Published Online:

Foundations Saying 'We All Have a Stake' in Schools

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Historically, philanthropic interest in the public schools has been, in the words of one observer, "abysmally low."

But there are signs that the education-reform movement, and a growing concern among foundations over children's welfare, may be changing that.

Since 1980, membership in the Council on Foundations' precollegiate division has soared--from 36 people to 212.

The large private foundations that traditionally have given to the schools, such as the Carnegie, by a host of others. For example:

The arco Foundation, which a decade ago gave only to higher education, last year assigned over half of its $11.5 million in contributions to precollege programs. The "turning point," according to Program Officer Fred A. Nelson, came in 1980, when arco made the largest single grant in its history--$2.55 million--to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

"Since then," Mr. Nelson says, "our support of precollege education in general ... has steadily increased," even at the expense of grants to higher education.

The Exxon Education Foundation, which in the past also has focused its efforts on colleges and universities, in 1986 created a separate elementary- and secondary-education program that distributed nearly $1.5 million in grants.

According to Arnold R. Shore, executive director of the foundation, the shift was motivated by two factors: research demonstrating the link between schooling and economic productivity; and evidence that education would not keep pace with employers' needs unless ways were found to deal with a changing population of children.

Two years ago, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation initiated an education program with a primary focus on the literacy of children ages 4 to 14. So far, it has distributed more than $9 million in grants, and foundation officials predict that contributions in the K-12 area will grow.

In its early years, the Lyndhurst Foundation in Chattanooga, Tenn., gave most of its education dollars to private schools in the local community. "Our work with the public-school system was sort of hit or miss," says Jack E. Murrah, the foundation's executive director.

But in the last few years, Lyndhurst has been the driving force behind the district's first magnet school and is currently helping to create a local school foundation.

In addition, several new foundations have chosen public education as a top priority, including the BellSouth Foundation in Atlanta and the Matsushita Foundation in Secaucus, N.J.

'On the Agenda'

Such signals are promising, says Mary K. Leonard, director of the Council on Foundations' precollegiate-education program, but they should be read with a degree of caution. With a national roster of some 25,000 foundations, she notes, "it's very hard to generalize."

Foundations give only a small percentage of their grants to elementary and secondary schools--4.5 percent in 1986, compared with 10.8 percent for higher education.

But there is no comprehensive listing of how that money is spent, Ms. Leonard notes, and categories of giving may be vague. A grant that one foundation characterizes as a higher-education initiative could be funded through the precollegiate program of another.

"I can see some movement on a national level, but it's not happening in every foundation," she says.

Nonetheless, it is in the right direction, according to Paul N. Ylvisaker, a senior consultant to the council and professor of education at Harvard University.

"If you were to go back, as I did, over a 30-year period to find out what foundations had given to precollegiate education--and particularly to public schools," he says, "it was abysmally low."

Many foundations have either had explicit guidelines against funding public education or have never done it.

But since 1981, Mr. Ylvisaker says, "the plight of the schools--and particularly the public schools--has finally come up on the agenda of a good number of foundations."

Business and Community

Observers agree that the most notable growth has been in the corporate sector, even though its education support still goes primarily to colleges and universities.

In 1986, for example, the nation's 370 largest corporations gave only 6.1 percent of their direct charitable contributions in education to the precollegiate level--or $39.6 million out of a total of $652 million.

But that figure, says Jane F. Hammond, director of research for the Council for Financial Aid to Education, was up from 5.2 percent in 1984. She notes that corporations also gave $12.9 million for economics education in 1986, mostly in grades K-12.

Moreover, in a survey released last month by the Conference Board, nearly two-thirds of the 130 major corporations polled listed elementary and secondary education as their top community concern. In 1985, only 42 percent did so.

The number of corporations that will match their employees' gifts to primary and secondary education has also jumped 12 percent in the last seven years--from 503 in 1981 to 701 today, according to the National Clearinghouse for Corporate Matching Gift Information.

"There is so much discussion and consideration given to education issues right now within the corporate community," says Peter B. Goldberg, vice president of the Primerica Foundation, "that it's hard for any corporate foundation officer or grantsmaking officer not to have been involved at some level."

