The Give: Gates Education Advocate Cultivates Partners to Improve School Outcomes

Danielle_Gonzales_squareDanielle M. Gonzales, senior program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a Hispanics in Philanthropy Board member, has spent much of her civil sector career advocating for better education policies. The extent to which she has succeeded, she says, stems from her ability to cultivate relationships. It requires frequent travel and keeping up with a lifetime of contacts for the Albuquerque native, who lives in Washington, D.C., and works for the Seattle-based foundation. It also requires a measure of judicious self-awareness, because of the influence that is perceived to accompany a Gates Foundation job. “It takes a lot of time to get to know people and to gain their trust and reassure them that we’re not trying to be the ‘big bad Gates Foundation, coming in and try to run things,’ that I want to work with them and get their support to help them build the [educational quality] in their state,” she said. “Because of our size, and the size of some of our investments, we can leave a pretty large footprint in the places where we work, and we want to be thoughtful about how we partner.” When she goes into a state, Gonzales said, she tries to get to know who the stakeholders and other players are, and who would be most effective in getting the message across. There are times when it is obvious which partners are the best fit for driving the Gates Foundation’s goal of improving U.S. high school and postsecondary education. Sometimes, alliances are forged in less than intuitive ways, she said. “Sometimes, it’s working with people we serve – teachers, principals and superintendents,” she said. “Sometimes, there are groups of unlikely allies – politicians, law enforcement officials and other people — who can help advocate for students to get a degree beyond high school. And then I take it back [to the foundation] and explain the plan and, hopefully, it gets funded.” Gonzales’ dedication to cultivating professional relationships started in Washington, D.C., where she majored in political science and Spanish language and literature at George Washington University, before pursuing her Master of Education from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. She served as a fellow from 1999 to 2000 in the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans and volunteered in the Gore-Lieberman Democratic presidential campaign in 2000. Vice President Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush in the Electoral College vote, despite having obtained a majority of the popular vote, proved to be a hard lesson for Gonzales. “It was a very negative experience for me and really changed my perception of the political process. I was pretty disgusted with the political process and campaigns,” she recalled. So she decided to leave D.C. to teach fourth grade in Brownsville, Texas. Under pre-Sept. 11 border policies, she said, many of her students lived in Mexico and crossed the border to go to school. Being a schoolteacher, she said, “was the most important and the most difficult job I’ve ever had.” She later returned to the District of Columbia to work for a nonprofit, Pre-K Now, which focused on increasing access to, and quality of early education opportunities for three- and four-year-olds. While most of her work was focused on state grants to improve pre-k quality and access for all, she also focused specifically on Latino children. She said that there were claims that Latino adults didn’t care about pre-school or depended on family care-givers to get youngsters school ready, so Pre-K Now arranged research that found that, instead, the main problem was that many Latinos lacked resources. Gonzales then helped develop a Spanish-language public information campaign targeting Latinos. Five years later, in June 2009, she was hired as a Gates Foundation program officer and stayed in Washington, D.C., where in 2005 she had met her future husband as volunteers helping patients get past protestors on their way into an abortion clinic. She currently serves on the board of directors for Planned Parenthood of Metro Washington, D.C. She and her husband, who works in nonprofit fundraising, have two young children and live in the District of Columbia with their pug and cairn terriers.

How do you see the field of U.S. philanthropy nowadays?

I would like to see more useful data to drive decisions on where funding is placed. There are a lot of individuals and organizations that want to make a difference, and it can seem that the best way to do that is through direct investments in programs, like mentoring, after-school initiatives, or library books, which are all important things to do. But I wish philanthropy would take into consideration the power of public policy to drive an issue to scale and to direct more resources to people than direct investments can do. Through public policy and advocacy, you can make changes that affect more people than direct investments in small programs alone. It’s fine to invest in the direct aid and programs, but to really make a difference, we need to change public policy, change laws and change mindsets.

What would be the biggest policy change that you would like to see?

Overall, we need a U.S. educational system that ensures that all students graduate ready to succeed, ready to go to college and achieve their dreams. Higher expectations for all kids, and common core standards are one avenue — and supporting teachers, so they can be as effective as they want and they need to be is another.

What about educational policies to help Latinos?

Latinos need the opportunity to graduate from high school and go on to college. High schools aren’t graduating them [college ready] … Too many are earning diplomas that are meaningless. So they go on to higher education taking remedial or developmental classes, and they get stuck there. So I think changes are needed all across the board, not just in the K-12 system, but in the higher education system as well.

What can philanthropy do to help Latinos?

One step would be recruiting Latinos into philanthropy, to have a philanthropic sector that looks more like the communities they serve and, as you know, there are many amazing Latinos out there who are accomplished in many fields and who are ready to be recruited. If we look at the research on early childhood development, we need to do a lot more to get Latinos involved in these [pre-school] programs and supporting Latina mothers in getting involved in those programs that are so important to early brain development and later school success.

How can there be better coordination among funders?

I think part of it is, before you choose to invest in an area, to see who else is investing and get a coordinated approach to the landscape and to identify the [funding] gaps. … You can go into a state and see who are the active funders, and you need to build relationships to be able to collaborate effectively. It’s hard work because it can seem easier to just go in and do it on your own.

What opportunities do you see for philanthropy to be more efficient?

Better and more effective use of technology: We’re really in a transition period right now. … There are a couple of good models for sharing information. Here at the foundation, we co-developed a model to help a federal government project to coordinate. … so that a grantee could make an application and get many funders to consider funding it. Philanthropy in general is not now using platforms and technology like that.

How do you see HIP’s role?

I appreciate HIP’s mission [to support Latino-led, Latino-serving nonprofits and increase the role of Latinos in philanthropy] in general, to have more Latinos involved and to support each other. … As a younger Latina involved in philanthropy, I think that HIP also has great potential to help reach out to young people to get involved in philanthropy.