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Common goals: Philanthropy in education

Common goals: Philanthropy in education

Research 8 minute read

Michelle Anderson and Emma Curtin report on ACER research that has identified four guiding principles for successful collaborations between education and philanthropy.

Common goals: Philanthropy in education

There is currently considerable interest in school-community partnerships. Australia’s education ministers back in December 2012 endorsed the National School Improvement Tool, developed by Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) Chief Executive Professor Geoff Masters, for all Australian schools to use in their school improvement planning. The Tool describes in detail how schools should actively seek ways to enhance student learning and wellbeing by partnering with other groups.

The ministers’ endorsement indicates the importance of school-community partnerships in enhancing student learning and wellbeing in ways that may not otherwise be available within a school. That’s not simply a policy emphasis. Philanthropic organisations are increasingly seeking to support education through funding and additional in-kind support.

The Leading Learning in Education and Philanthropy (LLEAP) 2012 Survey Report, also released in December, presents evidence that philanthropic organisations clearly want to engage more directly with education, particularly working in collaboration with schools and not-for-profits around common areas of need for learners.


Asked to identify the main type of collaborative activity that they would like to do more of, philanthropic organisations identified interest in broader and more strategic approaches to collaboration. Around 45 per cent of respondents indicated the importance of ‘co-funding with other philanthropic foundations or trusts’ and 23 per cent indicated the importance of ‘strategic planning with a cluster of schools around a key area of need’, an approach that may well address some of the disconnect between school and philanthropic understandings of the purposes and priority areas of each other. As one respondent from a philanthropic organisation put it, ‘(We want to hear) from schools about what they need and want; we should not be initiating anything before they put their case’.

According to another, ‘We try to be realistic about the outcomes of the grant and restrict our expectations to what are identified as the direct outcomes. We are extra pleased if any of the below occurs: collaboration and cooperation between service providers – the organisation funds the continuation; other funders invest; government funds materialise; replication of the project elsewhere.’ According to the LLEAP 2012 Survey Report, philanthropic organisations also value collaborative outcomes where school-community partnerships can be developed or ‘scaled’ as models for other programs.

Barriers to collaboration

One of the main barriers for schools to the development of effective school-community partnerships is a big knowledge gap in the area of partnership development, as well as individual and organisational capacity issues to do with time, experience and expertise – particularly having the people available to develop school-community partnerships.

For philanthropic organisations, some of the main barriers are identifying how to collaborate and with whom to collaborate, and the lack of collaboration between prospective grant recipients.

Not-for-profit organisations that are typically involved on the ground with schools in developing school-community partnerships also identify collaboration as a barrier to the development of effective partnerships, particularly in terms of the time needed to identify and develop a deep understanding of the needs of schools. As one respondent from a not-for-profit organisation put it, ‘Getting schools to engage in a possible collaboration before it is funded is challenging. Often they prefer to know the project is funded and can happen before really engaging with us, but this can make it difficult to put together a project that meets the criteria of funders.’

Four guiding principles for successful collaboration

ACER began the multi-year LLEAP project, in partnership with The Ian Potter Foundation and the Origin Foundation, to explore these barriers and issues from the perspectives of philanthropic organisations, schools and not-for-profits working with schools. But the aim of the project is not just to expose the challenges; LLEAP provides guidance, strategies and practical toolkits to address them, creating shared understanding and pathways for doing things better.

The LLEAP 2012 Survey Report has found that as collaboration increases, so too does the level of engagement. Our findings from the study and from three LLEAP ‘Models of Collaboration’ workshops with stakeholders in education, philanthropic and not-for-profit organisations in Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia have led to the development of four guiding principles for successful collaborations between education and philanthropy.

These principles are intended to support those considering new relationships or reviewing existing collaborations.

1. Successful collaborations establish the foundations

In practice, this will involve collaborators demonstrating:

Authenticity – partnerships and collaborations need to be genuine for both partners
Flexibility – there needs to be some flexibility in the relationship, as needs and priorities sometimes shift
Trust – trust is very important and should underpin the relationship
Respect, with challenging debate – while partners should have shared goals, they may not always have shared values, but respect for the values of each other enables healthy debate
Equity – partners must be given the opportunity to contribute, with an understanding that everyone can bring something different to the table.

2. Successful collaborations have clarity of purpose and position

In practice, this will involve collaborators demonstrating:

Shared goals – collaboration should be established for the specific purpose of achieving shared goals
Clear roles and responsibilities – all partners need to be clear on what their obligations and responsibilities are, and what they expect of their colleagues, and this should be outlined in clear, shared documentation
Understanding – time should be taken to understand the context in which each partner is working
Honest and open communications – this builds trust and helps prevent misunderstandings and potential project crises. Collaboration across organisations with different perspectives and structures can be problematic so clear communication is key.

3. Successful collaborations build capacity

In practice, this will involve collaborators demonstrating:

Philanthropy is about more than dollars – many philanthropic foundations and trusts can offer expertise, brokerage, networks and advice to help build capacity
A focus on positive inputs – in any partnership, some will have less time and less expertise than others so focus on what skills and local knowledge can be brought to the table, not on a deficit model
Maximising existing networks and relationships – consider who in your ‘sphere of influence’ could assist in capacity building.
Creating a network of ‘champions’ – share the vision, responsibilities and passion to build the knowledge and skills of others to help promote your project.

4. Successful collaborations are driven by need

In practice, this will involve collaborators demonstrating:

Focus – when developing a model of collaboration in education, the child should always be at the centre
Listening and sharing – clear needs assessment should be developed with the local community/school; they understand the context so listen and understand that context, possibly using a ‘clustered’ approach to identifying needs and using the structures that schools already have in place to do this, such as regional associations or professional associations.

The LLEAP 2012 Survey Report is providing the evidence base needed to improve the effective engagement of schools, philanthropy and not-for-profits to support the needs of learners in schools. It’s also informing ACER’s work through Tender Bridge, a national research and development service that assists leaders to source additional funds to support educational projects and build their capacity in maximising partnership potential.

With the next LLEAP survey due to take place in June 2013, we’re waiting to see just how much impact such work is having in the philanthropy-in-education landscape. 

Read the full report:
The LLEAP 2012 Survey Report Executive Summary, by Dr Michelle Anderson and Dr Emma Curtin, is available at

Further information:
LLEAP is a partnership between The Ian Potter Foundation, Origin Foundation and ACER. Find out more about LLEAP at

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