Mix Tape/shutterstock
Mix Tape/shutterstock

Americans still believe that education is the key to a good life, but the pandemic and social unrest during the past year highlighted enormous funding needs—and disparities—in the K-12 education sector.

Much of the giving in this arena during 2020 was a matter of damage control, trying to curb learning loss through a combination of greater interconnectivity for remote learning, one-on-one tutoring, at-home learning pods and more. At the same time, education nonprofits became more aware than ever of the deep and lasting shortfalls in our schools, specifically the inequities facing BIPOC students and lower-income communities.

While donors seem to have responded in the past year and kept fundraising returns steady, will they now step up to meet these persistent needs? We spoke with several development professionals working in K-12 education to get a better sense of how fundraising is keeping up in this pivotal moment, what is motivating donors, and what educators have needed the most.

Teach for America rallies supporters

Teach for America, one of the largest K-12 educational nonprofits dedicated to equity, saw a resurgence of support from its core donors and alumni. This allowed the organization to report steady, even slightly higher fundraising results for 2020. The organization’s mission is to recruit and select college graduates from top universities to serve as teachers in 52 low-income communities across the country.

“We were lucky. The pandemic brought to the forefront how important schools are, and exacerbated the inequities, encouraging our donors to double down, and we couldn’t be more appreciative,” said Meredith Boak, senior vice president of development. “It was a twin pandemic for us—COVID and racial inequity.”

With some 3,000 to 4,000 new teachers recruited annually and over 60,000 alumni, Teach for America can call on a wide range of potential donors located nationwide. Boak said the organization was about to launch its annual in-person, on-campus training session when COVID hit.

“We had eight weeks to pivot to virtual training and provide housing, food and online learning to our new recruits,” said Boak, noting that these were new college graduates with no other sources of income. Fortunately, the Robertson Foundation stepped up with support.

This digital training session reaped the highest rate of satisfaction from its attendees and the organization plans to use what it learned for future trainings, supplemented by in-person practicums. The Cognizant Foundation helped the organization’s shift to digital by conducting a study on best practices in online learning, which it plans to continue tracking in the future.

Recruitment of new teachers for the 2021 season is on par with the past. Boak credited a pre-pandemic shift in strategy to use its core members and alumni to recruit on college campuses, where students look for a more authentic connection with people who have previously served the nonprofit. Some 80% of its alumni continue to work in low-income communities and 66% continue working in education directly (Boak herself is a Teach for America alum).

Boak says it was humbling to see how donors supported Teach for America during a trying and unstable financial time. Individual giving is up, as the organization said it was sometimes easier to meet one-on-one with major donors. “This is purely logistics,” said Boak. “These are some of the busiest people who now had time to meet in person, giving us more ability to connect during the pandemic.”

Family foundations and donor-advised funds also held steady, and Boak was surprised by the number of corporations that stepped up their giving, presumably because they recognized how important schools are to their employees, clients and customers. Foundations saw Teach for America’s needs, trusted the organization, asked the right questions, and loosened restrictions to provide urgent funding to the organization.

So how will the organization continue to inform and inspire donors going forward? Boak said that their largest gala in the New York-Connecticut-New Jersey area went totally online in 2020 with a weeklong event featuring a fireside chat, a trivia contest and a virtual celebration that raised more money than ever before. She expects that the nonprofit will move to some sort of hybrid gala now that people are able to meet in person while retaining some forms of the online gala.

“We need to keep in mind, what are the objectives, what do we want to accomplish with our events,” she said.

Teach For America closed its fiscal year in May, and Boak said this was an opportunity to incorporate what worked well into the 2021 plan to make fundraising more sustainable, and for the organization to connect more deeply with its donors.

A charter network adapts

Donors may have initially focused on healthcare and basic needs like food when the pandemic began, but by May, Success Academy Charter Schools noted a shift toward education. Founded by CEO Eva Moskowitz in 2006, the charter school operator now has 47 schools serving 1,700 students in New York City, funded by local taxpayers and philanthropic donations.

“Now, we’re more comfortable reaching out digitally,” said Paula Hunchar, senior managing director of advancement. “We have more confidence to face a crisis that hopefully won’t happen again. After the deer-in-the-headlights moment, we went into fourth gear, and we now know that urgency and crisis bring our donors together.”

At first, the organization wrestled with how and when it made sense to ask donors for more money, said Jody Friedman, executive vice president for advancement.

“We hesitated at the beginning, like other nonprofits, but realized that none of this made school less important to our kids and families,” she said. “We were very upset and worried, like every other nonprofit and for-profit company when the pandemic hit. We saw the need for more philanthropy than before and found our approaches to donors were welcome. We now know communicating strongly, clearly and consistently is key.”

Students at Success Academy in grades three to 12 already had laptops, but children in kindergarten through second grade had to be equipped with new supplies quickly. “We had to source, outfit, send and pay for tablets, art kits, science kits, and more,” said Friedman. “Plus, train little ones and their parents, provide hotspots where connectivity wasn’t good, all in two to three months.”

One issue that surfaced was finding the right sized stylus for small children; another was the need for more teacher training. Success Academy has an ongoing training program for teachers, and shifted to a series of educational webinars.

Foundations in particular stepped up with new challenge grants and an easing of required paperwork and deadlines, said Friedman. Former supporters who were no longer active came back to the fold, saying “this is one way I can help, this is something I can do.”

Like other organizations, Success Academy’s 2020 April gala was canceled, but most of the funding had already arrived, and pledges were fulfilled, keeping the nonprofit in a good position. Its 2021 gala and commencement were completely virtual, and although supporters missed being together, donations came in from 49 states and 14 countries.

