The pledge made earlier this year by hedge fund investor and billionaire Raymond Dalio and his wife, Barbara, to commit $100 million to promote public education and economic opportunity for young people in Connecticut has rightly generated attention, praise, and also some concern. This commitment, which is to be matched by another $100 million in public money and possibly another $100 million in matching philanthropic gifts, is a meaningful effort in a state that is notorious for the gap between rich and poor — and for socioeconomic and racial disparities that are both manifested in, and perpetuated by, inadequate funding for schools in the poorest areas.
The Dalio Foundation is pursuing the effort through the public-private Partnership for Connecticut. The Dalios and foundation and state leaders involved would be wise to be sober and humble about the size of the challenge before them. A good place to start is by learning from four common mistakes of other big donors who have set their sights on public education.
Mistake One: failing to recognize how the resources they’ve committed pale in comparison to the problem. Even $300 million, though a lot of money, is still a drop in the bucket in a state that spends more than $11 billion annually on education. A tendency to over-estimate their ability to change systems quickly has plagued many well-intentioned donors working to improve public education, from the Annenberg Foundation to Mark Zuckerberg. That’s part of the reason major philanthropic efforts focused on education have generally produced disappointing results. If major donors can recognize the relative small scale of their resources compared to the issues they are trying to tackle, it will compel them to seek out collaboration, which is key to most philanthropic success stories.
Mistake Two: thinking there is a single, quick-fix, or magic innovation that will dramatically and quickly shift outcomes for young people. The Partnership for Connecticut’s website contains some cause for concern on this front, using faddish terms like “social entrepreneurship” and “microfinance” while saying less about the complexity of the problems it seeks to address.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s work in U.S. public education offers a cautionary tale in philanthropy’s pursuit of singular, breakthrough solutions. In the early years of their work, the Gates Foundation embarked on a massive effort to break large high schools into smaller schools, but didn’t see the hoped-for results. When the foundation moved away from small schools, it focused on the next shiny “solution” — revamping and toughening teacher evaluation efforts. But that initiative, like its predecessor, fell short of expectations. The next effort focused on a common core curriculum, which met resistance from those who felt it was being imposed from the top down. Again, the results were disappointing.
“We haven’t seen the large impact we had hoped for [in education],” Bill Gates conceded in his and Melinda Gates’s 2018 annual letter.
Mistake Three: failing to really listen to the people closest to the problem, including those you seek to help. In that same letter, Melinda Gates seems to acknowledge this lesson tacitly: “Everything we do in education begins as an idea that educators bring to us. They’re the ones who live and breathe this work.”
I’d argue members of the community, especially students themselves and their families, have a vital role to play, too. An initiative I co-founded called YouthTruth seeks to harness student feedback, which can be a powerful source of insight, and has now surveyed more than a million students across the country. Philanthropic strategy should be informed by more than just consultants and foundation staff. It’s not as if the Gates Foundation is the only big donor to learn this the hard way. Too many big donors and big foundations take a top-down approach to strategy — leaving the affected communities out of the conversation — and fail as a result.
It’s about being open to the idea that answers actually lie in the heads and hearts of those living with the problems, not within the halls of foundations or state legislatures.
Donors are most successful when they respect and learn from those closest to the issues, including the people they’re trying to help. (After all, these people are the best experts on their own lives.) It’s not about “getting buy-in” from communities — a term big donors and foundation staff often use, which implies they have the answer and just need others to embrace it. Rather, there are proven, effective practices already in place and what’s needed is more support for those practices, not another “innovation” (see Mistake Two).
Mistake Four: a lack of transparency and inclusion. Especially in this era of public distrust of institutions, transparency is key. Although Ray Dalio is known for espousing radical transparency in the workplace, the Partnership’s early days haven’t exactly lived up to that ideal. The effort has under fire for initially being set up to be exempt from Freedom of Information laws despite the fact that it will be disbursing public (as well as private) money, and that five elected officials sit on the board.
The Partnership should conduct its work openly and take the time and make the effort to communicate, seek feedback, collaborate with others (including community members and parents as well as community and private foundations also funding education), and iterate its approach.
As the Dalios are surely aware, billionaires aren’t really in fashion at the moment — and their involvement will generate inevitable skepticism. Add to this the pre-existing and understandable cynicism of those who have been failed time and time again by systems, and you have all the ingredients needed for things to go bad quickly. That’s why the Partnership’s leadership and governance structures should include those with relevant lived experience and roots in the communities that the effort seeks to strengthen. The hiring of the Partnership’s president is key, and that search is underway now.
If this all sounds hard, it’s because it is. Philanthropy has done much good in this country, but education has proven the toughest challenge for well-meaning donors.
It’s important to remember that dedicated nonprofits, educators, and community members have been working on these issues for decades. That fact alone should humble those involved in this effort. But it shouldn’t deter them. After all, we need more resources — public and private — addressing the roots of inequality in this country.
The Dalios’ commitment is a positive step toward this goal. They are donors who have worked on the issue for several years before making this new commitment. I hope this means they’re not naïve about the challenges.
And I hope they learn from the mistakes of the other big donors who have sought to “fix” public education — and failed.
Phil Buchanan is author of Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count , published by PublicAffairs earlier this year. He serves as founding president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP).