Category Archives: Philanthropy

My 1st podcast, covering: my story, race, NOLA, mgmt, platforms, philanthropy, etc.

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Ryan Knight was kind enough to interview me on his podcast. He is a great interviewer (and thinker) and you should listen to his podcast.

You can listen to our talk here.

Next time, I will drink more coffee so I talk a little faster. Perhaps you should listen to it at 1.5x speed.

A risk in a podcast is that you say a bunch of things you don’t believe. On that metric, I think I did ok.

Is Philanthropic Capital Scarce?

Over at this blog, Albert Wenger has been arguing that private capital is no longer scarce.

He writes:

This means that global investable capital exceeds by 2x the capital required to operate the economy. In fact working capital needs have been declining substantially due to just in time manufacturing, faster electronic payments and better working capital management (eg. through C2FO). If you can reduce the working capital needs of firms by 25% you would move investable capital to close to 3x of required operating capital for the economy.

That means we have massive amounts of capital available to invest in new endeavors. It explains why interest rates are low and there is fairly little that central banks can do about it unless they figure out a way to dramatically reduce investable capital – they can certainly shorten their balance sheets but even that impact is likely to relatively small in the overall scheme of things (eg US Fed about $3 Trillion).

Another way to think it about it is this: we have an oversupply of money and an undersupply of good ideas to invest in.

I’ve been in philanthropy for a year now, and Albert’s thesis led me to reflect on philanthropy.

Broadly speaking, philanthropy can be used to either (1) directly alleviate suffering or (2) help solve complex problems.

For the foreseeable future, there will not be an oversupply of capital to directly alleviate suffering.

If a philanthropist wants to save lives and reduce suffering, there is plenty to invest in; and there is always the option of simply giving cash to people living in poverty.

Many philanthropists, however, also desire to support efforts to solve complex social problems; i.e, to try and create better education, health, and criminal justice systems – or to invest directly in technological solutions in areas such as energy.

The goal here is to reduce future suffering rather than simply alleviate current suffering.

It is not easy to solve such problems. In my work, my days are not chalk full of meetings with people pitching tested, operationally scalable, and financially sustainable interventions that will lead to major improvements in our country’s educational system.

Working in areas such as education, criminal justice, and health is extremely difficult, and scalable solutions are hard to find.

So perhaps Albert’s thesis, in some form, is beginning to hold true for philanthropy.

For this second part of philanthropy’s mission – working to solve complex social problems – it is unclear to me that capital is scarce.

If this is true, it has numerous implications for philanthropists, non-profits, and government.

If I’m able to wrap my head around these implications and organize them in a thoughtful manner, I’ll write a follow-up post.


5 Dominant Theories in Education Philanthropy

It is important for funders, entrepreneurs, and policy leaders to understand the dominant theories of change in education philanthropy.

Funders should be clear about what they believe, as well as understand why other funders hold different beliefs.

Entrepreneurs should seeks funds from aligned funders and be pushing foundations to align their theories to what’s actually happening on the ground.

Policy leaders should be evaluating, debating, and challenging funders on how their theories might be improved – and calling out when the theories are simply wrong.

I see five dominant theories in education philanthropy; they are detailed below, with some minor commentary on areas of agreement, admiration, and concern.


#1: Teachers! 

Theory: The most effective way to increase student achievement is to improve teacher recruitment, preparation, development, and evaluation.

How to Identify these Funders: These folks often start their sentences with “research shows that teachers are the most important in-school factor” and end their sentences with “as Finland and Singapore have shown.” I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: In my work in cities across the country, few high-quality charter schools are satisfied with teacher preparation at colleges of education. Moreover, colleges of education have done a poor job of developing a knowledge based around effective teaching. Improvements in these areas (if feasible) would be of great use.

Concerns: I think this theory’s greatest flaw is that teachers are in fact not the most important factor. As I recently wrote, I’m highly convinced that school operators are the most important factor. An over emphasis on teachers may come at the detriment of a focus on operators.

