Tag Archives: Strategic Advising

How One-Time Funds Can Help or Hurt Your Organization

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

As recent news broke of several major gifts to K-12 organizations from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, many education organizations and nonprofits, such as Communities In Schools, Latinos for Education, and NewSchools Venture Fund, among others, may suddenly find themselves in the unique and enviable position of determining how to prudently spend an unexpected windfall. This comes as many school districts across the country received one-time infusions of K-12 funding from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.  

With a network of ed sector clients across the country, Bellwether is often approached to advise on spending strategies, sustainable financial modeling, and strategic ways to make these funds stretch, impact communities served, and, importantly, last. Our team approaches this issue from a diverse array of viewpoints, offering a range of recommended practices and tips to strategically approach one-time funds and avoid common missteps.

Rebecca Gifford Goldberg, partner, Strategic Advising

Recommended practices:
First and foremost, take a moment to celebrate any gift as an affirmation of the work with communities, families, and young people — particularly during this extraordinarily difficult time to lead in the education sector.

Second, recognize that this is a one-time gift and not a source of ongoing capital. What are the things this funding enables you to test about broadening and deepening impact, centering community and family voice in decision-making, and/or improving long-term financial sustainability? Does this give you the chance to expand more quickly with quality? Explore whether there’s a different way to reach students (or families, or educators) you want to test, or a different way to deliver your service or product. Build in mechanisms to evaluate the work and grow your organization’s own capacity to measure progress.

Third, consider ways to use these funds to make the lives of staff members a little bit better or easier. Involve the team’s input into spending plans that best meet their needs. This could be hiring some short-term contractors to take on urgent priorities, investing in professional development, offering staff members access to mental-health supports, or supporting extra vacation days off this year. 

Finally, invest in your reserve. Allocating a portion of unrestricted one-time gifts toward that rainy day fund isn’t flashy, but is a sound investment in the long-term financial sustainability of your organization.

Potential pitfalls to avoid:
Three things stand out to me as cautionary approaches to spending one-time funds: 1) don’t increase your per-student cost or operating costs without a clear path to financial sustainability; 2) don’t forget to engage community stakeholders in a conversations about how you’ll use the money; and 3) don’t spend it all in one place!

 

Anson Jackson, senior adviser, Academic and Program Strategy

Recommended practices:
One-time giving affords single-site schools and school networks a range of exciting opportunities. Knowing where to start and prioritizing strategic decisions along the way is critical. It’s important to ask yourself and your organization: what can one-time funding buy us today to better enable using recurring funds in the future for something else. Make strategic trade-offs with the long game in mind.

  • Allocating funds for adult learning and professional development across entire teams is a smart investment. This is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic as schools face a variety of virtual learning and technology challenges that impact all areas of a school building, from instructional teams to operations staff. And carving out funding to give adults in the building stipends for additional duties during the pandemic is advisable.
  • Similarly, strengthening learning and engagement for families as partners in student learning is critical. During the pandemic, this could mean allocating funds to offer short-term workshops on how to use technology. Funds can even be used to directly support the short-term technology needs of current families who may not have access to laptops and devices they’ll need to use throughout the pandemic.
  • Supporting time-bound interventions that can close a gap for good is a prudent use of one-time unrestricted funds. Consider using funds for interventions like learning loss and social-emotional learning recovery during the pandemic.
  • Applying funds toward infrastructure is often a good way to start setting a foundation for future projects and funds down the line.
  • Using one-time funds to purchase books and materials that will be used long after funds are dispersed can build up your single-site school or school network resources. 

Potential pitfalls to avoid:

  • Using one-time funds to hire additional staff without considering time constraints on their tenure presents downstream challenges (e.g., don’t hire interventionists for two years if you don’t want to lay them off once funds are gone).
  • When allocating funds to invest in interventions and/or programs, think about the longer-term ongoing costs associated with technology licenses, tools, management, upgrades, staff support, internal knowledge management, and more. Build that forecasting into any spending plan and be sure to budget for down the road.
  • Forgetting to be thoughtful about waste is detrimental. Having $1 million in one-time unrestricted funding doesn’t automatically mean you can get everything. Be mindful of resources you use and devise a strategy to use them. Have a resource, tied to a priority, tied to a strategy, tied to a clear timeline and set of goals.

 

Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and partner

Recommended practices:
I bring less a recommended practice than a recommended caution. The idea that a sudden influx of money ruins lottery winner’s lives is overstated. Still, it does happen. And the education sector has money absorption habits that make the most profligate lottery winner seem downright Scrooge-like. 

You have to believe one of two things: all billionaire philanthropists are simply greedy or it’s actually challenging to give away a lot of money responsibly. Why? Because many people who are seeking to give away the bulk of their fortune are nonetheless struggling to do it thoughtfully. It’s possible MacKenzie Scott is pointing up a grantmaking strategy that was out there in plain sight and will be transformative. It’s also possible other philanthropists know something, too. 

