In fourth grade, for an assignment about future goals, I had written that I wanted to be a teacher.

Fourteen years later, I trudged home in the snow after another long and exhausting eight hours teaching 7th grade math and science to middle schoolers in the Bronx. Despite trying my best each day, it was a real struggle. It felt that no matter what I planned or how much I prepared, I left school each day feeling that I was failing my students.

Later that night, in between deep breaths and tears, and after less than six months on the job, I told my mom and dad that I was planning to quit Teach for America.

“Think of all the teachers who had an impact on you, particularly Mrs. Vancouver and Mr. Manolakes. Don’t you want to play that role for others?” my mom asked.

After an evening of deep reflection and realignment, I woke up with the resolve to show up to work. I did the same thing the morning after that. And the morning after that one, and for the entire two years following. Over those years, I worked with hundreds of students, some of whom struggled to finish high school and some of whom have gone on to work in software companies and education non-profits. Even though I struggled and made mistakes in the classroom, for the three years I was a teacher, I tried my hardest to support every child who walked through my door. I knew how much being a caring adult, believing in the potential of my students, and teaching with passion and preparation could do to change the trajectory of a life.

Overdeck Family Foundation: 2019 Education Strategy

Now, 15 years later, I have the great fortune of leading a philanthropic endeavor with John and Laura Overdeck, as well as a team of 16 professionals. My days revolve around the goal of effectively allocating philanthropic resources to create a world where all children have the opportunity to unlock their potential. Specifically, our foundation aims to open doors for every child in the U.S. by measurably enhancing education both inside and outside the classroom.

To accomplish this aim, we support organizations and researchers across five key areas, encompassing the whole child from birth through graduation.

  • Early Impact: Support families, caregivers, and communities in accessing and using evidence-based parenting practices proven to make a difference in the early lives of children. To read more, click here.
  • Exceptional Educators: Empower K-12 teachers by providing them access to evidence-based preparation, high-quality instructional resources, and ongoing professional learning and leadership opportunities. To read more, click here.
  • Innovative Schools: Partner with schools to create student-centered, evidence-based K-12 learning environments that are responsive to learner and community needs. To read more, click here.
  • Inspired Minds: Improve access to out-of-school STEM opportunities, allowing children to unlock their curiosity and explore mind-expanding challenges. To read more, click here.
  • Data for Action: Increase the usability and connectivity of data in order to accelerate insights that improve practice and policy for children and families. To read more, click here.

As we’ve learned from the previous year’s successes and challenges, we’ve evolved our portfolio strategies in the spirit of continuous learning and improvement. In the next few weeks, portfolio teams will be writing personal updates on their 2019 strategies, including deep dives on what we’re focusing on, what (if anything) we’ve moved away from, and why. Check back on the blog for those posts! And stay tuned for portfolio one-pagers that will soon be available for download on our site.

Our Foundation’s Differentiation

One of our foundation’s core values is to “Learn Better, Together,” so we are partnership- and collaboration-oriented by design. But with charitable giving growing in the U.S. and over 65 foundations as members in Grantmakers for Education, it also feels important to think about how we allocate our funding with some amount of strategic differentiation. In other words, what is unique about what we bring to the table?

1. Evidence as Thesis for Scale

We know there are brilliant entrepreneurs everywhere with great ideas about how to address the challenges education is facing in our country today.

We also know that early stage efforts often struggle to secure the necessary capital to conduct research to validate their ideas. Furthermore, investing in research, which can be slow and expensive, is often not attractive to funders. That’s why it’s a place where we want to contribute. We believe it is our responsibility to help ensure programmatic efforts have measurable and positive impact before scaling.

At the same time, we know many organizations have evidence to support the impact of a program or service, but need additional support when it comes to building tools to help them scale responsibly and sustainably. This year, we are focusing deeper on learning what organizations need to scale effectively–and how we can help. We will then use our funding to help those organizations eliminate barriers to scale.

2. Investing at Intersections

We know solutions for enhancing education are complex and dynamic. We place a premium on investing at the intersections of important issues, with the hope that breaking down silos can unlock innovation and possibility. Some areas we are excited to explore are:

  • The use of the healthcare channel to spread positive parenting practices to caregivers. Through investments in Nurse-Family Partnership, Centering Healthcare, Family Connects, and others, we’re unlocking the potential of using doctors’ visits to help caregivers with more than just their children’s health. Our outstanding question: Can we integrate bite-sized positive parenting practices in a way that resonates with both parents and healthcare practitioners?
  • The potential of early math in partnership with early literacy. Bedtime stories are a ubiquitous “must” for parents starting from when their children are babies, but we know that early math skills are also an important predictor of later success. Our question: How can we engage families in building greater math fluency for their children?
  • The opportunity for standards-aligned, high-quality curricula to improve student outcomes, especially when aligned with professional learning. We believe in the potential of personalized learning and high-quality curricula, yet the personalized learning sector often seems in conflict with standards-aligned materials. Our outstanding question: Can we pair high-quality instructional materials with personalized learning technology to bring the best of both worlds to teachers and students?