#2 We Need Better Products

Theory: Innovation in products (schools models, software, platforms, etc.) will radically improve the student learning experience.

How to Identify These Funders: You’re in Silicon Valley talking to a 29 year old billionaire who begin his sentence with “factory model” and ends his sentences with “disruption through exponential growth.” I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: I’m bullish on much of this theory of change. I’m extremely excited by many new school models (see Silicon Schools portfolio), software (Zearn, Dreambox, etc.), and platforms (Alt School, Summit). Education reform has a history of not being end user focused, and the consumer oriented discipline of this crew is welcome.

Concerns: I worry that these funders underestimate the power of regulatory change in creating the conditions for better products. The “we don’t need more charter schools we just need to scale Summit” ethos is dangerous, as Summit will inevitably not be the pinnacle of education delivery. If the product folks will shy away from necessary regulatory battles because these battles are not as fun as creating new products, we will have far fewer great education products.

#3 Turn the Battleship 10 Degrees 

Theory: If you don’t focus on the where the kids are at now, you’re going to lose a generation of kids while you build all these great products / charter schools / etc – minor improvements in big systems matter.

How to Identify These Funders: When you go to pitch them they begin by presenting you with a 90 slide ppt deck which begins with “district proof point” and ends with “teachers really, really do love VAM.” I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: Most students in this country do attend traditional public schools, and the regulatory policy framework governing these schools – especially in areas such as standards and assessments – is worth trying to get right.

Concerns: Outside of a few key areas (such as standards and assessments), I’m skeptical that over the long haul many of these reforms (such as teacher evaluations) will work or stick. And even if they do stick the political opportunity cost is so high that they will have to achieve major impacts to warrant the cost.

#4: Social Justice 

Theory: Radically increasing educationally opportunity will require significant improvements in racial justice, economic inequality, integration, criminal justice, and healthcare (including early childhood services).

How to Identify These Funders: The Bernie Sanders lapel pins. I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: It’s been exciting to watch a new wave of reformers who believe in this theory and also believe you need to push on in-school reforms as well; for too long, many of the most vocal leaders of this theory were paradoxically nihilistic about making schools better (teachers can’t improve student achievement! pay teachers more!). Given the obvious importance of these social issues, I’m eager to watch how these leaders make the reform movement better.

Concerns: When it comes to actual policy making, I sometimes find that these leaders have a somewhat naive belief on the ability to improve districts, as well as an under underappreciation for how hard it is to scale effective social services.

#5: Governance! 

Theory: The governance of public education is the root cause of most of our system’s ills.

How to Identify These Funders: They start their sentences with “there was this groundbreaking voucher study that gave 14 kids a $600 stipend” and end their sentences with “Freedom!” I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: Most of it. I believe that will we see increased educational opportunity and, yes – freedom – by allowing educators to start and run schools, as well as giving parents the right to freely choose amongst these schools. And the only way this will occur is if we overhaul how we govern schools.

Concerns: There’s a ton of internal debate within the governance community about how to best regulate these systems, and I have concerns about all the most popular models (vouchers, education savings accounts, charters, portfolio, etc.). The tension between innovation and equity is one I struggle with here, and I’m eager to watch more experiments unfold.


All right, this was just a quick run down. I’m sure I’m missing a dominant theory or two.

And I admit that I cheated by lumping in early childhood with social justice, but 5 theories seems tidier than 6.

Lastly, I think this is less of an issue of “one of these theories is true and the rest aren’t” and more of a case of resource allocation.

In a world of limited time, talent, and money – what should we focus on?


Team Update

Very excited about this update: Ken Bubp and Chris Barbic are joining the combined efforts of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and Hastings Fund.

These additions to the team will help us further support communities that are trying to empower families and educators.

Ken will be joining us in the role of Education Director, where he will manage a portfolio of city based and national investments.