It’s fashionable lately to say that those closest to problems always know best. It’s unfashionable to point out that’s no more an iron rule than the idea that experts and those distant from problems can just swoop in and fix things. Most thorny stubborn social policy problems are more situational and complicated. 

All this might sound like a rationalization or justification for hoarding money, it’s not. I’m all for the super-wealthy giving away their money — and wish more would put philanthropy toward the kind of high-risk/high-reward pursuits the government is ill-suited to take on. But, large gifts can also lead to displacement and, in edge cases, cause or enable chaos as some of Scott’s are alleged to. A more pedestrian risk, conversely, is how the education sector has shown time and again an ability to absorb huge sums of public and philanthropic money with little change left behind. 

More resources can often drive positive change for organizations. And I’m not trying to be cute. We surely wouldn’t say no to Scott largesse. It would be impactful. Bellwether, and many other organizations focused on inequity could use this kind of financial support. But being cautious and appreciating the real risks must be part of the calculus, so we’d see such support as a risk as well as an opportunity.  

Won money spends better than earned money, and I’d argue something similar is true of found money. So, you need to be planful. My colleagues make some valuable suggestions here. I won’t repeat those, but here are a few guideposts for organizations (and some that apply for philanthropists as well):

  • Focus on your north star. How will this money help you achieve your goals? How will you curb an additive desire to immediately tack new goals onto the funding?
  • Pause and plan. Carpenters say measure twice and cut once, and that’s sound advice especially with the pressure of a huge financial gift.
  • Make sure your governance and systems are robust enough to absorb a huge unrestricted gift — money can help solve problems, it can also expose them.
  • Think long term and consider ways to leverage this money over time rather than only considering it as a one-time spend.

Potential pitfalls to avoid:

  • Resist the urge to rush into new things.
  • Don’t try to “prove” this money “works” or fits a narrative. That’s someone else’s problem. Instead, make the money leverage results for whomever your organization serves.
  • Just as Hemingway said of bankruptcy, mission displacement happens gradually, then suddenly. Keep a close eye on the “why” behind your work and your line of sight to the change you seek.

 

Alex Cortez, partner, Strategic Advising

Recommended practices:
Education organizations receiving support from MacKenzie Scott have just been blessed with the one thing virtually no organization ever gets funded to do — build their capacity and the power of the communities they serve to drive systems-level change.

Systems change involves investing in efforts to shift a combination of mindsets, relationships, and power to shift policy, practice, and resource flows. Education entrepreneurs have learned repeatedly that it isn’t enough to simply be well intentioned and get results to transform education systems, because education systems are not usually rational systems but rather political systems composed of a complex web of money, power, interests, and values. Most education innovations require disrupting the status quo of systems to get to scale, and systems are very good at preserving their status quo.

Further, systems change isn’t the thing that most education philanthropy funds — even as it’s the very thing education innovations need to be transformational. Funding systems change requires being unapologetic about power; it’s not linear but rather cyclical, and it’s not a marathon nor a sprint, but rather a commitment to walk 10,000 steps every day (which is counter to the usual narrow timeline of philanthropy).

With this kind of one-time unrestricted gift, education entrepreneurs can make an investment in systems change and on a timeline that many have never been able to pursue until now. However, doing this isn’t easy, and an additional challenge leaders will need to overcome, even with this gift, is wrestling with whose power they’re building, and towards what agenda. If education leaders and entrepreneurs are truly committed to changing systems, they have to invest in informing and organizing a community of students and parents so that they can exercise their innate power — individually or collectively — to craft the agenda for change, drive it, and sustain it.


If you have questions about one-time gift strategy and financial forecasting and modeling, please reach out to Rebecca Gifford Goldberg at
rebecca@bellwethereducation.org.

(*Editorial note: Communities In Schools and NewSchools Venture Fund are Bellwether clients.)

Moving Towards Sustainability: Q&A with Charles King of Kansas City Teacher Residency

Teacher residencies, in which prospective teachers complete a classroom apprenticeship in addition to master’s-level coursework, have gained a great deal of attention as a promising pathway to teaching. Today, most teacher residencies rely significantly on philanthropic dollars, and often face post-startup financial sustainability challenges.

When faced with such sustainability challenges, organizations often make significant — and uncomfortable — programmatic decisions, like eliminating services or reducing cohort size. This spring, my colleagues Gwen Baker, Evan Coughenour, and I worked in collaboration with Charles King, executive director of Kansas City Teacher Residency (KCTR), on this exact sustainability challenge. KCTR was launched in 2016 by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation with a mission to recruit, develop, place, and retain mission-oriented individuals who want to make a deep commitment to working in high-need urban schools in the Kansas City area.

photograph of Charles King, founder and executive director of the Kansas City Teacher Residency

Our work with Charles and the KCTR team led to a redesign of KCTR’s program model, including a $4.6M (26%) reduction in fundraising needs. The new program strategies include strengthening partnerships, optimizing costs, exploring new revenue streams, and slowing the growth to scale.

