How can philanthropic foundations help address the learning crisis

Since 2014, foundations have not only become donors to the Global Partnership for Education and obtained a seat on its board, but they are also contributing actively to finding innovative solutions to education’s most intractable problems.

February 20, 2018 by Jessica Hjarrand
8 minutes read
Young students in Grade 6 in newly built school 'Collège moderne of N'Guyakro', in Côte d'Ivoire,. Credit: GPE/Carine Durand
Young students in Grade 6 in newly built school 'Collège moderne of N'Guyakro' in Côte d'Ivoire.
Credit: GPE/Carine Durand

The GPE Financing Conference in Dakar was a historic moment in many ways and a show stopping event that I, with a career spent almost entirely working on education, was humbled to attend.

For members of the philanthropic community engaged in supporting the global basic education agenda, it represented a key moment to speak about their motivations and means of engaging with GPE.

Strengthened engagement between GPE and foundations

During the Partnership Day events on February 1st, Randa Grob-Zakhary, the representative of the private foundations constituency on the Board of Directors of GPE, spoke about a trend in philanthropy towards system strengthening, leading to foundations engaging in activities that focus more on policy and advocacy, in addition to systems-focused programming and research.

This points to a new type of relationship between philanthropy and GPE, and a surge of momentum from the constituency, which spent the last year co-creating an Engagement Strategy with the partnership.

Following these trends, foundations have taken on a stronger role in supporting the GPE governance. Randa chairs the Strategy and Impact Committee of the GPE Board, while Maniza Ntekim of Open Society Foundations, and Sabrina Hervey, of Education Above All (EAA), represent the constituency on the Grants and Performance Committee (GPC), the body that evaluates grant applications coming from developing country partners – the core business of GPE.

During a panel presentation at the conference, representatives from six foundations – Porticus, Dubai Cares, Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, Open Society Foundations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Jacob’s Foundation – spoke about how they engage with GPE and how their engagement helps them achieve the impact in education they are seeking.

Same issues, same goals

Both Dubai Cares and Wellspring Philanthropic Fund spoke about the shared value that many foundations place on the link between evidence and policy, leading to greater equity and accountability within national systems. “Dubai Cares believes in galvanizing partnerships that can deliver desired changes for education,” said Annina Mattsson, Director of Programs for Dubai Cares, which was the first foundation to fund the GPE back in 2014, and also pledged an additional US$1 million during this replenishment.

Michael Gibbons, Program Director for Wellspring, spoke of their ‘commitment to multi-year collaborations’ with GPE through the new Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) and Advocacy and Social Accountability (ASA) mechanisms, that seek to create stronger links between evidence, policy and practice for strengthening national systems.

These new mechanisms provide compelling platforms for foundations and GPE to collaborate around themes that are critically important to both: strengthening data systems, learning assessment, early childhood care and development (ECCD), gender teaching and learning and equity.  

The hope with these new platforms and partnerships is that complex problems facing education – responsive planning that can respond to rapid social change, extending opportunities to the most vulnerable, addressing the costliness of an education for all approach that requires difficult decisions on other national priorities – will benefit from the innovation and risk- tolerance that many foundations bring.

Girindre Beharry of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said there is a need to invest in public goods that tell us what has worked, why and what has not worked and what we can learn. We need ‘a problem driven approach that is globally informed and locally addressed’.

Collaboration and innovation are key

Sandro Giuliani, Executive Director of the Jacob’s Foundation , spoke about the power they see in public-private partnerships and how their TRECC (Transforming Education in Cocoa Communities) initiative is strengthening links between different sets of actors in Cote d’Ivoire.

Jacob’s is the co-chair of the local education group (LEG) in the country – the body that leads the development of the education sector plan – and is the first foundation to hold this position globally. They joined in part to help diversify the group, and to help develop understanding on what a foundation is in comparison to other actors in the sector, an issue that presented itself when they, the only foundation active in Cote d’Ivoire, were approached to join the LEG.

Our specificity compared to other donors of the LEG is that we are ready to take on more risks to pilot innovations and address the challenges in the education sector, which is highly appreciated by the government and respective Ministry staff,” said Giuliani.

This partnership led to the inclusion of quality indicators in the government’s 10-year education sector plan, up for approval now by the GPE Board, and the establishment of a sound monitoring and evaluation system to track the improvements.

Agile partnership in pursuit of SDG 4

In her concluding remarks during the foundations panel on Partnership Day, Randa stated that foundations and philanthropic giving to GPE remains smaller in size than that of traditional donors, but for what it lacks in heft, it makes up for in offering agile, catalytic, collaborative and  innovative thought partnership – qualities that are repeatedly said to be of importance in achieving both GPE 2020 and SDG 4.


These are qualities that can help GPE truly maximize the partnership that lies at the heart of its model.

Rihanna, GPE’s Global Ambassador and herself a philanthropist, was one of the celebrity advocates in attendance in Dakar. After the devastating Haiti earthquake in 2010, she participated in a benefit album that included the song ‘Stranded’ with the following words: ‘So let’s get involved with them, hand in hand with them; arm in arm with them ’til they get strong again.’

The heart of this song, like the attraction for the philanthropies engaged with GPE, is the heart of GPE itself – partnership. We hope that the coming months and years will see a growing number of philanthropies increase their efforts at manifesting this to the benefit of millions of children globally who need the assets that they can offer.

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This fits in with an LwG project to create e-books - in the mother tongue + major languages. Now that there are 43 Learn with Grandma Groups round the world I wanted an educational project that everyone could join in – from any country.

It had to be cheap – achievable & sustainable using the resources; ingenuity; talent; skills & technology that people already have. The only technology really needed is a mobile phone!

I decided on Folk stories because we are in danger of losing the rich tradition of folk stories – especially the little very local legends as books published in 19c & 20c go out of print. e-books can NEVER go out of Print!
E-books can include the printed word; the spoken word (in the local language & in major languages spoken by first language speakers. Just click for the language you want - not possible with a printed book.
e-books can include - music; drama; Film!
Here is an illustration of how my local community can come together to tell a story.
The main priority is NOT to create e-books! It is to promote community integration and the educational skills learnt - the e-books are the by-product of the educational programme.
We are making excellent progress here in Wales with the first e-book. Students (year 8) at a local school are creating our local legend – the Lady of the Lake. There was simply no time to fit this into the curriculum. They are doing this on their own time and initiative. The book will be ready to go on line by before the end of term. It will be launched at the The National Library of Wales on 7th June.
As part of NLW educational programme – all schools in Wales will receive an invitation to The National Library to see what these children have achieved.

I shall also use this first e-book to try to encourage other stories from all over the world.

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