Salesforce headquarters in San francisco, California. Tada Images/shutterstock
Salesforce headquarters in San francisco, California. Tada Images/shutterstock

The pandemic was tough on kids, teachers and administrators as schools were abruptly shuttered and everyone scrambled to adapt to online learning. Now, most students are back in the classroom, but safety protocols, fears about rising COVID-19 rates, and a lot of catch-up after months of distance learning are making the back-to-school season more unnerving than celebratory.

Time for some good education news: Salesforce, the giant content relationship management software company, just announced that it is providing $17.25 million in new funding to five school districts in the U.S., and $1.75 million more to education nonprofits here and in Europe.

Among education funders, Salesforce stands out for its all-in commitment to public schools, as IP has reported in the past. Many K-12 philanthropists, like the Walton Family Foundation, place a big emphasis on charter schools; others, like the Wallace Foundation, support specific education-related issues, like school leadership, after-school and summer programs, and social-emotional learning. Still others funnel their money to education nonprofits that conduct direct services or/and research and advocacy in specific education areas. Salesforce, by contrast, has directly and consistently invested in the public education system, focusing its efforts on the communities where its employees live and work.

Salesforce is headquartered in San Francisco and has been making investments in the city’s public schools for nine years, and in Oakland’s public schools for six—for a total of $100 million in grants made to Bay Area schools since 2012. The company has also funded school districts in three other cities where it has operations: Indianapolis, Chicago and New York. Last year, Salesforce stepped up again with $20 million in COVID-related funding for all five districts, as IP reported. In this latest round, the company will channel funding to the five districts to help them navigate the many new challenges they’re facing.

Nimble and flexible

“Back to school looks different this year,” Ebony Beckwith, Salesforce chief philanthropy officer, said recently. “There are new demands on teachers, parents and students.”

Ron Smith, the company’s vice president of education initiatives, summed up those demands. “We spent a lot of time focusing and listening. We asked, one, how are you going to address learning loss? And two, how are you going to accelerate things specifically for those kids who are furthest from success and need additional help? And three, how can we be nimble and flexible?” Smith said.

“That is the biggest key for us this year: being nimble and flexible. That means looking at things we might not have been looking at before, like social and emotional learning, and additional professional development for teachers so they can teach both virtually and in person, and addressing multiple needs—not just of students, but all the way up to the superintendents, families and communities.”

The latest round of grants backs a range of needs, including work that addresses the digital divide, support for STEM teachers and curriculum, and social-emotional support services for students. In addition, all middle school principals in SFUSD and OUSD will receive an unrestricted $100,000 grant to use at their discretion. (See announcement for funding details.)

“It crosses the gamut, but it allows us to think about how we’re having a massive impact across multiple cities, multiple states, multiple countries, and still aligning with our strategy,” Smith said.

People, tech and money

The new Salesforce grants include $1.75 million for education organizations in the U.S., France and the United Kingdom. The four grantee organizations, which promote academic success, leadership in education, and increased access for disadvantaged students, include School Board Partners and OneGoal in the U.S.; Forum des Images in France; and The Access Project in the U.K. (Salesforce has operations in France and the United Kingdom, along with other countries around the world.)

In its philanthropy, Salesforce brings three elements to the communities where it works: people, technology and funding, according to Smith. “If you are going to be about real transformation, you have to have all three.” Salesforce is also committed to the projects it funds for the long term. “We’re invested, we don’t walk away,” he said. “That’s because we believe that public education systems are critical to the success of the future and the future workforce, the future of the United States, the future of the world.”

This moment presents daunting peril for public education—but opportunity, too. The pandemic has increased faith in public institutions, including schools, as abrupt closures demonstrated life without them. There has been a flood of studies on the long-term negative effects of school closures, including massive learning loss and an ever-widening achievement gap. A recent Brookings report offers a more optimistic alternative vision of public schools emerging from the pandemic stronger than ever, and serving as anchor institutions in communities around the world.

The authors quote Gabriel Zinny of the Buenos Aires government, who said in a webinar: “Societies are recognizing that schools and teachers are heroes… that schools are the place not only where we get to learn and progress, fulfill our hopes and dreams, but also where we learn to live in community. Just recently in Buenos Aires, families went out to their balconies to applaud not only doctors and nurses, but teachers.”

Strengthening our public education system and creating opportunities for every student will require a commitment—and lots of hard work—from all levels of society. Philanthropy can play a critical role, and Salesforce’s ongoing support for public schools provides an encouraging blueprint.