Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

Maximizing the Impact of Grants

With public funds stretched thin, philanthropic grants to educational institutions may be the best hope for creativity and reform
Senior lecturer James Honan

Private philanthropic support amounts to a raindrop in the ocean of overall education funding. In a recent monograph from Harvard Education Press, Frederick Hess estimates that only a fraction of one percent of today's total U.S. K-12 spending derives from private sources.1 Yet foundation officers, administrators, and educators in settings from pre-schools to universities place a high value on the potential of grants to spark innovation and promote needed change. The Washington, D.C.-based Foundation Center estimates that among the country's 60,000 foundations, education funding comprises one-fourth of total giving.

Grants heighten public awareness of educational challenges and can sharpen the focus on solutions. Mega-gifts such as the Gates Foundation's high school funding initiative capture headlines around the world, while each year more modest contributions from local and national philanthropies capture the imaginations and bolster the resources of administrators and educators charged with meeting today's wide-ranging educational challenges.

But are educational grants living up to their potential? "There is heightened interest today in the impact of philanthropic support on education," says Senior Lecturer James Honan, educational co-chair of the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Institute for Educational Management and a faculty member in a number of executive education programs for educational leaders and nonprofit administrators. "Funders and grantees alike are yearning for a better understanding of the conditions under which effective innovation and reform can happen. They are looking both at strategies for increasing the likelihood that newly funded initiatives will succeed and at better ways to measure the effectiveness of programs already under way."

Pressure to Show Results

Honan — whose teaching and research interests include financial management of nonprofit organizations and organizational performance measurement and management — believes tight public budgets and intense pressure for schools to meet federal and local performance assessments have contributed to an atmosphere where foundation funding also comes with greater expectations attached. "In the K-12 public arena, school districts are expected to respond to mandates flowing from the No Child Left Behind legislation at the federal level, along with various state and local assessments," he says. "Pressures for accountability in the public realm have a spillover effect among philanthropic funders, who today may feel greater urgency to show results."

A significant challenge in assessing the results of grant-funded initiatives lies in the nature of many privately funded projects. "Because philanthropic dollars often do not have as many restrictions and regulations as public money," says Honan, "there is keen interest in deploying those dollars to fund creative — even experimental — initiatives. Those are precisely the kinds of initiatives that have long-term horizons and hard-to-measure results."

Active and ongoing communication between foundations and grantees is essential in tracking progress and maximizing the chances for positive impact.

Honan has high regard for assessment tools recently developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and others who are engaged in furthering understanding of the link between philanthropic resources and impact. "Causality is hard to ascertain with certainty," he says, "but researchers are making significant progress in improving methodologies in this domain."

Honan's own work includes case teaching with Grantmakers for Education (GFE), a national organization that sponsors programs, research, communications, and networking activities aimed at strengthening philanthropy's capacity to improve educational outcomes. HGSE works collaboratively with GFE through the leadership of Professor Robert Schwartz.

Strategies for Success

Honan, who served as a case teacher at GFE's conference in San Francisco this fall, summarizes a few key considerations that are influencing the funding practices of today's leading educational philanthropies:

  • Both the foundation and the grant recipient should have a shared understanding of the intended outcome of funding. Be as clear as possible about what success would look like in terms of the investment that's being made in the district or school.
  • Have a realistic understanding of the capacity of the school or district to enact the proposed innovations or reforms. Capacity includes human resources, skill sets, and related institutional support that will increase the likelihood that the reform effort would be successful.
  • Develop a timeline for the work. Have an entry and exit strategy, some sense of how long the work will go on, and plans for sustaining funding beyond the initial investment of the funders.

Active and ongoing communication between foundations and grantees is essential in tracking progress and maximizing the chances for positive impact. "Expectations about fiduciary responsibility, the way results will be tracked, and other aspects of the grant need to be communicated up front," Honan says. Having clear lines of communication also makes it possible for both sides to collaborate when obstacles arise or complexities require mid-course corrections. "Effective communication enhances the possibility that sites and funders can learn from one another along the way and make adjustments to increase the likelihood that their goals will be achieved."

Honan encourages school administrators on the receiving end of grants to be cognizant that foundations often bring "different focal points of interest, assumptions, and ways of working" to an educational enterprise than they may have experienced in interactions with state or local policymakers. With philanthropies' increasing interest in involvement beyond just writing the initial check, administrators need to make sure their own institutional priorities and goals are compatible with their benefactors'.

"Grantees need to be aware of possible tensions, tugs, and pulls between the interests and expectations of funders and their school's mission," says Honan. "There should be some alignment between those two, but sometimes there are contentious dilemmas that both funders and educational leaders need to resolve as they engage in their work together.

"Before launching a grant-funded initiative," he says, "each side should commit to working through those rough spots to achieve the reforms that both desire."

1Hess, F.M. (2005). With the Best of Intentions: How Philanthropy Is Reshaping K-12 Education. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles