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Advancing Racial Equity in Public Education as the Central Grantmaking Focus

Nellie Mae Education Foundation

In January 2020, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation launched a bold new strategy: Advancing racial equity in education as the central focus of its grantmaking.

For the past decade, the Foundation had championed “student-centered learning (SCL),” an approach that advances rigorous and engaging learning experiences attuned to students’ individual interests and needs. Providing all students with equitable opportunities to learn, Nellie Mae recognized, required strategies aimed at students, teachers, schools, districts, and states. For years, Foundation-supported work across these levels had yielded positive results, including the development of a high-quality SCL model, and evidence of more highly engaged students and teachers. Still, persistent challenges remained.

“We were not affecting students of color in an impactful way,” says Nellie Mae former Board Chair Jan Phlegar. “We were not affecting black, brown, and indigenous students in terms of any real change in getting to the root causes of inequities they faced every day.”

Reckoning with this challenge, Nellie Mae committed to a deep learning journey, working in close partnership with equity change consultants (from OpenSource Leadership and MP Associates). Seeking to bring equity to the forefront of all its work, Nellie Mae heightened its commitment to eradicating disparities, pledging to challenge systemic barriers and more explicitly support the priorities of youth least well-served. As Nick Donohue, Nellie Mae’s President and CEO, puts it, “We recognized that as a philanthropic organization, we could do something with the immense privilege that we had to address the deep, racial inequities that are still present today in our public education system. We built up a set of equity principles that would guide our work moving forward.”

In January of 2018, Nellie Mae launched strategic planning to support this endeavor, accelerating its institutional timeline for a strategy reboot. To lead planning work, the Foundation engaged TCC Group, compelled by TCC’s experience in advising foundations through equity change efforts. With a team led by Melinda Fine, Ed.D., Director of Philanthropy and Strategic Partnerships, TCC Group guided Nellie Mae through an iterative, highly collaborative process with its staff, board, and community partners. Leveraging Melinda’s background as a former education justice funder, and the full project team’s expertise as equity strategists, strategic planning involved extensive research on effective funder strategies to support community-driven change, as well as deep listening to current and prospective community partners, peer funders, policymakers, and other equity partners.

“Melinda and the team were deeply experienced in co-creating strategies that involved the elements that we were interested in,” says Donohue. “They knew enough to say, ‘You need to take time to build relationships with people and position them so that the balance of power in a conversation is equalized.’” Donohue continues:

To take a big crack at elevating the conversation on racial equity, we have to listen to the people who have the most at stake and the lived experience.

TCC’s Fine notes in turn, “In collaborating with Nellie Mae, we found partners who were willing to reconsider multiple dimensions of the Foundation’s work—from their established grantmaking priorities, to who they funded, to how they engaged communities, to their internal organizational culture, and more. They were looking at change that was both deep and wide. But they didn’t rush into things. Instead, to ensure buy in, they involved their own staff in research, and they solicited our parallel inquiry, enabling iterative rounds of board and staff learning and priority-setting.”

Among other things, this inquiry involved TCC soliciting the perspectives of teachers, district leaders, policy makers, and peer funders experienced in supporting community-led efforts for equity change. Most importantly, though, TCC held extensive conversations with low-income communities and communities of color across New England, bringing their perspectives on educational needs, priorities, and ways the Foundation could help back to Nellie Mae’s own board and staff.

“TCC captured some of the issues we knew we were having,” says Phlegar, “and captured them more in-depth and from a 360-degree viewpoint, including what others in the field were saying.”

Nellie Mae is enthusiastic about the new strategies that have just gone into effect. In advancing new ideas, the Foundation pledges to continually test the waters with communities least well-served by today’s educational system, advancing efforts identified by communities, listening carefully, and adapting strategies as needed as the Foundation moves forward. The stakes are too high to proceed in any other way.

Says Phlegar: “In New England, we have systematically and in so many ways made it impossible for black, brown, and indigenous children to be successful. But if you care about having excellent education in New England and across the country, you have to care about racial equity—and you have to help do something about it.”

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