Interest in education also seems to be blossoming among the nation's approximately 300 community foundations.

Traditionally, these groups have focused their efforts on the arts, health-related services, and social services, says Gloria Frazier, a consultant to the Council on Foundations.

But based on her discussions and correspondence with nearly one-fourth of the community foundations nationwide, Ms. Frazier notes that "there is a greater interest in figuring out how to work with the schools."

'Enlightened Self-Interest'

Philanthropy's growing attention to public education can be attributed, in part, to the spate of reports on school reform that have been released since 1982, says Theodore Lobman, vice president for the Stuart Foundations in San Francisco.

But national concern about the condition of children is also a factor, he adds. "As families collapse and child-protective services look less and less attractive, the schools seem to be all there is left."

Others point to what they call "enlightened self-interest" on the part of both private and corporate philanthropies.

Foundations that have previously supported higher education are worried about the supply and quality of students feeding the nation's colleges and universities. Corporations want to ensure a steady flow of well-qualified and educated workers.

These worries have combined to turn philanthropists' interest first to the high schools and increasingly to even younger age levels.

Such pragmatic concerns have also inspired new sources of support--including some local corporate, community, and family foundations that previously had paid scant attention to the schools.

'A Changing Mindset'

"Ten years ago, I think it would have been very difficult to get local foundations to consider giving to public education," says S. Paul Reville, executive vice president of the Alliance for Education in Worcester, Mass., a public-education foundation.

"Basically, the view was that the tax levy takes care of public education, and the purpose of private philanthropy is to take care of those institutions that don't draw on tax funds," he notes. "But in recent years, I think there's been an increasing awareness that we all have a stake in the school system."

Although many corporate leaders stress that public education should be funded primarily through the tax base, their heightened interest in school reform has led to a little-anticipated dividend: corporations speaking out for tax hikes.

"I think that corporations and corporate leaders are faced with the reality that they're increasingly going to have to call for greater public-sector expenditures for education," says Mr. Goldberg of Primerica. "There's a changing mindset."

That change was highlighted last March, when some of the nation's top corporate executives traveled to Washington to lobby for more money for remedial education, Head Start, and other federal education programs.

But despite such positive signs, Mr. Reville notes, finding private dollars for public schools is "still not an easy sell."

Looking for 'Impact'

Particularly because of federal budget cuts, he states, "local foundations and corporations are being hit up by a wide array of human-service causes, many of which would never have approached them 10 years ago. Education is one more cause they're being asked to address."

"It is still very difficult for public schools or public-education projects to get funding," agrees the educational researcher John I. Goodlad, author of A Place Called School.

"The resources are badly spread around," he says, and foundations interested in precollege initiatives remain "very few in number and very hard pressed."

Partly as a result, foundations are searching for ways to stretch limited dollars, piggyback programs onto existing reform efforts, and stimulate more lasting changes.

"The days of the big-dollar grants for a 6- or 12-month program with demonstrated results at the end of a short term are over," says Thomas Payzant, superintendent of the San Diego Public Schools.

In general, experts say, foundations are less willing to provide money on request for ancillary programs and more interested in using their grants to influence the core educational mission of the schools.

"There is a concern with finding ways to use money other than in a peripheral way," says Leonard Lund, a senior research associate with the Conference Board in New York City.

"You used to consider that if you gave money to outfit the band or athletic team, you were making a major contribution," he says, "but in the long run that didn't have much of an impact on the learning aspect. Now, there is a concern with spending money that will impact on instruction."

"Increasingly, I sense a willingness among corporations to engage in the broader discussion," says Mr. Goldberg. "How do we improve the school system? How do we enable the school system to better serve all kids?"

Adopt-a-school programs and school-business partnerships may have been a necessary precursor to such efforts, he says.

In a similar way, Ms. Frazier notes, community foundations are "re-evaluating how they might either use their funds or their staffing differently in relation to improving education."

In the past, she explains, such foundations have provided mini-grants for teachers, principals, and students. Or they have used their funds to provide materials and supplies for particular school programs during economic crunches.

