In Boston, education nonprofits often get the scraps

© Rodrigo Basaure

Boston has a hyper-active education social services sector where a handful of agencies dominate, and many languish.  Are there simply too many agencies competing for the same limited funds? Is that the entire story?

A few months ago, I began to examine Boston-area nonprofits that serve urban Pre-K to 12 public schools.  I counted 116 boots-on-the-ground organizations (and, I’m sure there are more) that offer a wide variety of services, including both in-classroom support, as well as afterschool services.[1]

Altogether this group had raised just over $1 billion annually to serve students in the greater Boston area.  An impressive number. But as I dug deeper into the figures, the actual numbers began to tell a very different and very perplexing story.

The top ten first-tier funding recipients among the 116, absorbed 77-percent of all donations. The second tier of ten, took in 11-percent, and the third tier another 5-percent.  That left the remaining 86 nonprofits in this sector sharing 7-percent of the $1 billion pool.  They got the scraps.

In truth, some of these small, third-tier service groups may not care that they operate on shoe-string budgets.  Their founders may be satisfied working in one neighborhood with one group of kids.  They may not want to scale or move from one city to another across the country.  Remaining small and local is just fine with them.

For those groups that wish to grow and, most important, for the clients they service, their funding and the impact they must have demands a better solution than exists today.  The Boston Public School system is one such client.

Boston’s complex, demanding public education nonprofit scene

The Boston Public School system alone has nearly 56,000 students enrolled in Pre-K through 12th grade.  With these 100-plus nonprofits knocking on school doors, trying to get the attention of headmasters, teachers, and parents, there are great inefficiencies among the service providers.

Boston-area foundation executives I spoke with, as well as those who directly work in education services, supported what my data revealed.  One after another, they underscored the fact that many groups offer the same services to the same schools and compete for the same students.  I counted eight specializing in literacy, nine focused on STEM education, 10 solely in athletics, 16 in music and the arts, 24 working in social and emotional development and 49 providing a wide variety of services both during and after school. The singular mission for three of the 116 is to teach inner-city youth how to sail in Boston’s harbor and waterways.

In addition, any new startup nonprofit that has dreams of meteoric growth is going to have a tough time “stealing” market share from organizations already on the scene.   In the case of Boston’s top-ten education nonprofits with 77-percent of the all funding, all but one was founded before the year 2000.  Most in this legacy group have existed for decades, a few were founded as far back as the 1930s and 1940s.

Kate Fitzgerald Barrett is a nonprofit executive and former executive director of the Greenlight Fund, a Boston-based foundation supporting inner-city youth and their families. She believes that there are too many nonprofits and far too little collaboration in the Boston area.

“There are services that could be scalable, but instead do their own thing,” she commented.  “In the Boston nonprofit scene, we are constantly founding new organizations that are not ‘net new.’”

A Facebook mirage?

Adding to the competitive confusion are education initiatives introduced into Boston by wealthy entrepreneurs who do not live or work in the region.  For instance, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced he will inject funds and technology to try to improve literacy rates in the public schools.[2]  Zuckerberg’s $100 million investment in 2010 in Newark, NJ’s public schools had mixed results.  Zuckerberg’s took a top-down approach in his first foray into improving urban schools.  He injected the money into the system, received reports but did not appear to manage much of the process.  The result was a politically-charged initiative that fell far short of his goals.[3]

Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg has learned from the Newark project.  His recent Boston-area donation of $30 million to launch Reach Every Reader will introduce technology to improve literacy nationwide and has a much more targeted and specific set of objectives.  Once again, he may or may not succeed but has certainly added more noise to the nonprofit education services sector in Boston.[4]

Will an education-services nonprofit in Boston see the Zuckerberg initiative as a wake-up call to find funders who will help them improve their tech offering to schools?  Will other foundations take Zuckerberg’s cue and shift their funding to tech ventures and move away from boots-on-the-ground tutoring and after-school help?

All the above scenarios are possible, but the reality is very different.

The handful of education nonprofit executives I spoke with knew little about Zuckerberg’s latest gambit to improve urban education.  Day in and day out, they are focused on helping students. Nothing has changed for them; the goals remain the same for these nonprofits.  They battle to service the schools and their kids, and battle to keep their funding.  At the same time, these nonprofits are essentially blind to Zuckerberg’s new initiative and could be badly surprised one day.

Funders, such as the Boston Foundation, have tried to promote broader awareness and collaboration over the past decade with some success. Still most Boston education nonprofits remain today as they have in the past, working their cause and fighting for scraps.

[1] is the source of the data for Boston-area education nonprofits.

[2] 29-percent of Boston Public School third graders are reading at grade level, compared to slightly less than half of third graders statewide.

[3] The Prize, Dale Russakoff, Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.