(This op-ed originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on Sept. 21, 2014.)
In communities across the country, local philanthropists have given generously to save arts and music programs, buy laptops, hire tutors, and finance charter schools. These investments make a difference, sometimes a big one, for the small number of students who benefit.
But could these local philanthropic dollars do more to improve how schools develop the education and career potential of all students in a community?
Many would say no, that philanthropic dollars, which rarely amount to even 1 percent of a school district's budget, cannot bring about the kind of fundamental changes in teaching and learning required to achieve successful education outcomes for all students.
We disagree. Although the investment may be relatively small, local philanthropic dollars stand apart because they can catalyze real change, providing funds for innovation and improvement. Local donors often bring with them an understanding of the local context and a willingness to stay the course rather than move on to the next big thing.
Looking at what makes local education donors successful offers clues to others seeking to increase the impact of their giving, be it in the arts, health, or other areas. Among the important lessons: Donors need to hold themselves accountable for success and be willing to make tough choices.
Consider what is happening in Charlotte, N.C., the nation's 18th-largest school system. Collaboration among donors illustrates three key elements of what it takes for donors to increase student achievement:
Working hand in hand with the school district on strategies to ensure that every student graduates ready for college and career. Donors need to ensure that they are working with a strong capable district leadership team and that the district has a credible, long-term strategy focused on effective teaching in every classroom and the right support for every student.
Local donors can provide the money schools don't have handy to design new approaches and figure out how to spread them to every school.
In Charlotte, donors felt they had found that kind of leadership to deal with the problems the district faced in student achievement.
Explained the philanthropist Anna Spangler Nelson: "We had several high schools with a graduation rate in the mid-50-percent range. It was such a screaming issue that it was hard not to respond."
Together with the Leon Levine Foundation, which also made a major commitment to the effort, Ms. Nelson approached other philanthropists with the idea of collaborating to accomplish goals that they couldn't individually.
The school district and the local donors immediately forged a close working relationship. Ann Clark, the deputy superintendent, recalls how in late 2010 she, the superintendent, and a group of local philanthropists began to do the research for a new strategy. What emerged from many months of planning was Project L.I.F.T. (Leadership and Investment for Transformation), which pooled funds under the umbrella of the Foundation for the Carolinas.
While the ultimate goal of Project L.I.F.T. is to boost student achievement in the entire district, it has focused its five-year $55-million philanthropic investment on nine historically low-performing schools in West Charlotte—a high school and the eight elementary and middle schools that feed into it. LIFT is pursuing change in four key areas: teacher and principal quality; extending student learning time in school, after school, and during the summer; technology; and community engagement.
Denise Watts, the Project L.I.F.T. superintendent in charge of the nine West Charlotte schools, serves as a bridge between the schools and the donors by reporting directly to both, thus ensuring a strong link between what is happening in the Project L.I.F.T. schools and what is happening in the whole district.
Investing together over multiple years to advance shared strategies. The Charlotte donors are not simply trying to raise the largest possible pool of money but rather to direct the largest possible pool toward a credible long-term district strategy for transformation. Each donor has committed donations for at least four years. The donors describe a need to continuously adapt and evolve their approach, and to respond to the challenges and setbacks that inevitably arise.
The 13-member governing board meets monthly with Superintendent Heath Morrison, Deputy Superintendent Clark, and Project L.I.F.T. staff members. The board monitors progress and tackles implementation. For example, it handled the politically difficult choice of which group of Charlotte schools would get the initial investment, and it decided to end support for one of two summer-program providers when students in the program failed to show the same gains as those served by the other provider.
Long-term strategies also highlight the need for donors to measure their progress. Says Brian Collier of the Foundation for the Carolinas: "We'd had opportunities to work together through much smaller pooled funds and were starting to understand that we always hold nonprofits accountable. But until now, we have rarely had the conversation about holding ourselves accountable."
Engaging the community to shape and sustain the work. All too often, school-improvement efforts trigger years of tension—political, economic, and racial. Effective donors get everybody in a community involved, and that is where local donors may have a real edge over national ones. This means pursuing a dialogue among the district, philanthropists, government agencies, neighborhood associations, parents, and students to create a shared understanding of what it takes to achieve real results. The Charlotte donors have sought community partners, especially parents, with the goal of building trust and a sense of shared purpose.
Project L.I.F.T. established a structured process for meeting with hundreds of parents and other residents through focus groups and town halls in churches, schools, and other community gathering places. "We have to build this engagement on the front end, because otherwise people will be suspicious," said Ms. Clark, the deputy superintendent.
The voices of local residents helped shape the approach to change. Technology emerged as an unexpectedly high priority among West Charlotte parents. "Parents said the digital divide was a big issue for them, and so technology moved in as an investment area," said Ms. Clark.
Meetings with parents and others also prompted a give-and-take about the proposal for extended learning time, which was at first perceived by some parents as nothing more than a longer school day. Relabeling the investment "continuous learning" emphasized the combined contribution of in-school and out-of-school learning.
Charlotte's progress to date is encouraging. In four of its nine West Charlotte schools, Project L.I.F.T. has been able to increase the hours students spend in school and in summer learning programs. It has sought to improve performance by replacing a large number of teachers and principals.
And West Charlotte High School has achieved a 15-point increase in the graduation rate, compared with a system-wide 5 percent increase.
There have been real challenges as well, including staff turnover and difficulties in securing the number of high-quality out-of-school-time slots needed to implement the continuous-learning calendar.
Charlotte has quite some distance to go to reach its ultimate goal. But in the face of one of America's most daunting challenges—making sure all public-school students are ready for college and career—we believe that the structure, scale, and energy of donor partnerships like Charlotte's demonstrate what it takes to transform student outcomes.
It has weathered changes in district leadership, created large pools of private funds to support improving student achievement, and kept its focus through a variety of obstacles. More communities can learn from and advance similar efforts.