After releasing a case study on KCTR’s path towards sustainability, Charles spoke with me about the strategic planning effort, his learnings, and his recommendations for others interested in supporting educators.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Over the last 3 years, KCTR has built a strong reputation in Kansas City. What factors have led KCTR’s success? Continue reading

Announcing our Strategic Growth Institute — and Forthcoming Blog Series

Someone is knocking on my office door to ask my opinion on new enrollment marketing materials. Next to me, an exhausted first grader is snoozing on a bean bag chair. My board chair is texting me about our upcoming meeting. Our charter renewal application is waiting in my inbox for review, among 33 other unread emails.

This is not a scene from a former job of mine; it’s from a couple of weeks ago. I’m currently serving as Interim Executive Director for a single-site charter school for which I’ve been a board member for a few years. It’s a role that I’m thrilled to be filling, and one that gives me particular empathy for my current clients, as I toggle between school leadership at my charter school and school advising at Bellwether.

Bellwether team members and an SGI participant at a March 2018 convening in Phoenix, AZ

At Bellwether, we are about to launch our tenth Strategic Growth Institute (SGI), a four- to six-month-long cohort-based experience in which single-site charters, small charter management organizations (CMOs), and district schools develop strategic plans that enable them to reach more students. I absolutely love leading SGI cohorts, and I’ve seen how useful they can be for participants. School leaders don’t always have time to step out of the day-to-day to think longer term about their work. But to successfully grow and avoid common pitfalls, they’ll need a three-to five-year view and some intentional planning.

That’s where Bellwether comes in. I get to guide leaders as they develop a plan that is uniquely theirs, one that mitigates the breadth of challenges that small, scaling organizations often encounter. Continue reading

Welcoming Our New Senior Advisers

It’s a great privilege to work with my colleagues every day. Individually and collectively, the people at Bellwether offer remarkable ideas, skills, and talents to help build the education field in a way that delivers superior solutions and results.

Our team is made up of experienced education leaders with decades of hands-on experience. Three-quarters of our staff have worked in the classroom, some as teachers, others as school operators, and some in both roles. This direct experience gives us an understanding of the work “on the ground” in schools, districts, and education organizations.

Members of our team have also served as founders, policymakers, government officials, nonprofit and district executives, executive search professionals, organizational development and coaching practitioners, and strategy consultants in top-tier management consulting firms such as Bain & Company, The Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Company, and Deloitte.

Regardless of where we’ve been, all of us at Bellwether are united by a common passion and purpose. Bellwether is a mission-driven nonprofit, and we do this work because we know that when education organizations set and meet lofty goals for students, more kids receive an education that puts them on track for a life of choices and self-determination. And today, I’m thrilled to announce that our team is expanding with the addition of two new leaders who share that commitment to ensuring every child has access to a high-quality education: senior advisers Gwen Baker and Bill Durbin.

Gwen BakerGwen Baker brings over 15 years of experience in education reform, specializing in the use of technology to advance ambitious goals. Before joining Bellwether, Gwen brings direct organizational leadership experience as the co-founder of CoreSpring, Inc., whose mission is to provide the field with access to high-quality formative assessment content and digital authoring tools. Gwen built the organization from an idea into a successful nonprofit, managing all aspects of product development, fundraising, business development and talent management. Prior to her work at CoreSpring, Gwen worked at NewSchools Venture Fund, New Visions for Public Schools, and Teachscape. She began her career consulting at Accenture.

Bill DurbinBill Durbin has worked in education over the past 18 years, focusing on school leader development and management, school performance management, and network growth strategy. At Bellwether, Bill will help school systems define their academic strategies and build the scalable systems to support strong academic performance. For the past two years, Bill served as the chief of schools at DSST Public Schools in Denver, Colorado. In this role, he was responsible for 12 schools and 5,000 students, leadership pipeline management, leader development programming, and the yearly school planning processes. Before DSST, Bill served as YES Prep Public Schools’ head of schools.

Gwen and Bill join Bellwether’s Strategic Advising team, which advises leaders and organizations on their most pressing strategic and operational issues. The Strategic Advising team’s work ranges from supporting entrepreneurs through business plan development, to partnering with established organizations on growth and performance improvement, to assessing new opportunities for impact as the field evolves. I look forward to our work around education technology and academic strategy deepening with Gwen and Bill’s leadership.

Please join me in welcoming our new teammates!