Now, she says, they are beginning to explore their roles as catalysts for change and as convenors of all the community groups with a stake in the school system. The Council on Foundations has received a $70,000 grant from the Primerica Foundation to stimulate such efforts.

In Pittsburgh, notes David Bergholz, president of the Public Education Fund, local foundations "are heavily involved in basic reform issues--major writing programs in the system, teacher retraining, at-risk kids, teen-age pregnancy--the whole range of issues that they wouldn't have touched with a 10-foot pole 10 years ago."

The "more sophisticated foundations," he adds, have also "learned to be pretty careful about not getting trapped into those areas of programs that are best paid for publicly."

"Do you pay for the release time of teachers?" he asks. "A few years ago, lots of people would just have rolled over and played dead, and assumed that was something [foundations] should do."

'More Aggressive'

As foundation officials become more involved in the schools, however, they are also becoming less willing to sit back and let school officials tell them what to fund.

"Foundations understand the issues better and therefore have a point of view," says Mr. Bergholz. "Increasingly, they are coming to the table saying, 'This is what I'd like to be involved in."'

"We've become more aggressive in finding opportunities in education, rather than just reacting to opportunities that were brought to us," agrees Thomas W. Lambeth, executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Two years ago, the foundation was instrumental in creating the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit organization that enables teachers, administrators, parents, and others to engage in long-range planning for the state's school system.

"Three or four years ago, you would not have found this foundation doing that," says Mr. Lambeth.

Some foundation officials also say they are relying more on "invitational" grantsmaking and are spending more time with applicants during the planning process, in order to help direct projects. Although such techniques have commonly been used by large private foundations, they are now becoming more widespread.

"There's a lot more receptivity to the 'short idea' or 'concept' paper, and much more give-and-take," says Mr. Payzant of San Diego, "rather than a formal request for proposals and a voluminous written document that competes with many others."

In addition, foundation officials say they are spending more time "in the field," due, in part, to what they characterize as a changing ethos within philanthropic organizations.

"The standard for credibility now is that you have a little dirt under your fingernails," says Peter Gerber, director of the education program for the MacArthur Foundation. "You have to have seen it. The personal experience is more valued. As you want to take more initiative, your credibility depends on knowing what's doing. And knowing it only through paper and reports isn't sufficient."

Third Parties

A growing number of communities have also created private foundations to stimulate grants and local contributions to public education.

These foundations--which are technically independent of the school system--have provided a new entree into the schools for private interests.

Although there are no national statistics on the number of school districts that have such foundations, experts estimate there are more than 2,000 nationwide.

Such "brokering agencies," says Alberta B. Arthurs, director for arts and humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation, can "often move with greater rapidity and reach the individuals who can make a difference more quickly than can the bureaucracy itself."

"It's an advantage to have an organization with flexibility and dexterity helping the system identify ways of improving," she notes.

Adds Michael S. Joyce, executive director of the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee: "Many foundations are reluctant simply to take their money and put it directly into the public-school system--particularly, when the issue or the project is framed by the people in the system. I think there's a tendency to look outside ... to introduce incentives and that kind of thing."

Where such third parties exist, experts note, local community, family, and corporate foundations may be more willing to give money to the schools, because they perceive the money will be better spent.

'It's a Long Wait'

The burgeoning interest in schools, however, is also highlighting some of the recurring dilemmas in the foundation-grantee relationship.

For example, knowing where to jump into the public-school system--particularly, in large urban areas--can be difficult.

"You're dealing with large entrenched public bureaucracies, not all of which are equally amenable to change," says Mr. Goldberg of Primerica. "In some cases, you need major improvements in the system, but corporations have only a minor capability to yield those changes."

In addition, changing schools is an extremely slow process that many foundation officials and their boards find frustrating.

"It takes a long time to see visible outcomes," says Ms. Leonard from the Council on Foundations. "You put some money into early-childhood programs, and you don't see the results for the next 11 years. For a board that's looking for impact, it's a long wait."

