Foundation Investment in Education Reform

Tracy Gray

Foundations in the United States make substantial investments in public education, nearly $5 billion in 2010. They do so for a variety of reasons that include improving educational conditions and outcomes, supporting innovation, and increasing access for the underserved. The potential reach and impact of foundation involvement is clearly significant, and the ways in which foundations interact with their benefactors is worthy of study.

This paper explores the role of foundations in education reform by examining the experiences of Say Yes to Education (SYTE) in a large-scale initiative in Syracuse, New York (Say Yes Syracuse), comparing and contrasting them to five other philanthropies with a similar “high-engagement” approach, and setting these experiences within the larger context of philanthropic giving in education.

Say Yes Syracuse focuses on improving students’ access to and completion of postsecondary education by addressing and removing the obstacles typically facing at-risk urban students. Say Yes Syracuse is notable because it was the first district-wide endeavor for the organization and it was ambitious in establishing a cross-sector collaboration that involved all relevant stakeholders (e.g., the Syracuse City School District, Syracuse University, city and county government, the school board, the teachers’ union, and numerous community-based organizations). The paper addresses three questions:

  1. What is high-engagement—or venture—philanthropy?
  2. How does the SYTE approach in Syracuse fit with the venture philanthropy approach?
  3. What are some of the lessons learned from Say Yes Syracuse and selected organizations about venture philanthropy?

Lessons learned include practicing due diligence to select appropriate partners, establishing a common vision, developing structures for communication, establishing a comprehensive data strategy, and establishing structure for vetting and acting on data.

Maria Stephens headshot
Senior Researcher