A recent announcement of a gift from Dalio Philanthropies to Connecticut’s public schools brings Barbara Dalio’s work in education into the spotlight. She’s a hands-on philanthropist and the wife of Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, one of the most successful hedge funds in the U.S. The wealth of these Giving Pledge signatories is estimated at more than $18 billion.
As part of a public-private partnership to support disengaged youth in public schools, the Dalios and the state government of Connecticut will each give $100 million toward a new $300 million project. They call on other philanthropists and business leaders to contribute the remaining third during the next five years. The Dalio’s gift is the largest known philanthropic donation to benefit the state of Connecticut to date.
Dalio Philanthropies has given out more than $1.5 billion since it formed in 2003. The private foundation gives in many areas including education, the environment, meditation and mental health, financial inclusion, the arts, and child welfare and capacity building in China. Before this pledge, its K-12 education funding totaled $65 million, according to the CT Post. The new program is largely based on Barbara Dalio’s firsthand research and relationship-building in the Connecticut schools her children attended. It aims to supplement and bolster the educational offerings available to teens in under-resourced public schools.
“Teens who are at the point of choosing between dropping out of high school or making it through and into a job are at a very important juncture in their lives. Their choice will have profound implications for what they and our society will be like,” Dalio tells Philanthropy Women.
A Mother Returns to School
Dalio came to the U.S. from Spain in her 20s. Now in her 70s, she lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, with her husband, the richest man in the state. Among other interests, she is an artist and art-lover who previously worked at the Whitney Museum.
Dalio’s four sons attended both public and private schools. When the youngest left home about 10 years ago, she bought an easel to invigorate her painting practice. But, she never used it, she told the Hartford Courant. Instead, she embarked on a personal journey to better understand U.S. public school classrooms by volunteering at an alternative high school. She discovered a love of education and began to apply herself to learning how best to fund in this area.
“I learned really how many needs the kids have, because they had kids with learning differences, kids that have had trauma in their lives, kids with emotional needs,” Dalio said. She added that it’s hard for schools to address these needs, especially when budgets cut back on essential personnel or services like social workers and mental health programs. Along with volunteering, Dalio went on to meet with and learn from diverse stakeholders in K-12 education, including teachers, principals, superintendents, union leaders, social workers and students.
Dalio Education Philanthropy
In concert with Dalio’s efforts, Dalio family philanthropy has supported private, charter and public education initiatives. St. Luke’s School; Teach for America; the charter school system Achievement First, which has schools in Hartford and New Haven; and the Carver Foundation of Norwalk, which provides after-school programs for public school students, have all benefited from Dalio giving. But during the past few years, the couple have shifted their focus from charter schools and education reform toward aiding public schools and helping high schoolers succeed.
“I realized charter schools have their place and are doing great work, but it really doesn’t solve the problem… my heart was not there,” Dalio told the CT Post.
Dalio Philanthropies now focuses its education giving on public schools in several ways, including through a partnership with DonorsChoose and by backing the Connecticut RISE Network, both of which fund teachers. It also aims to help disengaged kids reconnect to school through a program called the Connecticut Opportunity Project, along with the recent $100 million commitment to the public school system.
“I am delighted to see that the Dalio family is putting money into public schools, not charter schools. That’s where 90 percent of the children are,” Diane Ravitch says of the Dalio’s recent gift. Ravitch is an education author, historian and professor and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education.
The new $300 million multisector partnership for Connecticut’s public schools centers on supplemental programming and personalized support for academically disengaged teens in under-resourced communities.
“In Connecticut, 22 percent of high school students have either already dropped out of high school or at-risk of dropping out,” Dalio says. Mentoring, individualized interventions, tutoring, summer school catch-up sessions, wrap-around programming, youth development and placement assistance in upwardly mobile jobs are some of the new program’s foci.
“I know that we can cost-effectively help [these teens] make the right choice to have better outcomes for themselves and for our community,” Dalio says.
“Teachers are saints” who are “starving for resources,” Ray Dalio told CNBC. In the same interview, he and Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont also point out that helping struggling students will save the state money in the long run, and that Connecticut needs these young people to fill empty jobs.
The new $300 million plan will also support local entrepreneurs through programs like microfinance, a strategy Dalio Philanthropies has also carried out in the past. Economic inequality and the income gap, which are significant and growing issues in Connecticut, are established concerns for the Dalios.
The couple have come out as strong critics of American capitalism as a whole, particularly in regard to how it doesn’t work for a vast majority of the population. “I believe that all good things taken to an extreme can be self-destructive, and that everything must evolve or die. This is now true for capitalism,” Ray Dalio recently wrote. In the same blog, he adds, “To me, the most intolerable situation is how our system fails to take good care of so many of our children.”
The new investment to help struggling teens in public schools ties together the Dalio’s social beliefs with Barbara’s personal exploration of and love for local education. And by addressing the needs of public schools, Barbara and Ray are helping to support systems-level change, a strategy often employed by feminist philanthropy.
Philanthropy Based on Personal Connections
The Dalios plan to drive the initiative with teachers’ ideas, as opposed to taking a top-heavy approach that ignores the diverse voices and daily needs on the ground. Working “with local stakeholders to ensure that community voice and input shape programming design and help advance positive outcomes as quickly and sustainably as possible,” is a stated goal. Listening to and connecting with teachers and grantees in-person and through brainstorming sessions remains a core practice for Dalio.
“Barbara Dalio has been doing this at schools across the state for many, many years — working with the teachers, getting their best ideas, and helping to fund them, so they can act on their ideas,” Lamont said.
Erin Benham, president of Meriden’s teachers’ union and a member of the State Board of Education, is one of the many educators who have gotten to know Dalio through her philanthropy. Benham described working with Dalio in this way: “It sounds like it’s too good to be true, but [Dalio] is truly a partner. She sits with us, listens to us. She laughs. She loves being with students, and she loves being with teachers.”