3 ways philanthropy can help transform education

Euan and Jodie co-led a multi-year partnership, Together for Play, which engaged more than 650,000 parents and caregivers in four countries and inspired 135 decision makers to act in support of children’s development and learning.

October 04, 2023 by Euan Wilmshurst, KW Strategy, and Jodie Van Horn, Purpose
4 minutes read
Children participant in an activity organized by Kina Rwanda. Credit: Kina Rwanda
Children participant in an activity organized by Kina Rwanda.

How do we transform our global education and learning systems?

In 2022, the United Nations hosted the Transforming Education Summit recognizing this urgent challenge: we are failing to provide quality education and lifelong learning for all children, thus falling short of shaping peaceful, just and sustainable societies.

Contributing factors for this failure are well-recognized: poverty, food insecurity and inequality, coupled with underinvestment, lack of political will and insufficiently comprehensive early childhood interventions. But do we have similar clarity on the path to change?

Quality education means children can develop knowledge, skills, values and attitudes not only to thrive, but also to contribute to positive change in a complex and inequitable world.

Grantmakers need to think well beyond today’s programmatic approaches to foster collaboration, political ambition and collective action at an unprecedented scale.

Here are 3 strategies philanthropic organizations can adopt to transform learning and education systems:

1. Make crisis collaboration the norm

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the philanthropic sector mobilized resources for children’s learning at tremendous scale and pace. Grantmakers and grantees came together with a shared sense of urgency, rapidly deploying support and removing unnecessary barriers to access and impact.

This heightened collaboration allowed communities to respond rapidly and innovatively to school shutdowns and subsequent academic, emotional and social fallout. But what if crisis-related collaboration, the ‘exception,’ became the rule?

Long-term transformation for learning demands this kind of collaboration continue in order to garner broad support for changes that lead to more resilient education systems, adaptive to children’s needs. But funders must go beyond making collaboration a requirement for grant agreements. They must consider their role in facilitating partnerships.

Grantmakers are well positioned to convene groups working in the same issue area and to identify points of alignment, but there must also be adequate funding and time allowed for such collaborations to take shape.

When timelines for results don’t account for the complexity of relationship building, organizations will rush to get quick wins instead of putting in the time to expand networks and collaboratively build long-term impact.

As movement-builder and author Adrienne Maree Brown says, in order to build sustainable partnerships, we must “move at the speed of trust.”

2. Invest in strategic communications

The classroom is only one part of the equation when it comes to a child’s learning and development. Learning-reform programs often underestimate the role families and broader communities have in shaping a child’s education outcomes.

Philanthropic funders could have a role to play in reaching these key audiences by investing more actively in strategies that:

  1. Identify where they consume information (be it TV, radio or social media);
  2. Engage parents and caregivers through these channels and platforms; and
  3. Drive culture change at the community level in support of children’s learning.

In 2021, a new coalition was formed in Rwanda between institutional players (including UNICEF, Right to Play and VVOB), community-level leaders (such as libraries, museums, educators and local government) and the Rwanda Media Commission to develop effective messaging and content about the importance of holistic skills development and parental engagement.

Rwandan children being interviewed by a journalist. Credit: Kina Rwanda
Rwandan children being interviewed by a journalist.
Kina Rwanda

Under the unifying message Kina Rwanda (Let’s Play, Rwanda), 30 media personalities were trained, and a 4-part radio drama as well as national television series were produced, earning coverage on the country’s major radio stations.

Thousands of social media messages were posted, and an original song was even created by one of the country’s leading musicians. These strategic media communication efforts reached an astounding 40% of the population, and 80% of people reported through a survey their readiness to become “a positive agent” for children’s holistic learning through play.

3. Fund projects that increase political will

For governments to increase ambition for and investment in children’s development, ‘business as usual’ is no longer enough.

Direct inclusion of parents, caregivers and children can be critical to building stronger collective power, challenging existing structures and accelerating their transformation. We won’t get transformational change without a transformational approach.


Colombian President Gustavo Petro with signed pledge. Credit: Movilizatorio
Colombian President Gustavo Petro with signed pledge.

Throughout the 2022 presidential election in Colombia, education and children’s development civil society organizations worked together to democratize the national policy process by hosting forums where children directly asked presidential candidates questions, and providing an online platform for parents and caregivers to submit their ideas for improving children’s development and learning.

Their efforts resulted in commitments from nearly every major presidential candidate to prioritize children’s holistic development if elected.

Over 750 innovative ideas from parents, caregivers and children were delivered to the elected government, and the public’s submissions were bolstered by proposals from resident policy experts, becoming the backbone for the new administration’s 4-year policy roadmap on childhood issues.

These are examples of outside-the-box but impactful strategies that philanthropies can both engage with and invest in to meaningfully drive transformation in education.

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