Chris and I will share the same title, Senior Education Fellow, and will serve as general partners in the overall effort. With this partnership, we will be copying the structure of venture capital firms, with our aim to serve children rather than make profits.


Ken is joining us after spending time on the management team of The Mind Trust, which is amongst the best city-based education organizations in the nation; in this role, he has been supporting extremely innovative governance reform that is transcending the district / charter divide.

Most readers of this blog will be familiar with Chris and his work: he founded YES College Prep (winner of the very first Broad Prize for best charter organization in the nation) and was most recently the founding superintendent of the Achievement School District, where he did some of the toughest work in education reform in leading an effort to increase opportunity in a stagnant system.


I’m looking forward to learning so much from Ken and Chris.


Ken has a rare combination of intellectual curiosity, strategic aggression, and moral depth.  In a single conversation, he might ask you to summarize the arguments of the last few books you’ve read; question whether you’re moving fast enough to achieve what you said you’d achieve; and then engage you in a conversation about how we might understand if we’ve found our life’s calling.

Ken’s work at The Mind Trust is indicative of these traits: few cities are moving as fast or with as much integrity as Indianapolis. Moreover, Ken’s internal work at The Mind Trust led to all-time organizational highs in staff satisfaction and performance. He will be playing a big role for us as we continue to develop our culture.


Chris’ talents are immense: he rallies the best people and instills great loyalty through ambitious vision, strategic clarity, and having a huge heart – moreover (and unlike many visionary leaders) he also moves immense amounts of work with an operational drive that simply gets things done again and again and again.

In the time it takes most organizations to write a strategic plan, Chris has usually moved mountains; built deep relationships with those around him; and found a new thorny problem to tackle.

While many might point to the success of Chris’ work at YES, I view his work at the ASD as the greatest embodiment of these traits. Yes, the jury is still out, but I strongly believe that in 10 years time we will look back at Chris’ work in Memphis and appreciate that he, his team, and the city’s non-profit partners built the foundation for sustainable and effective reform.

Lastly, I’ve never heard so many people say – “I’d do anything for him” – as I’ve heard people say about Chris.

You just can’t quantify the importance of something like that.


Perhaps most importantly, both Ken and Chris will tell you about the mistakes they’ve made; the struggles they’ve had; and how these experiences have shaped who they are.

Ken was very open with me about his struggles early in his career as he attempted change management at an organization that was trying to find its way.

And the letter Chris wrote when he left the ASD embodies his humility and ability to self-reflect.


We will continue to rely heavily on Noor Iqbal, who joined us from MIT’s Poverty Action Lab and has been a one person chief of staff + chief operating officer + grants manager + deep thought partner on our original two person team. I’ve rarely seen someone grasp the strategic underpinnings of reform so quickly, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have Noor’s help in getting the work off the ground.

I hope that with this team we can accomplish a lot of amazing things for children in this country. They deserve our best and we hope to give it to them.

3 Reflections on 9 Months of Working in Philanthropy

I’ve been working in philanthropy for 9 months. See below for a few reflections.

And ping me in the comments if you have any feedback or advice.

1. The Best Thing I Did was Pitch a Mission and a Strategy for a Fund

This might be idiosyncratic to me, but I think I would have been unhappy and perhaps ineffective if I had joined a philanthropic organization with a set mission and strategy in education.

For both the Arnold Foundation and the Hastings Fund, I submitted an investment plan that included mission, strategy, and estimated budget *before* I joined.

In this sense, the dynamic was more akin to a venture capitalist raising a fund than it was a foundation hiring an employee to execute an existing operational plan.

I wonder if this might be a better way to do philanthropy, whereby philanthropists are more akin to sole or limited investors in funds and projects (perhaps like Alphabet?) than they are uniform operational entities.

