MB Images/shutterstock
MB Images/shutterstock

As questions of power, privilege and race continue to surface in the U.S., more grantmakers are coming to see racial equity as central to their mission. This is certainly true in the realm of education funding. The biennial U.S. Education Department Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) consistently reveals gaps between black and white students in regard to discipline, AP classes, assignment to special education or gifted and talented programs, and grade-level retention.

A 2019 report from Grantmakers for Education (GFE) finds more funders shifting away from standards, assessments and teacher training to focus on equity, along with other topics. GFE surveyed 91 education grantmakers and found 75%of them focus on ethnic and/or racial minorities, low-income populations, immigrants and refugees, and other groups. About 42% focus funding on racial/ ethnic identities. Some of the grantmakers we’ve seen attempt to address racial inequities in schools include the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Lumina Foundation, New Schools Venture Fund, and Raikes Foundation.

This year, the largest education-focused public charity in New England firmly set its sights on racial equity. Following up on a couple of years of planning and self-reflection, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) recently announced its new grantmaking strategy for 2020 and beyond. Its latest giving programs carry forward the foundation’s interest in student-centered learning while integrating a new focus on racial equity and a strategy called targeted universalism. The foundation has budgeted just over $10 million for these programs this year.

NMEF launched in 1990 as the philanthropic branch of the Nellie Mae Corporation (NMC), a nonprofit student loan financing company. When Sallie Mae acquired NMC in the late 1990s, the sale created the NMEF endowment. In 2017, it gave away more than $30 million and had assets of about $518 million. It often supports school systems, individual schools, and education nonprofit and research groups, with grants ranging from the thousands to the millions. Between 2003 and 2017, top grantees included Jobs for Maine’s Graduates (five grants totaling close to $9 million), the Burlington School District Integrated Arts Academy (seven grants reaching about $6 million) and Sanford Schools (about $5.5 million through three grants).

NMEF previously set the ambitious goal to ensure 80% of New England students are college- and career-ready by 2030. NMEF president and CEO, Nick Donahue, told us in 2018 the foundation believes this vision “is simply unattainable without specific and targeted attention to the racial inequities that exist in our region.” We recently spoke with Donahue about how NMEF’s new strategy evolved.

Reflecting on Race and Power in Education Grantmaking

Donahue mentions several pivotal factors that led to NMEF’s current grantmaking focus on race. One, he says, was a “value-based piece.” The foundation intentionally diversified its board and staff and, “I think that naturally sharpened our filter on the equity question,” Donahue says. “We did a deep investigation around how racism and white-dominated culture might be influencing us.”

During the last few years, NMEF brought in multiple consultants to conduct an internal equity assessment and help it devise a better-informed grantmaking strategy. Vice President of Strategy and Programs Gislaine Ngounou wrote for Inside Philanthropy in 2019, “We are slowly becoming more reflective and figuring out how to change our internal practices along the way in collaboration with incredible community partners who keep us humble, honest and grounded. As a foundation, we are a work in progress.” Some of NMEF’s new goals are to spend more time in communities and less in offices, and to make reporting requirements less burdensome.

As we’ve covered, a major focus for NMEF has been student-centered learning—it has invested hundreds of millions in this educational strategy. Within classrooms that employ this kind of learning, young people’s unique skills and interests drive a more individualized approach to education. Students move at their own pace to master content, and non-classroom learning opportunities are valued.

Donahue says the Northeast has become a “hotbed of student-centered approaches,” and NMEF is proud to have advanced that transformation. At the same time, based on the reports of grantees and schools, NMEF’s vision for student-centered learning “wasn’t always showing up” the way it envisioned. “The renditions weren’t as game-changing as we wanted,” Donahue said. “So why isn’t it getting implemented? Part of that finding was [that] people care about racial equity, but it wasn’t the driving principle to guide their actions… That was another piece that launched us in our reflections.”

Targeted Universalism and Community Leadership

Along with internal cultural diversification and reflection, Donahue says the foundation is addressing racial inequity by pursuing its education grantmaking with a new lens: targeted universalism. This policy uses targeted approaches to achieve universal goals. Like student-centered learning, targeted universalism posits that not all people or groups of people will reach a shared (universal) goal in the same way; it recognizes that varying approaches and supports are needed. For example, some groups of people need specialized services due to societal inequities. After assessing a universal goal (like educational success) and exploring how different groups are currently supported or impeded in achieving it, targeted universalism calls on leaders to “implement targeted strategies so that each and every group can achieve the universal goal based upon their needs and circumstances,” the online home for the strategy from Berkeley states.