"Hyped-up expectations," adds Mr. Gerber of MacArthur, can frustrate foundations that are "either looking for the golden bullet, on the one hand, or thinking that good ideas can be disseminated and adopted like a prairie fire running across the country, on the other."

"Very few foundations want to focus on the 'bridge concept'--on how to move research into the classroom where it can be used by teachers and principals," says Samuel G. Sava, an educator who spent 15 years as a foundation officer.

"I think most foundations want to undertake experimental projects," says Mr. Sava, now executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. "They want to try a new method of instruction, for example, and once they achieve that goal, the assumption is, 'Now that we have a new mousetrap, people will run to use it.' Unfortunately, it doesn't happen."


Foundations also have trouble evaluating their efforts to change school systems.

Sometimes, the difficulty stems from the poor quality of school data or from hard-to-measure objectives. But it is also a problem endemic to the philanthropic world.

"As a staff person, there's never enough time for me to spend on follow-up," says Nelvia M. Brady, a senior staff associate with the Chicago Community Trust. "Just naturally, the priorities are what's coming in and not what's been completed."

The lack of ongoing evaluation, says Mr. Bergholz of Pittsburgh, means that foundations "don't get the kind of feedback that says, 'Look, let's get off this bandwagon. It's not going anywhere. Let's try something else."

Another Fad?

As more foundations begin to tackle problems deeply embedded in school systems, observers are also worried about their staying power.

"The only set of institutions that are probably more fad-driven than school systems are foundations," says Mr. Bergholz.

Mr. Goodlad agrees: "I think [foundations] get uneasy too soon about their areas of support and start re-examining what they're doing too soon."

"Again and again, I get a proposal in only to hear that they're rethinking their priorities," he says. "That's important, but it can be very disruptive."

Corporate mergers are also exacerbating instability in the foundation world, says Peggy Funkhouser, executive director of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a public-education foundation.

"With changing personnel and changing leadership, getting anybody at a foundation to stay with anything long enough--including board members--is a problem," she says.

"As people in corporations change rapidly, and that's been happening a lot, ... it has the potential to be devastating."

'Don't Have the Luxury'

In addition, most observers note, it may still be difficult to get the majority of corporate and family foundations to shift their grantsmaking programs in education.

Although some foundations are systematically trying to intervene in the public schools, Mr. Goodlad says, "there are a lot of little family foundations kicking around yet" that distribute their money based on the individual interests of family members.

Many family foundations "have some pretty well-defined priorities or recipients," adds Mr. Murrah of the Lyndhurst Foundation, "and those historically have not been public schools."

Corporations may also be reluctant to move away from adopt-a-school programs and short-term projects toward more substantive agendas, "because a lot of them have experienced success in the short term," says Patricia Willis, executive director of the BellSouth Foundation, particularly, she notes, "from the standpoint of good public relations."

"Most companies have field people that conduct their education-relations programs," she says, "and there is neither the corporate need nor the responsibility to get immersed in education issues. People are out in the field to do the business of the corporations. They don't have the luxury I do, frankly, of really immersing myself in the issues."

'Opportunity' in Reform Era

Despite such drawbacks, many observers suggest that the climate is ripe for foundations and schools to move toward more mutually satisfactory arrangements.

The mandate for school reform, says Mr. Gerber of the MacArthur Foundation, "has provided an opportunity for the kind of innovation and newness which appeals to foundations."

And it has opened up new avenues for philanthropists to be "more involved with the substantive improvement that is sought by the schools,'' he says.

Public education has "really become a major area of corporate and foundation interest in recent years," agrees Robert Payton, a scholar-in-residence in philanthropic studies at the University of Virginia and former head of the Exxon Education Foundation.

"There's a lot to be pleased about," he says. "I think the principal caution is that we don't yet know what is going to work. There's a tendency for us to put a lot of energy into something like this and then lose interest and turn to something else. And if we don't stay with this one longer, these various initiatives won't survive."

Next Week: A look at several foundations that have launched ambitious efforts to reorient their grantsmaking strategies away from specific projects and toward whole schools, school districts, or communities.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories