As part of the research I’m conducting into who is shaping education technology policies and products, I’ve published a list of all the education-related grants that the Gates Foundation has awarded since 1998. (To give this some context, I’ve also published a timeline with the history of the Gates Foundation.)

Gates Foundation Education Grants (1998 - present)

The Gates Foundation does publish this data on its website, but neither its grants database nor its list of annual reports are particularly easy to parse. I hope that by making this information openly available to other journalists and researchers, we can all get a better sense of the role that the foundation’s funding efforts have played in education policy.

The data that powers this is available in a GitHub repository: Hack-Education-Data. (You can “fork” it, or you can copy any of the data. Yes, there’s an API that lets you pull all the grants by year.)

The amount of money is simply staggering: some $15 billion across some 3000+ grants.

I’m particularly interested in where the current push for “personalized learning” originated. And clearly the Gates Foundation has played a significant role, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on product development, project implementation, and marketing.

My god. The marketing.

I think it’s fairly well known how the Gates Foundation has backed a series of (failed) education projects: the Common Core, inBloom, small schools, MOOCs, and so on. But what’s striking when you look through all their grants is how much the organization has spent on publicizing these ideas – “educating” lawmakers and parents, funding research, and backing journalism outlets. (Edsurge, for example, has received some $5.2 million in grants – that’s in addition to the $5.66 million it’s raised in venture capital.)

And this raises at least one question that I’d like to follow up on: how much overlap is there in these grants? (Overlap. That’s not quite the right word.) For example, the Gates Foundation funds NewSchools Venture Fund, a venture philanthropy firm that backs a lot of charter schools and ed-tech startups (including EdSruge). Charter schools are the test-beds for a lot of these initiatives. What software are they encouraged to use? The Gates Foundation also funds a number of start-ups directly – in addition to Edsurge, it’s given grants to Lumen Learning, Learnzillion, and DreamBox Learning, for example. It feels like the Gates Foundation funds an initiative (like, for example, the Common Core or Khan Academy), then funds organizations building the product(s), then funds the promotion of the idea in schools and in legislatures, then funds the adoption of the products, then funds the research. It’s a nifty little self-reinforcing cycle.

Another follow-up question: what has happened to the grant recipients? How many projects – like inBloom – are defunct?

What can we glean about ed-tech trends by looking at the grants? How long before the Gates Foundation starts pushing an idea before we see broader adoption? (I’m looking at the push, starting circa 2012, to fund efforts to “rethink” financial aid, for example.)

One note: the Gates Foundation often puts its education efforts under the umbrella of its US-awarded grants. But the Gates Foundation is active in global education efforts. I’m probably overlooking some of those grants in my research. I also note that the Gates’ funding for Bridge International Academies, a for-profit startup that is seeking to displace public education in African countries, is not listed as a grant recipient. So there’s clearly more funding to be uncovered that’s venture philanthropy, not simply charitable giving.

Audrey Watters


Who's Funding Education Technology?

A Hack Education Project

Back to Archives