Category Archives: Philanthropy

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.

From the Comments: More Thoughts on Charity

Had some thoughtful responses (blog comments, twitter) to my last post on giving. I tried to tackle them below. Very complicated questions so consider the below speculative…

Is your line of work more important than your giving? [John Danner via Twitter, Ryan Hill via comments]

First, I’ll just say that being in a “good” line of work is no reason not to give. Most Americans can afford to give 10% of their income to charity, and given that this can save the lives of real people, all of us should donate. So I don’t have a ton of sympathy for not giving because you determine your career choice gives you an out. Not that folks were making this argument, but it’s worth remember that “should you give?” is a question independent of “what should you do?”

That being said, one’s line of work is important. But I think it’s not as easy as one might suppose to determine what lines of work are more important than others. Some thoughts:

1. Much of the commentary I hear on this question greatly ignores the fact that the market prices a lot of contributions fairly well. As a starting point, it’s worth understand if people will pay for whatever it is you are producing. People who make a lot of money often provide societal value. So if you’re trying to figure out what to do, I’d start there.

2. Of course, this is not always the case. Jobs in areas with major positive externalities may be under compensated, especially if these jobs involved public good, merit goods, or technological innovation. I just think a lot of people convince themselves that their jobs fall in this category when they probably don’t.

3. If I had to come up with my best answer here, it would be to: (a) try and identify existential threats to humanity where (b) there are feasible solutions that humans can work on and (c) your skills provide a significant value-add over and above the current set of people working to develop and enact these solutions.

Should you count taxes as part of your giving? [Rob Reich via Twitter]

I said it’s ok to count 10% of your taxes as charitable giving. I based this on the fact that roughly 10% of our taxes goes directly to support people living in poverty.

Rob said this shouldn’t count.

I’m not so sure. What if the government taxed me at 80% and gave 90% of this to the poor. Under this regime, I would not feel much of an obligation to give to charity.

So I’m not sure why I should’t incorporate tax based government transfers into my giving calculation.

Should you save now and give later? [Ryan Hill via comments]

Yes, with some sound investing you can increase you giving capacity. But we don’t know what problems will exist in the future, nor how much it will cost to solve these problems.

But right now we do know that many people are dying for reasons that can be solved for not a lot of money.

So long as a few hundred dollars can save someone’s life, it seems like we should be giving rather than investing.

Of course, if you have strong reasons to believe that in the future it will be cheaper to save someone’s life, then perhaps you should invest. I just haven’t seen evidence that this will be the case.

Is giving a cop out? [Ripper via comments]

See this video. Basically, if you job and lifestyle are based on a tax regime that promotes income inequality, an economy that is based on environmental degradation, and so forth… well, who cares if you give a little bit of your income away after you make your money off this corrupt system?

First, I think it’s worth noting that global inequality is decreasing and global absolute wealth is rising. The world’s poor are significantly benefitting from the current global economic regime.

That being said, I’m very sympathetic with the environmental part of the argument. As such, working in this field (either in terms of policy change or technological innovation) may in fact be one of the best things you can do (if you can add real value). But this then just reverts back to the line of work question…

So, yes, do try and understand the system you’re a part of and perhaps helping maintain, but do so objectively. There are both incredibly good (rising global wealth) and bad (environmental degradation) parts of this system.

Give and work accordingly.

Will Effective Altruists be Effective?

I suppose all that stuff about infinity and eternity means that you think you are justified in doing anything—absolutely anything—here and now, on the off chance that some creatures or other descended from man as we know him may crawl about a few centuries longer in some part of the universe.” “Yes—anything whatever,” returned the scientist sternly, “and all educated opinion—for I do not call classics and history and such trash education—is entirely on my side.” [from C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet]

There’s been a decent amount of discussion of Effective Altruism (EA) lately.

Both Robin Hanson and Dylan Matthews have raised some flags.

Robin writes:

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Robin doesn’t think that EAs are all that different than the philanthropists of previous eras, and that the movement itself has flaws that are common of youth movements.