“Our students are often the first to go to college in their families, so there’s a lot of enthusiasm,” said Friedman, who noted that digital was a way to reach donors who did not live locally. Another message that resonated with donors was the Success Academy approach to achievement and not treading water, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Community foundations offer a conduit for donors

Many other donors chose to support K-12 education by contributing to community foundations that directly support families and students where they live. The New York Community Trust helps the nation’s largest school system by advocating for better schools and improved literacy, training teachers, and making schools better for English language learners, among other strategies.

“The pandemic had a universal and profound impact on K-12 education,” said Shawn Morehead, vice president for grants. “Our grants to nonprofits helped the school system transition to remote learning and assessment, provided online access to families in homeless shelters, and helped families of students with disabilities. We also established an unprecedented collaboration of arts organizations to create online arts education curricula available to all city schools.” One of its grants even created online instructional materials that were adopted throughout the country.

There were a few causes in particular that seemed to resonate most with donors to NYCT during the pandemic—the lack of digital access, including hardware and internet access, and widespread food insecurity for many children who formerly received meals at now-closed schools, according to Morehouse.

NYCT saw the urgency and responded with speed. The trust worked with a group of donors to create the NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund in March 2020, which quickly moved funds to nonprofits in the human services, arts and culture sectors. The foundation also created the New York Community Trust Emergency Response Fund, which supported other areas, including education.

Other features that were developed during the pandemic, such as an all-online application process and reduced required proposal materials, are expected to continue in the future. And several threads of giving will similarly continue beyond the immediate needs of the pandemic.

“We anticipate that schools will have to deal with the lingering effects of student disengagement, trauma and the calls for racial equity in public schools. We will continue to promote digital equity and help re-engage students, particularly immigrants, who were unable to participate in remote,” said Morehouse.

Other priorities include improving early literacy instruction, ending school discipline policies that disadvantage Black and Latino students, expanding access to online arts programs, and meeting the needs of students with disabilities, particularly those with behavioral disorders.

DonorsChoose surveys teacher needs

Founded in 2000 by a high school teacher in the Bronx, DonorsChoose continues to be the education charity of choice for many donors large and small because it allows them to support a specific request from public school teachers for much-needed classroom materials for their students.

Janelle Lin, vice president of business development, said DonorsChoose didn’t have its final numbers yet, but that fundraising results likely held steady for 2020. “Even during a tough year, teachers saw more than 336,000 of their DonorsChoose projects get funded between 2020 and 2021. I think this really speaks to how dedicated our teachers are to creating innovative classroom and virtual experiences for their students, even in the midst of so much readjustment.”

Tops on donor “give” lists were books (18,376 teacher requests funded; $29.7 million); educational kits and games (13,260 funded, $24.7 million); and classroom basics (11,945 funded, $14.8 million).

With the backdrop of COVID-19 and social unrest, Lin said donors were keen on funding projects responding to the moment. Teachers had to request multiples of basic school supplies since students could no longer share. Donors supported requests for new technology and remote learning kits with items like notebooks and earbuds to help teachers engage their students from afar. Before the pandemic, teacher materials were shipped directly to schools, and now these materials go directly to the teachers’ homes, easing their worry during a stressful time.

The nonprofit also had over 256 matching gifts during the past year, coming from philanthropists, companies and foundations, which helped raise $38.2 million from citizen donors. Partners like Ford, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Sonic Drive-In also sponsored donation-matching events on the site.

Lin said the nonprofit has also seen a shift in corporate and foundation funding toward classroom projects focused on racial equity. “Nearly every company who comes to us these days wants to know how we can help them celebrate diversity and build more inclusive and anti-racist classrooms. They want a direct and easy way for their employees to support racial equity in the classroom.”

Over the past three years, thousands of public school teachers have chosen to share their demographic information with the nonprofit, giving DonorsChoose a direct path to supporting teachers of color or schools with predominantly Black or Latino students.

Concerns about racial equity were also reflected in a survey of around 12,000 teachers on what they needed the most in 2020. One main conclusion was that needs were clearly magnified for BIPOC students, “who are more likely to be learning remotely and without the necessary tools, technology and access to the internet. We’re going to be developing many new partnerships focused on addressing racial and economic inequity,” said Linn.

The second concern that emerged in the survey was that teachers felt they needed more professional development when it came to their students’ mental health and emotional learning skills. Allstate recognized that need early in 2021 and funded more than $2 million in social-emotional learning projects. “We expect to see more focus on this need in schools,” Linn said.

Finally, the survey found that, unsurprisingly, teachers are just tired. “When we asked how teachers were feeling this spring, many shared feelings of anxiety, exhaustion and uncertainty.” Linn said one teacher’s quote was representative of many others: “It feels like scooping water out of a capsizing boat with a teacup.”

“This back-to-school season, we expect to see a lot of programs focused on lifting up teachers and showing appreciation of their hard work,” Linn said.

Girls Who Code targets gender gap

After COVID-19, no one can doubt the increasing importance of technology in American lives. Girls Who Code is on a mission to increase the number of women in technology careers. The number of female computer scientists in America has gone down by 13% since 1995, and the biggest drop-off in interest happens between the ages of 13 and 17.

Some 450,000 girls are members and 50% include girls who are Black, Latino or low-income. The nonprofit conducts club programs, summer immersion programs, and college programs to help alumni succeed and build relationships with other women in the tech field.

Laura Meli, vice president of development, said the nine-year-old nonprofit saw increased small-dollar and family foundation giving in 2020. “We quickly pivoted our flagship Summer Immersion Program to a virtual model and served over 5,000 young women during the pandemic year, and we started a new program called Code at Home with over 30,000 downloads. Over half of the girls we serve are from historically underrepresented groups, and these girls needed our support more than ever. We are on track to see record growth in 2021.”