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Embracing the Power of Education

Education in our country is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Because charitable giving for education is an important but small percentage of overall education funding, the member organization Grantmakers for Education (GFE) works to find the best roles for philanthropy in education. GFE and its members constantly calibrate and recalibrate philanthropic levers to ask: where can charitable dollars make the best impact? The organization hosts a conference on this topic annually. Peter Espenshade and Carolyn Fox represented the McClure Foundation and the Vermont Community Foundation at this year’s GFE conference in New York City in late October.

The focus of this year’s conference—“Embracing the Power of Education and Fulfilling the American Dream”—was about finding ways to keep equity and opportunity in the education system. At its core, that’s the McClure Foundation’s mission: growing equity and opportunity in order to remove barriers to postsecondary education in Vermont. We were looking forward to discussing such a relevant topic with other education funders.

The GFE conference was attended by hundreds of foundations—most of them larger and focused on urban areas. It’s clear that the McClure Foundation’s understandings about increasing access to postsecondary education in rural Vermont mirrors best practices on a national scale. It’s about building partnerships between schools and the business community so that students can have hands-on experience. It’s about developing cultural acceptance of higher education for those who expect their education to end after high school—or earlier. It’s the understanding that localized programs need to be tailored to the needs and culture of that area. And it’s a growing recognition that the families of disadvantaged students and first-generation college students could benefit from as much support as the students themselves.

These understandings are the foundation of some of the most successful programs in Vermont: Academy 21 at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, the Tutorial Center’s Bridge to College Program in Bennington, and Champlain College’s Single Parents Program, to name a few. They draw on the same best practices as programs like the Brooklyn College Community Partnership in New York City, where the conference was held.

Vermont has unique strengths: one of the greatest is the close bonds between the public, business, and foundation sectors. As McClure Foundation Vice President Barbara Benedict said at this year's Annual Education Summit, "Vermont has an incredible number of stellar institutions but Vermonters themselves are still struggling to pay the bills and to even dream of going to college. Our research has shown several bright spots: there are wonderful foundations, there are wonderful individuals doing terrific things. The McClure way is to find those people on the ground—we call them champions—find our champions and support them. That is our work."

And that is the power of philanthropy in education.

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