One of the major focuses of philanthropy in 2018 has been education, and Barbara Dalio has emerged as one of the most influential philanthropists in this sector. While Dalio has become one of the most prolific education-based donors, she distinguishes herself from others with her hands-on approach to giving. She and her husband Ray, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, founded the Dalio Foundation in 2003 and signed the Giving Pledge in 2011. Since then, the couple has increased their giving substantially. The foundation has made more than $1.3 billion in grants since its inception and about $100 million in recent years. The couple will likely continue at this increased pace to adhere to the Giving Pledge guidelines, which would require them to donate about $8.5 million during their lifetimes.
A Growing Need for Intervention in Public Education
A key focus of the Dalio Foundation from the very beginning has been education. Barbara remains the driving force behind education giving, which so far is focused primarily on the couple’s home state of Connecticut. She does not see herself as the type of philanthropist to write a check blindly and instead wants to understand exactly what the money will help achieve. Raised in Spain, Dalio never went through the American education system, yet she experienced it through her four sons. Heartened by education’s ability to provide endless possibilities in the United States, she became increasingly concerned with the achievement gap in Connecticut and decided that she would do what she could to close it.
In general, Connecticut has a lot of funding, yet several inner-city schools continue to struggle, especially because of the elevated needs of their students. Dalio recognized that she did not have enough experience to help address this issue, so she decided to immerse herself in the school system. She began conversations with stakeholders at several different levels to get a fuller perspective on what is wrong with the system and how it can be improved. In contrast to the many public education philanthropists who have tried to force preconceived notions on school systems—thereby doing more harm than good—Dalio strove to understand the viewpoints of teachers, principals, social workers, and students.
Dalio’s Immersive Approach to Learn before Donating
Before writing any checks, Dalio reached out to a contact she had from previous work on after-school programming. This contact was able to connect with people across the school district, enabling them to voice their perspectives and weigh in on Dalio’s key questions. One of the people Dalia developed a relationship with was a leader of the teachers’ union. Historically, teachers’ unions have had poor relationships with education reformers, who often blame bad teaching for achievement gaps. Dalio was strategic in forming this relationship to avoid similar tensions.
Alongside these conversations, Dalio began spending time at a nearby alternative high school to learn about its daily operations. This experience allowed her to talk to teachers, social workers, and the principal to learn about the complexities around education reform. The lessons she learned there still inform her current efforts, such as the Opportunity Project, an initiative she launched to help reengage students in school and bring individuals who have dropped out back into the classroom. Dalio also believes that her experience at the alternative school imbued in her a deep respect for teachers, whom she sees as the primary partners in achieving reform goals.
Building Strategic Community Relationships for Change
Because of her immersive approach to philanthropy, Dalio has been able to build the relationships that enable a collaborative approach to grantmaking. When she works with grantees, she brings her own ideas to the table and encourages them to bring their own. Then, together, they come up with a strategic plan about how best to carry out the ideas and which tools will prove necessary for achieving goals. Dalio believes that she should support ideas that originate in the communities they are meant to serve. These communities understand what they need better than anyone else does, and telling them to take a different approach is ultimately counterproductive, she believes.
In addition to the Opportunity Project, the Dalio Foundation supports the Connecticut RISE Network, which focuses on empowering teachers by offering various tools, resources, and other forms of support. For example, the organization recently introduced a digital dashboard that teachers can use to view a summary of information about students, from basic demographics to attendance and disciplinary records. These dashboards make it possible to identify students who are struggling and offer strategic support to make sure that they succeed.
Scaling Interventions to Help More Connecticut Students
The Dalio Foundation has much more money to give in the future, and its programs are designed for scalability. Barbara Dalio has already stated that she plans to scale the initiatives that have worked the best and those that seem most sustainable. While she plans to continue focusing on Connecticut, there is great potential to expand the RISE Network, which currently only serves a handful of districts in the state. Recently, the foundation has cut back on some its programming to focus more on the Opportunity Project and the RISE Network to develop and maintain the strategic relationships that have made these collaborative projects possible.