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A Funder Collaborative Makes A Difference: A Case Study of Arts Education in Boston

Post date: 
June 1st, 2016
Article Type: 
AGM Blog Post
Article Topic: 
Arts & Culture

Seven years ago, a nascent effort to increase access to quality arts education in Boston began. A small group of leaders from the Barr Foundation, The Boston Foundation, Hunt Alternatives, the Klarman Family Foundation, the Linde Family Foundation, and EdVestors came together with Boston Public Schools leadership based on their shared belief in the power of art to develop creative, engaged learners. Boston Public Schools Arts Expansion (BPS-AE) was born, a public-private partnership that today has helped 17,000 more students receive arts education during the school year. It has also produced broad stakeholder ownership of the goal far beyond the original small group.  And it has leveraged increased public funding through the strategic private investment of collaborating donors.

How did this happen? To answer that question for others seeking to do this work, we have captured the story and the lessons learned in a new case study, Dancing to the Top: How Collective Action Revitalized Arts Education.  One of the lessons we have drawn is the key role of the funder collaborative known as the BPS Arts Expansion Fund.

The Fund was created in 2009 with a focus on expanding access to direct arts instruction for students with support to schools, nonprofit arts partners and teaching artists. To date, it has distributed over $5M through a request for proposals process connected to the citywide goals of arts expansion. The incentive-based approach to grantmaking  has impacted not only students that receive arts opportunities, but also schools, nonprofits, collaborating funders, and the system of arts education in Boston.

The following were key factors in the success of the funder collaborative:

Focus on a clear and measurable goal. Our consistent, primary goal is  to increase access to weekly-year long arts instruction for elementary and middle school students, while increasing access to any arts learning opportunities for high school students.  This goal is based on data that we collected in 2008 and that we measure annually. Having a laser focus on this goal has been instrumental in our progress:  today 94% of elementary and middle grades students in BPS receive the benchmark of weekly instruction (up from 67% in 2008) and 64% of high school students access arts education (up from 26%).

Align grantmaking criteria with the goal.  Applicants to the Arts Expansion Fund have to articulate clear goals and measures, demonstrate how these align with the initiative’s efforts, and describe how they would create or strengthen partnerships with a wide variety of arts education players. There are great efforts that don’t fit our criteria and while it can be hard to say no, this discipline has been critical to our progress toward our goal. We have also learned from schools and partners that our consistent criteria around partnerships really helps  to make them happen on the ground.

Provide support to the grantseeker.  EdVestors, as the managing partner for the Fund, holds workshops for applicants, giving school staff and nonprofits the chance to ask questions. We also give personalized feedback and technical assistance over the phone and email in order to educate grant seekers and ensure greater access to funding for schools and organizations that might be less experienced with the grantmaking process. This opens the door to schools, organizations, and individual teaching artists that traditionally don’t have the experience or capacity to apply for grants.   

Engage others in the grantmaking process. A grant review committee is formed each year that includes arts education professionals from schools, arts organizations, and higher education together with local funders. The process ensures multiple perspectives are heard. We have learned from the collaborating funders that it has created a greater level of engagement for them while adding  to their knowledge of the landscape and the issues around arts education.

Consider the incentives. Our ultimate aim is to build a sustainable system of arts education for students in Boston.  Private funding was intended to catalyze and incent individual schools and the school system. We considered our aim carefully when designing the Fund which played out in very practical ways. For example, if a school cut an arts teacher position, they weren’t eligible for funding. When they received funding and built an appetite for arts education in their schools, they were supported to invest public resources to hire an arts teacher.  This contributed to a significant increase in public dollars via the BPS budget supporting arts education - $11M more annually as compared with 2008, providing a 5 to 1 return on the private funding. This is the holy grail of public-private partnerships.

Incentive-based grantmaking has been critical to BPS-AE, but it is just one element of the story.  To learn more, we encourage you to read the full case study, which you can download via our website. Please share your ideas and questions with us directly or via social media (you can mention @EdVestors and #bpsarts). We want to hear from you!

Laura Perille is the President & CEO of EdVestors, a school improvement nonprofit with a the mission to increase the number of schools in Boston delivering dramatically improved educational outcomes for all students. EdVestors works with urban schools serving a significant number of high-need students by leveraging strategic private investment, providing on-the-ground tactical support to accelerate results, and developing and sharing knowledge to drive improvement across schools. Since its launch in 2002 under Laura’s leadership, EdVestors has raised and helped investors direct over $18 million in funds for urban school improvement through its School Solutions Seed Fund, the School on the Move Prize, and the Improving Schools Initiative.

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