I think that this model would be more conducive to entrepreneurship, risk taking, and innovation – with foundation boards evolving into resource allocation bodies that increase or decrease investment across a portfolio of  funds that are each led by very autonomous executives.

Instead of only hiring employees and soliciting grant proposals, foundations should also seek proposals for issue based funds.

2. The Biggest Mistake I’ve Made (So Far) has Not Been Developing My Investing Skills Quickly Enough

At New Schools for New Orleans, one of my weaknesses was investing: I don’t think our school creation hit rate was good enough and there were a few projects we should have completely avoided. The organization is better at this now, but it was not my strength.

To prepare for a role where an even larger part of my job would be investing, I read a lot of books, talked to a lot of people, and tried to build a tight framework for selecting organizations.

And yet I still made some unforced errors. I brought projects to be approved for investment that, in hindsight, were not a great fit for what we’re trying to accomplish.

Specifically, the errors generally fell in a few categories:

  • The investment was best made at a local level: Given that we almost always work with local partners, we have to determine when we invest directly and when we rely on local leaders to make calls. A few times, I brought forth investments to be made at the national level that were really local decisions.
  • The upside was not high enough: A national foundation’s most limited resource is time. It is not money. There are only so many projects you can do diligence on and only so much time you get with your board. The opportunity cost for spending a lot of time on low-upside endeavors is very high.
  • The investment was not tightly enough aligned to achieving our goals, strategy, and expertise: There are a lot of good ideas out there, that, ultimately, should be funded by other foundations. I spent too much time on good ideas that weren’t in our sweet spot. I should have just quickly recommended that the entrepreneur talk to a more aligned foundation.

3. I’m Not Sure About How to Navigate Investment Structure

There are numerous ways to define an investment relationship. Some foundations act like VC firms and take a board seat. Some foundations are extremely operational and play a shadow management role, which can include everything from weekly phone calls to shared staffing. Some foundations write checks and then just monitor annual goals and benchmarks.

Any of these models can probably be effective in the right situation and disastrous in the wrong situation.

In my situation, I happen to have previously held the role of many of the leaders of our grantees (being CEO of NSNO); we work with leaders with very different experience levels (some have been CEOs for 5+ years and some are launching new entities); we work with leaders across very different local environments (some localities are in the infancy in their reform efforts and some are 20+ years in); and we work in localities with varying levels of foundation activity (in some places we are the primary funder and in others we are one of many).

And in every case I’m not actually living in the community where the work is taking place.

All of these variables make it difficult to adopt a singular structural approach to an investment relationship.


Overall, it’s been a great nine months. I feel lucky to be doing the work.

Is School Supply F***ing Everything?

Numerous good conversations with board members, teammates, and friends have me wondering about this.

Think about some of the more thorny problems we’re trying to work on: teacher pipelines, personalization, community empowerment, etc….

Perhaps the highest leverage activity for all these efforts is to simply continue to open up as many amazing schools as possible.

Teacher Pipelines

We keep on trying to fix teacher preparation. We keep on getting mostly nowhere. But here’s the thing: even if we prepared teachers better how much does it really matter if they end up in weak organizations?

Weak school organizations are never going to put pressure on teacher prep providers and they are never going to increase the prestige of teaching.

But high-quality charter management organizations solve for both of these issues: they are high-status places to work (this was certainly case in NOLA) and they can put downward pressure on providers (both by influencing providers through joint residency models and pulling certification and training in-house if providers don’t respond).

There’s a strong argument to be made that the most effective way to improve teacher pipelines is to just open up thousands of more great schools.

Ed Tech

Over the long-haul, much of ed-tech will be born out of for-profit enterprises.

For-profit markets are of course limited by what and how much consumers buy.

Weak school organizations do not swiftly purchase great products.

Want to make ed-tech better? Then increase the market share of smart consumers.

There’s a strong argument to be made that the most effective way to increase ed-tech quality is to just open up thousands of more great schools.

