Moving past grant making: 4 trends of private philanthropy for education

This blog shines a light on emerging characteristics and trends of philanthropy for education based on the second edition of OECD’s report on Private Philanthropy for Development.

May 11, 2022 by Laura Abadia, OECD Development Center, and Romane Delcourt, OECD Development Center
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4 minutes read
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Students drawing on the chalkboard in a school in Colombia. Credit: Charlotte Kesl / World Bank
Students drawing on the chalkboard in a school in Colombia.
Credit: Charlotte Kesl / World Bank

Foundations are moving beyond narrowly defined charitable missions to advocate for broad social and policy change.

Data from OECD’s first report in 2018 on Private Philanthropy for Development revealed that philanthropy’s financial contribution to education was relatively small compared to official development assistance (ODA) and targeted primarily middle-income countries.

However, it also showed that private foundations could play a distinctive role in global education.

They can be a source of innovation for the education sector as they have more flexibility and freedom of action than governments and public actors.

They can provide risk capital and mobilize additional resources for education, lift the voices of frontline educators, and produce critical knowledge to inform effective education policies.

OECD’s new edition of this report expanded the analysis from 143 to 205 foundations1 – 189 of which are active in education – to shine a light on emerging characteristics and trends of philanthropy for development. Here are four trends to keep an eye on when it comes to philanthropy for education:

1. Foundations engage as advocates on development issues

Whether their goal is to ensure EdTech solutions are rooted in learning sciences and broadly accessible, to embed social and emotional skills in national curricula, or to help build primary education systems that deliver on their promise for foundational learning, philanthropy’s resources alone are by no means sufficient to accomplish such large-scale endeavors. Many foundations have therefore found it strategic to invest in advocacy to amplify their reach.

OECD data reveals that a large share of private foundations active in education engages in advocacy – as many as 78% of respondents to the survey– and that the majority (more than 90%) of those do so with the intent to inform education policy or promote social norms change.

How do they do this? Through broader networks or collaboratives in which they take part (for 81% of them), by supporting their grantees and partners’ advocacy efforts (72%), and through their in-house leadership or advocacy teams (64%).

Many see research and innovation as key pillars of their approach to advocacy and policy change: more than 90% of education foundations use demonstration pilots to generate knowledge about policy alternatives that, if proven successful, can be implemented at scale; while 87% support research as a means to influence broader policy and practice.

Why do education foundations* engage in advocacy? (2016-19)

*Education foundations: comprise 86 out of 103 respondents that provide funding to the education sector

2. Foundations embed knowledge and learning in their work

Education foundations are investing in their learning capacities. More than half of foundations active in education in the sample have dedicated in-house evaluation specialists, unit or department.

Most foundations (more than 80%) assess at least 50% of their programs and/or grants through monitoring and evaluation, leaving less ground for a recurring critique of philanthropy insufficiently preoccupied with documenting and accounting for its results.

However, the focus seems to remain on evaluating program design and implementation rather than impact, and very few foundations openly share evaluation results, limiting the learning potential among the education community.

A large proportion of surveyed foundations active in education also admitted facing challenges in producing quality evaluations (60%) and translating evaluations into actionable lessons for policymakers (55%).

Limited internal capacity and low transparency constrain education foundations’* potential

Calculations based on OECD Private Philanthropy for Development Organisational Survey

3. Domestic foundations are gaining space and visibility

From 2016 to 2019, education-related giving from domestic foundations (which we define as foundations active in the same country where they are headquartered) surpassed giving by international foundations. That’s very exciting data and a trend that seems unique to the education sector.

Of a total of US$4.5 billion of education-related philanthropic funding, 52% originated from domestic philanthropy based in developing countries.

Domestic foundations can bring useful knowledge of the realities on the ground and have connections to local policymakers and civil society.

They can help international players with no in-country presence navigate the local political economy and identify strong partners on the frontlines. This is especially true in the education sector, as it is domestic foundations’ most funded sector.

For example, in Colombia, domestic foundations supported education above all other sectors, with US$221 million between 2013 and 2018, or 37% of total domestic philanthropic giving. In South Africa, this proportion was as high as 58% (US$266 million) for the same period.

4. Foundations are uniquely placed to catalyze partnerships

Saying that private foundations are enablers of collaboration is not a new trend per se. But what ongoing network analysis reveals is that education foundations’ collaborative network of partners is deep and wide, ranging from civil society, and grassroots movements, to the private sector, multilateral organizations and local and national government, as well as strong ties with other education donors.

New data is demonstrating that education foundations increasingly mobilize this type of assets in support of their grantees and partners’ financial sustainability by, for example, facilitating connections with other private or international donors, or brokering local government adoption of proven solutions when possible.

The education philanthropic sector is undoubtedly changing fast and diversifying roles and levels of ambition. Foundations are engaging in advocacy to influence policy and social change, producing knowledge through monitoring and evaluation, connecting communities, and working towards financial sustainability for their grantees and partners.

Broader ambitions in impact and scale however come with challenges, not the least in light of existing concerns on the accountability and legitimacy of philanthropy in public policy change.

The philanthropic sector in general, and education philanthropy in particular, still have some way to go to increase transparency, adhere to high-quality standards of monitoring and evaluation, explore connections with the fast-evolving funding ecosystems in developing countries, and translate the collaboration intent into a sustained practice of engagement with governments, ODA donors and local stakeholders.

  1. Data gathered for the period 2016-2019. All data points presented in this blog are further substantiated in the report. Calculations are based on OECD Private Philanthropy for Development Survey.
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