3. Data for Learning, Improvement, and Accountability

We believe in the power of data to build an R&D culture and drive learning and improvement. Yet we also know that the education sector has faced limitations of talent, capacity, and financial support. We believe it’s our responsibility to invest in the data systems, talent, and infrastructure that organizations need to achieve greater impact.

That means we always look for opportunities to support grantees in building their data capacity, whether that’s connecting datasets in ways that promote new insights that advance the field, such as our investment in the Opportunity Insights; or placing data talent into non-profits to help them lead alignment on measurement and evaluation, such as our investment in Harvard’s Strategic Data Project, which has placed fellows with Highlander Institute, CityBridge Education, Center for Leadership and Educational Equity, EdReports, and NE Basecamp.

We believe breaking down silos can unlock innovation and possibility.

Our Best Mistakes

My last post focused on some of the wins and learnings we’ve seen across our grantee family. And while those are always easier and more fun to share, we think our mistakes are just as, if not more, important to highlight.

This can be a daunting part of the quarterly check-in for many of our grantees. So, in the spirit of walking in others’ shoes, I sat down and made my own list of “Best Mistakes” from 2018:

  • Funding technology platforms without insisting teams spend time identifying users and use cases prior to development. We’ve learned that many well-intentioned platforms have limited utility when they are created without close consultation with end users. By not identifying users and use cases in advance, and not employing short cycle beta testing, we risk ending up with a product that does not solve the needs of the community it intends to help. We must identify clear users and clear needs, and incorporate community voice and input in developing and testing potential solutions.
  • Not appreciating the difficulty of sample selection. Recruiting participants for both research and programmatic interventions continues to be a key challenge, especially when the focus remains on a few select districts and schools that are already overburdened with research requests. Studies and programs can be indefinitely stalled if they are unable to identify districts and recruit participants that can meet the requirements of a research study or intervention. We must start thinking more creatively and intentionally about how we build partnerships that can identify high-potential recruitment samples to ensure a successful research project or program.
  • Not deeply understanding a grantee’s business model. A strong business model is key to ensuring the long-term sustainability of an organization. This is especially true as we start investing more in the scaling of organizations, since it’s imperative that we be on the same page as our grantees about their growth and fundraising goals, as well as how they plan to sustainably get there. Every organization’s funding plans can and should look different based on their end game, but what is most important is that they have a plan with solid logic and assumptions.
  • Funding research without dissemination plans. 33% of our grant dollars support research efforts. As such, we have learned that research without dissemination plans is too often the tree that falls in the woods. We must start thinking more proactively about how researchers will disseminate their findings beyond scientific and peer-reviewed publications. Whether it’s direct engagement with the community or creative media strategies, research must reach the community it is hoping to serve to improve practice and policy.

We must start thinking more proactively about how researchers will disseminate their findings beyond scientific and peer-reviewed publications.

Looking Forward

Given all the above, for 2019 you’ll see increased focus from Overdeck Family Foundation in the following areas:

  • A commitment to approaching our programmatic investments in a way that aligns to our investment thesis: scaling evidence-based projects and helping early-stage initiatives develop and validate their evidence base. We will also continue to look for opportunities to invest at intersections, as discussed above.
  • A deeper emphasis on identifying and funding research and research dissemination aligned to our portfolio strategies, and greater focus on anticipating and assessing the impact of our grants. We intend for this to continue to drive our ongoing learning and decision-making as a Foundation.
  • A more proactive and comprehensive communications strategy to amplify internal and grantee learnings. We know our 30,000-foot vantage point provides us a unique advantage and believe it is our responsibility to share what we learn to support stronger understanding in the field.

We hope illuminating our thinking, our learnings, and our mistakes will strengthen our partnerships with grantees and co-funders, and provide opportunities for further collaboration and increased collective impact. Thank you as always for reading, and for supporting our vision of a world where all children can unlock their potential.

In partnership,

Anu Malipatil, Vice President, Education