Community Empowerment 

It is much easier to empower those without power when there is something that they can readily demand from those with power.

Want to empower communities?

Then offer them schools that are worth fighting for. Allow them to create schools that they want to send their children to.

There’s a strong argument to be made that the most effective way to empower communities is to partner with / support them in opening up thousands of more great schools.

And the Spin Offs

Great schools also beget great organizations: Relay Graduate School of Education, Families for Excellent Schools, the Charter Accelerator, etc. are all off shoots, in some form of another, of great school creation.

So often the best third party providers come out of schools rather than being born independently of great schools.

In Sum

Of course, school development is not the only effort worth funding in education reform.

But it’s hard to think of anything more impactful for students or for improving the sector as a whole.

Everything seems to follow from great schools.

Is Education Philanthropy Undermining Democracy?

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There is a tension between philanthropy and democracy, and one can imagine a world where wealthy philanthropists attempt to scale public policy solutions that do not have public support.

Now that I work in philanthropy, this is something I think about a lot.

Michael Massing raised this subject in his recent piece, How to Cover the 1%. Specifically, Michael called for information transparency that would allow the public to track “hedge fund managers’ backing of charter schools.”

Michael is not alone in worrying about this issue. The education reform movement, which is supported by philanthropy, is often accused of undermining democracy.

I think this accusation is mostly false when it comes to charter school expansion.

Charters have Broad Government Support 

In 1994, Bill Clinton ushered in the federal government’s charters school program.

21 years later, a bipartisan rewrite of No Child Left Behind increased funding for charter schools by 32% to $333 million. This was less money for charter schools than the Obama administration had requested.

Additionally, 43 states and Washington D.C. provide public funding for charter schools. Charter schools operate in both extremely conservative and liberal states.

Yes, this could all be some massive corporate reform conspiracy that has infiltrated all levels of government.

But I doubt it.

In year seven of his presidency, I’m skeptical that Obama is pushing charter schools in order to please his corporate overlords.

I suspect he’s pushing charter schools because he believes they can expand educational opportunity.

Since the passage of the first charter school law in 1991, charter schools have been supported through the democratic process with bipartisan support time and time again.

Charter Schools have Broad Public Support

Polling on charter schools has generally found public support. Here is historical data from the PDK poll:

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The 2015 data showed a drop to 64% support, while an Ed Next poll with different phrasing showed support around 50%.

It is possible that wealthy people are funding propaganda that is fooling the public into supporting charter schools, but I’m skeptical that this is true given how broad and long-standing this support is.

That being said, there is evidence that the public doesn’t really understand what charter schools are, so I’m open to the notion that we should be wary from drawing too much from polls.

But to the extent you trust polls, there is a lot of evidence that the public support charter schools.

There is one sector of the public that most deviates from overall public opinion: teachers.

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Charter Schools Increase Educational Opportunity for At-Risk Youth 

Overall, charter school quality is mixed. However, in urban areas, where charter schools often serve at-risk students, the results are robust and positive.

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Very few education interventions deliver positive results as this scale.

Urban charter schools are expanding educational opportunity across the country.

In Sum 

Over the past twenty-five years, charter schools have built broad public support across the federal government, state governments, and the public as a whole.

Philanthropic support for charter school expansion is accelerating a public policy that already receives significant public financial support and is generally viewed favorably by the public.

Additionally, rigorous evidence demonstrates that charter schools in urban areas are raising student achievement for poor and minority youth.

This is not to say that there is nothing to worry about. National polls could hide local variance. There are certainly cases when philanthropist support for charter school exceeds public desire. Unchecked charter support could also lead to regulatory capture that results in a lot of fraud and waste.

None of this is simple. And it is not to say that charter schools are the end all be all of education transformation. Issues like teacher recruitment and development, child poverty, career preparation, and college access – to name a few – are also extremely important.

But, at the very least, the strongest claims of education philanthropy critics appear to be false when it comes to charter schools.