The tech industry has played an outsized role in education philanthropy, pouring billions of dollars over the past two decades to support efforts as ambitious as they were risky. Often criticized for exerting too much sway, ed tech philanthropists wield substantial influence, namely in pushing for more personalized learning.
Even as the coronavirus pandemic has made the very things they have long promoted necessary, many of these same philanthropists, surprisingly, are choosing to remain quiet. So far, tech philanthropists have given modest sums to K-12 education compared to the large amounts they have donated to developing a vaccine or to racial equity.
Of the recent education funding we have seen, however, some encouraging trends are emerging. A recent spate of giving to support the reopening of schools may herald a departure from the top-down, wide-scale approaches typically embraced by ed tech philanthropists in favor of programs locally driven by schools and educators.
Smaller bets—as opposed to sweeping reform efforts and big gambles like the notorious $100 million gift made by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to Newark Public Schools—allow educators and funders room to experiment in the coronavirus era. Inside Philanthropy previously reported that city governments and funders are teaming up to bridge the digital divide and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is supporting organizations that partner with schools to bring about racial equity and social connectedness in remote learning.
The latest donation, from cloud computing juggernaut Salesforce, follows suit. The company will give over $20 million to five school districts this coming year, and the head of its education program is emphasizing the need for flexibility and patience in K-12 funding. The districts—San Francisco, Oakland, Indianapolis, Chicago and New York—are ongoing grantees of the company and are located in cities where many of its employees live.
San Francisco Unified School District will receive $9 million, providing $200,000 in unrestricted support to each middle school principal. The company is headquartered in San Francisco.
Oakland Unified School District will receive $9 million to help middle-school students and educators through the pandemic, with additional support for unaccompanied immigrant youth, refugees and asylum seekers.
Indianapolis Public Schools will be granted $500,000 for professional development for educators, including racial equity training for teachers. In addition, the district will receive $100,000 for its COVID-19 relief funds.
Chicago Public Schools will get $500,000 to train future school leaders and provide early college and career experience in STEM fields for marginalized students. The district will also receive $100,000 for its COVID-19 relief fund.
New York City Department of Education will receive $500,000 to expand its equity efforts and to implement its Graduate Profile, the set of criteria students need to complete high school.
Courageous Conversation Global Foundation will use its $500,000 grant to help the five school districts build racial equity leadership and practices.
Ron Smith, Salesforce’s vice president for education initiatives and a former longtime educator and high-ranking administrator at the Oakland Unified School District, says the company speaks with the superintendent of each school district to determine what they need. Leaders, he says, want to strike a balance between being responsive to the pandemic and continuing to pursue strategic plans that were in place before the crisis.
“Each district named the need for equity training and connectivity and devices,” he says.“But they also recognize that if they skew too far from the current path, they are going to still have to fill these gaps in some capacity, whether it’s Chicago saying it wants to continue its work on assistant principal professional development and training teachers and getting the leaders of their schools ready for the next generation, or the Bay Area saying it must continue its work with mathematics and computer science and leadership development. Now, how do we transition all this work that would have been in person to the virtual world?”
Smith says Salesforce’s relationships with schools is hands-off, and due to the unpredictability of the pandemic, adaptable.
“I don’t think philanthropy should go in and tell them what to do; I think philanthropy should be a partner,” he says. “They should build that relationship. We want them to know that we will always be willing to reimagine the funding, and it’s critical to give them flexibility. What they’re saying today could shift drastically in two weeks or a month. We have to be willing to stay the course. We’re open to any changes that come up.”
Similar to CZI, Salesforce (read Inside Philanthropy’s coverage of the company’s founder and CEO, Marc Benioff) recognizes the importance of providing students with devices and internet access, but also has its eye on improving the remote learning experience in meaningful, sustainable ways. Smith says funders need to be mindful that solving the digital divide is just the first step. Furthermore, he says, education philanthropy should work on a local scale instead of chewing off projects aimed at systemic change nationwide.
“I think philanthropy has to step up and be engaged and help partners reimagine the new world. There are needs that are greater than hardware and access. There are going to be needs around mental health and social-emotional learning, there are going to be needs around food and safety, there are going to be needs around academic support,” Smith says.
“How do we in the United States have an intentional focus on African Americans that have been underserved and underfunded for so long? When I say philanthropy, it is partnership with local districts around the United States.”
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Salesforce plans at least to maintain its current level of giving to these five districts in the years to come, with the possibility of adding more districts. Patience, not a trait the tech world is known for, marks Salesforce’s grantmaking, says Smith, as the pandemic has upended timelines and expectations.
“It’s a commitment that could take years to even get to some outcome, but you’ve got to be in it for the long haul.”