Taking a Seat at an Uncommon Table

community-developmentLike any donor, corporate philanthropy departments today want to know that their investments in their community have an impact. It’s not about altruism (although giving back does feel good); instead, it’s about driving long-term, lasting change. This was the topic at hand during today's breakout session, “A Seat at the UnCommon Table: Leveraging your Philanthropic Investments in Educationas part of the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship Conference.

Cheryl Kiser, managing director of The Lewis Initiative, Babson College and moderator of the panel opened our talk with the recent discovery of a worrying trend:

For over 25 years, corporate philanthropy professionals had indicated that their #1 funding and volunteer priority was education. In the last two years, however, Cheryl noticed in surveys of the field that corporate philanthropy departments were suffering from what she called the “3 F’s”:

They were Frustrated, they felt Fatigued, and they worried that they had Failed in their attempts to truly invest in educational systems and drive progress.

The purpose of the session, then, was to leverage what Cheryl called “The Uncommon Table” – in essence a platform in which participants could go beyond the static idea-sharing common within homogenous sectors or industries and instead participate in “uncommon conversations with unusual suspects.” After all, she reasoned, “no one company can go it alone.”

To do this, Cheryl was joined by a group of terrific and highly knowledgeable panelists:

Together, Cheryl and the panelists opened themselves up to questions from the audience in what was an informal and informative discussion on the state of the U.S. Education System and how corporate funders can get involved. A few takeaways are worth sharing:

One attendee asked a question that seemed to resonate throughout the room: “If we’re supposed to help fix American education, shouldn’t we know (and agree on) what’s broken?”

While all panelists had opinions on just what’s wrong, Suzanne from the Department of Education boiled it down to four problem areas:

  1. Human Capital (both supporting educators and administrators, as well as making school relevant to students);
  2. Information and data systems (to track, measure, and strategize);
  3. Different state standards and assessment tools to tracking student performance
  4. Low performing schools that consistently underperform without being reformed.

Interestingly, one panelist suggested that in order to tackle these problems, business should look at its core competencies and the areas in which it has the most credibility. Many of the areas in which business excels – management training, information systems, data analysis, etc – are the areas that schools need the most help with. Given this, Lydia encouraged the audience to consider how their corporate investments in education were aligned with these four areas – if they’re not aligned, she suggested, companies would do well to refocus.

Other relevant conversation points included how companies can drive innovation through partnerships and grant proposals with the Department of Education (who, by the way, is putting an incredible amount of stimulus funding innovation and reform in education), as well as what other countries are doing to support their educational systems as they grow, develop, and eventually surpass the U.S. in the rankings.

In all, the session provided a thoughtful look at the multiple, challenging issues that corporate funders and schools face as they partner to effect change in our educational system. Hopefully this will be the start of more informal “Uncommon Tables” throughout the U.S. as attendees go back to their home offices and share what they learned.

Ashley’s Note: This is the second of three posts I wrote as a featured blogger for The Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship’s 2010 Annual Conference. Click these links to learn more about the conference, check out the session description, and to read all the blog posts from the event.