Dylan writes:

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Dylan worries that EAs make impossible to verify claims about future threats that give them mathematical cover to avoid pressing current issues. Later in the article, Dylan does note that EAs have a chance to push philanthropy in the right direction.

My thoughts:

1) I think Robin underestimates the potential for EAs to shift philanthropy, a field that does not always have a particularly data-driven bent (in large part due to one of Robin’s favorite issues: status seeking). Of course, I don’t think the EAs are the first on the scene here (nor do I think they claim to be). Clearly folks like Bill Gates, Peter Singer, and John Stuart Mill have been thinking along similar lines for a long time. But I do think EA has a chance to move the field further in the right direction. This could be a pretty big deal. Given the dollars involved, any movement on the margin will be useful.

2) Both Robin and Dylan point out that the EAs might be thinking about AI incorrectly (both in terms of how it will occur as well as how to weight its importance in terms of giving). Perhaps. But these stances may be revised overtime. A few years ago, I too fell for the “AI is the only thing we should think about” mindset, so I understand its allure. Just because this way of thinking has vocal support within the EA community, it does not mean that it will carry the day in perpetuity. Also, organizations such as Give Well, are surely not saying “only invest in AI research.” So while there is some risk that EAs will be overly AI obsessed, I doubt this will ever be the only cause they work on (or say others should work on). And, as of now, the money going into such research does not seem that high, so there very well may be room for significantly more giving.

3) I think there are strong arguments to be made that, as a species, we are underspending on certain existential risks, AI perhaps being amongst them. I’m not an expert here, but I know in education reform we are currently spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on things that do little, so it’s hard for me to believe that this money wouldn’t better be spent on low probability, high risk causes – somethings humans are often awful at focusing on. EAs can probably help shift resources to these causes.

To summarize: I think there is a lot of low-hanging fruit to be picked here. Philanthropy and government waste a lot of money. The principles the EAs spouse have a chance to help shift some of these wasted resources into more productive uses.

Of course, the EAs may succumb to status seeking instead of living by the values they espouse.

Time will tell.

But I bet the EAs will be a positive force in giving.

On the problem of not being able to short sell non-profits

Robert Shiller had an interesting article in the NYT on why housing markets are not always efficient.

More pertinent to this blog:

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I wish it were possible to short non-profits. I don’t really know how it would work / it’s probably not possible, but not having this type of function harms people in need.

Over time, short selling would reallocate resources to organizations that could provide much better outcomes if those in need.

Everywhere I look, I see non-profit “bubbles,” especially in education reform.

But funders have weak information, or misaligned incentives with those they are serving, so money keeps on flowing.

Short selling, or some version of it, could prevent money from going to organizations that have little to no chance of achieving their aims, as well meaning as they might be. And it could drive funding to organizations that could do amazing things.

If I was going to short non-profit education activity, it would be in these areas:

1) Efforts that mistake coordination for strategy.

2) Efforts that do not affect, or do not tightly align themselves, with what happens between 8AM-3PM.

Of course, the short selling analogy is flawed. The non-profit sector is a different animal than the for-profit sector.I get it.

The main point here is that it is important for there to be a public, meaningful signal against efforts that are likely to fail.

Without that, we all risk walking aimlessly in the dark.

Raising Money: 12 Slides (VC) vs. 343 Pages (Federal Government)

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Mixpanel, a private sector company, just raised $65M with this power point deck. It’s 12 slides long.

Of course, they didn’t raise the money because of the deck. They raised the money because of their company’s potential for profits, which they were able to capture in twelve slides.

From what I gather about private sector investing, VCs are mostly looking at the talent of the founders and the potential for outsized profits (VCs make most of their money on 10% of their bets). 12 slides and solid diligence can be enough.

Compare this to Race to the Top applications, where the average winning application length was 343 pages.

In my experience, non-profit fundraising is somewhere in between. Major asks require 20-30 slides and maybe a twenty page written support document.

