel pressure to expand outside of their core capabilities. One catalytic role philanthropy can play is to help leaders understand which aspects of their programs are most impactful and how much those things cost to provide.

Understanding the relationship between cost and impact can help nonprofits amplify programmatic components that can most reliably deliver impact in a time of heightened need, while also helping them project revenue targets for the future. This also enables leaders to have greater clarity about their future revenue needs and build sustainable revenue models and plans.

Finally, despite the influx of federal funding into the education sector, there are ways philanthropy can productively support the education sector directly.

It could provide school districts with technical assistance and other capacity building support to help with such things as long-term planning and community engagement. It could inform school district decision-making by funding resources like Results for America’s Moneyball for Education and the Fordham Institute’s Acceleration Imperative, both which highlight evidence-based school improvement strategies. And it could invest in building the infrastructure for ongoing measurement, learning, and improvement by supporting networks and cohorts of education leaders working toward shared improvement goals.

As we enter a “new normal” in education post-pandemic, it’s important that funders bring fresh perspectives to the philanthropic challenge of positively impacting systems, nonprofits, families, and students.

Anu Malipatil is vice-president, education, Overdeck Family Foundation

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.