“We used to work and say, ‘We want to provide solutions that help everybody, including those learners of color who are affected by racism.’ Now, we’re taking a more targeted universalist approach in saying, ‘Let’s make sure it works for [learners of color],’” Donahue says. “Poor kids of color might have targeted goals that are different than wealthy white kids, but both those targets are in the name of universal achievements.” So, along with backing individualized attention for students, NMEF will now focus on specialized support for groups of students based on their race and other intersectional factors like economics.

NMEF will turn to local communities, particularly those made up of people of color (POC), to understand how best to support young POC’s educational success. Donahue says the foundation will “follow the leadership” of these communities. “We’re still an education foundation. We want there to be racial equity in education, and we’re open to not initially pre-conceiving the solution to that and working with people to co-develop solutions and shepherd them together,” he says. NMEF has already created a cohort of Community Advisers that helped guide its new grantmaking plans. It’s made up of local teachers, students, parents, organizers and others.

Listening to communities, redistributing power and exhibiting humility are recurring themes in NMEF’s revised outlook. If we look at three of the foundation’s core current approaches: student-centered learning, targeted universalism in education, and receptive, community-driven grantmaking, we see some parallel power dynamics. All of these approaches move away from a one-size-fits-all, top-down perspective. They require a recognition that individuals and groups have different (and inequitable) experiences based on race and other factors. And all of these strategies intend to honor people’s self-knowledge and create more reciprocal relationships.

New Grants Support Community Movements and Partnerships

NMEF’s new strategy is embodied in six grant funds including one that “champions” student-centered learning. In a January announcement about the new grant opportunities, Donahue and NMEF Board Chair Greg Gunn co-wrote that NMEF will continue to support grantees that pursue student-centered programs “in their communities in ways that are culturally and contextually relevant.”

Two grant opportunities focus on supporting organizations led by POC that work with communities of color, including those that serve parents, youth and teachers. One opportunity aims to help these groups partner with schools and districts with a focus on racial equity. Students, parents and educators will determine the “educational and/or related problems to be addressed, select the partnership models to be used and determine the strategies to be implemented.” Again, we see a wielding of power.

A grant program to amplify youth voice, which is now open for proposals, builds on NMEF’s previous Amplifying Student Voice and Leadership grant fund. NMEF also previously supported youth power by contributing to the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing. A “building movements and networks” grant program will help groups connect and provide capacity-building support, among other purposes. Strengthening state and local coalitions is the goal of the sixth program.

NMEF has decades of experience supporting innovation and experimentation in public schools, and backing research and ed reform. “While we have experience, knowledge and perspectives to share, we also recognize that we do not have the solution, or even fully understand the problem,” Donahue wrote in 2019, when announcing the first cohort of community advisers. He also posited the more personal question, “How do I act differently as a white leader of an organization dedicated to racial equity?”

We asked him if he had a current answer to that question. He mentions efforts to better understand how he exhibits white supremacy within organizational culture—“both how I reinforce it and what the antidotes are.” Among several points, he talks about elevating the voices of POC and “really listening, understanding and building empathy about [their] experiences,” as well as “thinking about how I can share and reflect with other white leaders on this topic.”

In late 2019, NMEF stated that it is not planning to establish a five- or 10-year grantmaking strategy but to deepen grantee relationships, and continuously learn and respond. It is focused on “understanding what is going on in communities in real-time and adapting as we move forward,” a recent announcement stated. This attitude seems to be in line with NMEF’s overall commitment to share power and respond to present realities in communities served. A new grantmaking opportunity regarding the COVID-19 epidemic also reflects this approach. The foundation launched a “Racism is a Virus, Too” fund in response to hate crimes and bias against Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), and to support community-based organizations that provide services for these groups.

Donahue hopes NMEF’s new focus on racial equity will benefit New England as a whole. “My sort of basement hope is that we can elevate and amplify the conversations that call out racial inequities… and have people arguing about it and discussing it. [Right now,] It’s not happening much.”

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