Reflections

1. Government is a Different Beast

Because of the potential for corruption, I understand why government wants a lot of documentation in order to justify its investments. That being said, I do think the RTTT program would have been strengthened by a more sober analysis of states’ ability to implement. But, again, paperwork is probably an unavoidable tax of government investing.

2. VCs are More Accountable than Foundation Staff

VCs go out of business if their investment portfolio fails to deliver enough profits. This is generally not the same with program officers. Depending on the the foundation, there may be some results based accountability on staff, but the ultimate accountability of foundation staff is in pleasing the founder or board of the foundation. This creates different incentives than those of a VC.

3. Foundations Vary A Lot

In my experience of foundations, I’ve seen a wide variety of diligence processes, some better than others. I’d be curious to see a researcher (paging Rob Reich) try to figure out why this is. Some guesses: (1) whether or not the founder is alive (2) the quality of the executive director (3) the ideology of the foundation.

On Giving Well

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Tomorrow is Giving Tuesday. Given that most of my work in education is philanthropically funded, as well as the fact that I try to give every year, I’ve thought about a philanthropy a decent amount. Some thoughts below.

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A little while ago, Marc Andreessen tweeted about gift made by he and his wife Laura, a professor at Stanford who writes about philanthropy. They gave $27.5 million gift to build a state-of-the-art Emergency Department in Silicon Valley.

I think it’s great, and really important, that Marc and Laura are giving back. They have a chance to be philanthropic leaders in an area of the country that is a hub of extreme wealth. I look forward to watching them make additional investments over time and hope that their colleagues will follow.

I think it’s an open question, however, whether or not this gift is an example of giving well, which I define as maximizing the benefit to those who need it most.

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My general take on giving well is that donations should go toward one of the following:

1. Charities with a proven track record of raising the living standards of those in extreme poverty

Generally speaking, this category covers health investments in third world countries. For example, Give Well estimates that it cost the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) about a dollar to deworm a child.

Marc and Laura’s gift could have dewormed 27.5 million children. Silicon Valley has about 4 million people in it. It’s hard to imagine a Silicon Valley emergency department having the direct impact of deworming 27.5 million children.

2. New charities with the potential to raise the living standards of those in extreme poverty

Charities such as Give Directly seem to hold much promise, and investing in them to deliver their programs (and ensuring that these programs are eventually evaluated) allows for continued innovation in the field.

I would not put a Silicon Valley emergency department in this category.

3. Charities where impact is impossible to capture in a controlled experiment but where a strong theory of change exists for raising the living standards of those in extreme poverty

My guess is that it’s hard to fully quantify the impact of an organization like Human Rights Watch; or an organization that puts out annual indices on government corruption; or a local pro-democracy woman’s rights group.

Social change is complex, and I don’t think we should hesitate to giving to groups that can realistically play a part in creating social changes in societies that still suffer from high rates of extreme poverty.

I would not put a Silicon Valley emergency department in this category.

4. Charities whose innovations can benefit the lives of everyone the world

Curing AIDS, heart disease, cancer; investing in protections against existential threats such as asteroids and super volcanoes; developing new models of education (schools, governance, etc.) that can scale across the globe – all of these efforts have the potential to serve all of humanity – and thus warrant investment even if the short-term aims of some of these charities are more local in nature.

An investment in a Silicon Valley emergency department could meet this criteria, but only to the extent that most of the investment was funding research in innovations in emergency care that could eventually be adopted worldwide.

I do not know enough about Marc and Laura’s investment to understand how well it fits into this criteria.

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In sum, I think the only way Marc and Laura’s investment meets my criteria of giving well is if this investment heavily funded research and innovation in emergency care.

If the investment was not structured in such a manner, my inclination is that the money could have been spent in more effective ways.

If it was spent in such a manner, I hope that it yields breakthroughs that serve people throughout the world, especially those less fortunate than the citizens of Silicon Valley.