Never a Better Time for Philanthropists in Global Education

There has never been a better time for philanthropists to engage in global education. The launch of the United Nations secretary-general’s flagship, five-year initiative, Education First, marks a new phase for international education – one in which the enabling environment is better than ever before. Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown is rallying heads of state, donor governments, corporations and foundations to do more to ensure that all children have access to quality education. Meanwhile, heavy-weight actors in the sector are working to identify the investments that have the greatest impact. For example, the United States Agency for International Development, under the leadership of Administrator Raj Shah, is focused on measurement and research to inform programming, and the United Kingdom development agency is bringing wide-ranging donor governments together to build a base of shared evidence for factors that promote learning outcomes.

The state of affairs in international education is urgent, yet individual philanthropy to the sector is a pittance compared to giving for domestic education or international health. An estimated 132 million children are out of school (when considering children of primary or lower secondary school age) and millions more children are in school but are not learning basic skills because their school systems are not delivering a quality education. Many corporations and institutional foundations recognize that the sector’s funding is low in relative and absolute terms, and are working together to change the state of play. As corporate and institutional funders prepare to ramp up their efforts, it is all the more important that individual philanthropists engage in the field.

Individual donors play a critical and unique role in the ecosystem of international education giving. They have more flexibility than any other type of donors and may chose to offer life-sustaining core support for organizations. Individuals are more likely to serve on boards that other funders, often leveraging their gifts by drawing on their networks and professional expertise. Individuals’ engagement at any level of giving offers international organizations a domestic constituency for their international work, and because individual donors are often outside of the professional field of international education, their perspective helps organizations to communicate with their broader domestic base.

Some philanthropists avoid giving to international education because of the misperception that the sector is not strategic because it is unsustainable, and that impact is intangible. The following paragraphs provide suggestions on how to give strategically, with a long-term view, and how to perceive and measure impact as a donor.

Strategic Giving

Strategy begins with information. A sound understanding of the international education field will allow philanthropists to target their investments to have the highest possible social return and identify approaches that match with their values and priorities. Many resources are available to aid in this initial self-education. In addition to our Center for Universal Education at Brookings, the Center for Global Development and Results for Development produce wide-ranging research and events to inform all actors in the field. Outside of the eastern corridor of the U.S., there are other organizations that can provide specialized information, including the Oversees Development Institute and country and region-specific think tanks and university centers.

The global education sector is diverse, spanning not only geography and stages of schooling, but also approach. For instance, some organizations prioritize human rights and empowerment, others focus on the need to develop agents of economic growth. As a first stage in giving to the sector, some may consider a “blended-giving learning period” that privileges a number of smaller gifts to a diverse set of organizations that do a good job of educating their donor base through their communications materials.

For a more targeted synthesis of the field that is informed by your personal priorities, donors can commission a landscape analysis of the field from a philanthropic consulting firm. The scope of such reviews can vary greatly, ranging from a simple synthesis of available literature, to a more robust study that includes interviews and surveys. As donors develop their priorities, advising firms can also help to think creatively about approaches and mechanisms to generate change – for instance by working with corporate and nonprofit actors through pooled funds or by launching a public campaign.

Tangible Results

Another important driver of individual philanthropy is the gratification of touching others’ lives. Although the beneficiaries of international education programs are abroad, there are many ways to experience the tangible impact of giving in this field.

Because the pool of individuals who invest in international education is relatively small compared to the domestic sector, the impact on the organization itself has the potential to be great. Considering personal preferences and professional experiences can help to identify ways to leverage giving in both the organization’s development at home and efforts abroad. For instance, investors with venture capital experience may play an important role locally on the board of an early-stage organization. A person who prefers indirect involvement and feels gratified by evidence of results can engage by offering mezzanine funding to sustain a proven organization with excellent metrics. Geographic specialization, based on your past and planned travels and experiences, offers opportunity to connect more deeply with beneficiaries abroad given that many organizations offer service trips to regional or country-specific investors. Although some organizations will offer meaningful personalized giving experiences, for instance the founding of a new school in a donor’s name, this special effort can at times cause the organization to diffuse energy from other programmatic objectives.

Sustainable Investments

Giving to education is a sustainable investment because education creates a positive and reinforcing cycle of development: An educated person will earn more; contribute to society economically and socially; and pass on economic, social, educational and health-related benefits to their children. Still, much of international education work centers on service provision, which by nature requires constant and sometimes unsustainable sources of funding. Organizations may promote a long-term impact that goes beyond individuals by working at the community level to create broad-based support for change or by mainstreaming programming into the government system.

For philanthropists who value sustainability over other imperatives, understanding an organization’s theory of change can provide insight into the extent to which programming aims to be sustainable in the long term. The theory of change may be implicit or explicit, but should define the barriers to education and the organization’s unique role within the sphere of other stakeholders. Programs that are driven by the goal of solving an identified problem, rather than reacting to recurring symptoms are likely to deliver more sustainable results.