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Where is Organized Philanthropy?

By Lande Ajose

On October 17, the film Waiting for Superman opened in 27 cities. It has been hailed as the most significant documentary since Davis Guggenheim directed the Academy Award winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The film is being credited with reinvigorating the national debate about the state of public education. As many efforts get underway and commitments to change are made, one voice is noticeably absent: organized philanthropy.

The absence of philanthropy is especially jarring considering how much money foundations pour into public education. According to a New York Times Magazine article, approximately $4 billion was spent on K-12 education philanthropy in 2008. These funds have supported everything form the proliferation of the small schools model to improvements in teacher performance and everything in between.

Some think philanthropy is cumbersome and slow to react as movements organically unfold and evolve. The release of Waiting for Superman is a key opportunity for philanthropy to take part in a movement in the making.  Yet where is organized philanthropy? What are foundations doing, individually or collectively, to harness the energy of this film?

Here are three simple ideas:

  1. Sponsor a community film screening.  Foundations are fortunate to have the ear of stakeholders on both sides of the political aisle. To leverage these connections, foundations could hold screenings in their local community to discuss the film and determine collective actions to address key issues at a local, regional or national level. Such a convening could also offer foundations opportunities to promote the important work of their grantees.
  2. Support others to see the film. has teamed up with Paramount Pictures, Walden Media and Participant Media to give movie goers $15 gift cards, which they can donate to a classroom project of their choice. There’s a double bottom line here: 1) create an incentive for others to see the film and 2) support classroom work.
  3. Support community organizations who want to engage in movement building around the film. Several nonprofits have sponsored private screenings of the film and want to sustain the energy generated by this movie. Perhaps foundations could provide some “glue” money to better help them do this?

When foundations are working at their best they are able to seed new approaches to old problems and advance the good work of those in the field.  With the energy created by Waiting for Superman there’s an unrealized opportunity for philanthropy to do both.