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Agility Before Heft: The Unique Role of Philanthropy in Unsticking Donor Funding and Development Finance in Education

The end date to accomplish Sustainable Development Goal 4 is just around the corner. Barbara Hanisch-Cerda from IEFG sees philanthropy playing a critical role to help accelerate progress.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the push for universal education as outlined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) has become more urgent. Organizations like the International Education Funders Group (IEFG) and philanthropic bodies are uniquely poised to ignite innovation and facilitate collaboration.

Barbara Hanisch-Cerda, the Knowledge Curator for IEFG, recently underscored the importance of the coming years: “We have just seven more years to go, and there’s a huge challenge ahead.”

While philanthropy may represent a smaller financial contribution to education compared to donor aid and development finance, its impact should not be underestimated. Philanthropic organizations often possess the agility, flexibility, and willingness to fund high-risk, high-reward projects. They can back unconventional or experimental projects, providing the initial push and creating a portfolio of evidence (the emphasis that philanthropic organizations often place on monitoring and evaluation can generate valuable data and insights). Once these initiatives prove successful, philanthropy-backed innovations can serve as a roadmap for larger donor agencies to adopt and scale.

Donor aid and development finance are often directed towards broad, systemic issues, but may overlook niche areas or vulnerable populations. Philanthropy can fill these gaps by focusing on targeted interventions that may not be large-scale, but nonetheless critical.

Importantly, philanthropy can also be a bridge between the private sector, governments, and nongovernment organizations, fostering partnerships that might not otherwise occur. By bringing various stakeholders to the table, philanthropic organizations can help create a more coordinated, holistic, and systems-change-oriented approach to education development challenges.

Finally, unlike larger funding bodies, which often have longer grant approval processes and fixed structures, philanthropic organizations can adapt quickly to changing circumstances. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many philanthropic organizations were able to rapidly redirect funds to respond to immediate educational needs, such as online learning technology and infrastructure, and emergency support for vulnerable children.

Philanthropy may be the “small drop in the ocean,” but its agility and flexibility make it uniquely positioned to catalyze larger waves of change. When philanthropic efforts are afforded space and opportunity to inform government agendas, private sector investments, as well as donor aid and global development finance initiatives, small-bet experiments can be magnified into big-bet outcomes.

That is why this set of education side events during the United Nations General Assembly are so important to Barbara Hanisch-Cerda at IEFG. “We are hoping with these meetings, we can help accelerate all these efforts for the good of our children… We look forward to meeting different members from philanthropy, from governments, and see how we can keep collaborating to make this happen.”

The agility of philanthropy, coupled with the inclusive, collaborative networking of organizations like IEFG, offers a formidable combination for tackling educational inequalities and gaps, even in a post-COVID world. We can certainly do much more through shared commitments and shared experience than any of us might possibly dream to accomplish alone.

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Learning poverty is preventing children from learning reading and math, and life skills in Africa, Central America, South Asia, and the Middle East. But you can change that.