Philanthropy & Funding

Funding for Education—the Perils of “Guidelines du Jour”

The work of charities in almost all circumstances requires focused effort over a substantial period of time.

Twenty-five years ago, a high-school history teacher, after careful research and years of experience, concluded that lack of summer education, particularly as it applied to middle-school students from poor families, was a huge factor in determining the student’s outcome. Bluntly put, economically disadvantaged middle school students—who had no access to summer learning—fell much further behind the average student and were more likely to drop out of high school. This learning led to the creation of Aim High, a nonprofit summer program now entering its 26th year of successful service.

Scores of individuals, foundations, and other sources of money have—in various amounts and for various time periods—supported this organization. Unfortunately, a not-insignificant number of these donors stopped funding the program as their guidelines, or criteria for program support, changed. Instead of summer education, funders became enamored of environmental cleanup programs, anti-drug efforts, or some other worthy form of help.

Most nonprofits lack an endowment or any other highly dependable source of funds. Typically, the start of their fiscal years are like any other day—there’s no pot of money in the bank, and there are only a few months of “runway.” This is not a great way to run a nonprofit—or indeed any business, but it’s the unavoidable reality in many circumstances.

It’s against this backdrop that the professional funder, particularly government and foundation funders, should think long and hard before changing their criteria or focus. Sure, if the nonprofit in question isn’t delivering the goods, they should not be funded. However, the change of focus by professional funders is not typically the result of a nonprofit’s failure to be effective. Indeed, the reason for a change—for example, a change of personnel or rise in the popularity and profile of a given cause—is usually unrelated to the charity that must suffer the consequences of the decision to end funding.

Professional funders are rightly judged by a much higher standard than philanthropic individuals. It would benefit the funding world—and most importantly, the charities that suffer from the serious drawbacks of chronic fiscal uncertainty—to forego a change in guidelines or focus, unless and until they 1) have compelling and fact-based reasoning for the shift, 2) have carefully measured the impact of their change in strategy, and 3) have taken reasonable steps to “cushion the blow.” Professional funders should also give serious consideration to making multi-year commitments—at least three years—to counteract the detrimental effects of fiscal uncertainty.

The work of charities in almost all circumstances requires focused effort over a substantial period of time. It’s imperative that a meaningful subsection of the professional funding community does a better job of keeping this simple notion in mind.

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  • Marc Cole's avatar

    BY Marc Cole, US Department of Education

    ON September 12, 2011 07:51 AM

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Summer learning is a huge issue for any student, and it is a growing imperative for students who are economically disadvantaged.  However, a combination of factors including parental involvement and access to information about these summer programs remains to be an issue. My parents ensured that my siblings and I were engaged in summer learning activities and (in my own opinion) their efforts have paid huge dividends. More programs like Aim High are need all across this nation, however, given the current financial environment I am seeing fewer and fewer resources to help energetic leaders start or sustain summer learning efforts.

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