Education philanthropy and the pandemic

A recent symposium organized by the International Education Funders Group highlighted the diverse and dynamic efforts of education philanthropists to address some of the most pressing challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

July 07, 2021 by Jo Kelcey, International Education Funders Group
4 minutes read
Illustration Julia Hayes
Illustration by Julia Hayes.

Last May, the International Education Funders Group (IEFG) held a virtual symposium on the contribution of philanthropy to mitigate and transform some of the most pressing education challenges created by the pandemic: out-of-school children and learning loss.

The group is a member-led learning and collaboration network for foundations, donor-advised funds, and other private grant-makers who fund education systems and programs in low- and middle-income contexts.

Over three days, more than 80 IEFG members and 20 external speakers from Peru to Pakistan discussed the evidence base on out-of-school children and learning loss. They heard about programmatic responses to these challenges and debated how philanthropies can foster the resilience of education systems and of learners to manage the ongoing fall-out from the pandemic.

Sub-themes echoed throughout the symposium included the why, what and how of remote learning, the need to double down on pre-pandemic inequities and the importance of engaging stakeholders across the education ecosystem.

A diverse field of funders

Sessions reflected the varied interests and expertise that exist within education philanthropy.

IEFG members tackled topics ranging from the need to center communities within education grantmaking, whether and how foundational numeracy and literacy should be the future focus of global education policy, and ways of effectively advocating for communities affected by conflict and disaster in the midst of an unprecedented global education crisis.

Five cross cutting lessons

1. Evidence matters but we need to collect and share data differently

  • Philanthropies have been active players in supporting knowledge production about global education policy and practice. However, the pandemic has changed the way we think about research.
  • Ministries of Education need real time and disaggregated data to make informed decisions. Although this requires investments in robust education management information systems, the pandemic has given rise to other ways of collecting and sharing data.
  • Participants learned how IEFG members and their grantees have developed a real-time school closures tracker, adapted SMS technology to collect data on the impact of remote learning and are promoting better access to knowledge about the impacts of the pandemic.

2. Recognize the varied meanings of “innovation”

  • Since the onset of the pandemic, technology has been used to support continuity of learning in the face of prolonged school closures. And education innovation has emerged as a leitmotif of the pandemic.
  • But innovation shouldn’t be just about promoting new approaches. It’s also about listening to people that haven’t been typically heard before, being creative with existing resources, learning from other contexts, or adapting funding modalities to meet emergent needs. Even the most innovative tech solutions will fall flat unless they are context appropriate.

3. Engagement is needed at all levels of the education ecosystem

  • Pandemic related school closures have created new demands on education administrators, teachers, parents and students. Yet these shifts are all occurring within the broader education ecosystem where the success and well-being of each stakeholder group is contingent on the success and well-being of other stakeholders.

Teachers need to be empowered, rather than bypassed with education technology. Parental support comes in many forms and must be understood as so.

  • Participants and speakers also discussed engaging with governments and education authorities to promote system-level change.
  • These conversations recognized the inter-dependence of the education ecosystem and the need to ensure complementarity between local level interventions and governmental ones.

4. Donor collaborations have significant potential but need to be carefully constructed

  • The complexity of challenges posed by the pandemic requires that funders work together. Collaborations can range from informal information sharing to formalized donor partnerships.
  • These efforts require time and resources, precisely at a time when sparking and maintaining these connections has become more difficult because of the pandemic.
  • Thus while donor partnerships have significant potential to address the challenges of out-of-school children and learning loss, these partnerships need to be carefully constructed, reflect an alignment of values and should adhere to a shared vision for change.

5. Directly support communities and acknowledge power differentials

  • The pandemic has revealed the fragility of top-down decision making in grant-making. The knowledge and expertise of local communities have been essential in responding to the access and learning challenges created by school closures.
  • At the same time, anti-racism activism has forced a reckoning with power structures, including those that shape the philanthropic sector. Symposium participants did not shy away from this challenging debate. Across sessions, attendees and speakers underscored the importance of community-driven philanthropy to promote social justice and sustainable change.
  • This comes with recognition that a shift to community-driven approaches requires changing dominant power structures within philanthropy and that this could be a difficult and uncomfortable process. However, the disruption created by the pandemic has undoubtedly created an opportunity for transformation that may not have been previously possible.

The symposium showcased the agility and active engagement of education philanthropists in finding solutions to out-of-school children and learning loss, through their collaborations with one another, and with the wider global education community. And it’s clear that philanthropic actors stand ready to be an essential part of the response.

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