Published Online: November 14, 2006
Published in Print: November 15, 2006, as Relationship Between Education, Philanthropy Described as Strained

Relationship Between Education, Philanthropy Described as Strained

Relations between large philanthropies and education institutions are “seriously frayed, and in some places … in tatters,” finds a new analysis from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The book by scholars at the Stanford, Calif.-based policy and research center describes leaders in both sectors as frustrated with one another. The volume, published by Jossey-Bass, outlines ideas to improve relations and to increase effective grantmaking in K-12 and higher education.

“While each side had good things to say about the other, we were frankly stunned by the level of discontent we heard from the heads of major foundations,” said Thomas Ehrlich, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation. “And we were no less struck by the unhappiness expressed about foundations by those in education.”

These conclusions were based on interviews with some three dozen leaders who had worked with or for major foundations and educational institutions.

Despite the apparent problems, Reconnecting Education and Foundations: Turning Good Intentions Into Educational Capital finds that the amount of charitable giving in education continues to climb. In the K-12 arena, it cites one estimate of 2004 giving at about $2.7 billion, compared with $1.2 billion in 1997 and $407 million in 1990.

The book urges foundations to be more open about how they decide to approve or reject grant applications. It suggests that they bring in external reviewers to assess their work at various stages. And it calls for the creation of “educational capital” in grantmaking, by using ideas that build on existing research and practice, incorporating means for sustaining reforms, and identifying “non-negotiable” core concepts, among other ideas.

‘Bogged Down’

Mr. Ehrlich and Carnegie scholar-in-residence Ray Bacchetti, the book’s editors, discussed the findings Nov. 7 during the annual conference of Grantmakers for Education in San Francisco. The nonprofit membership organization, which is based there, includes more than 200 philanthropies.

Thomas Ehrlich

The Carnegie Foundation launched the research project in 2004 in connection with its centennial. Founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1905, the organization is focused on research and policy to improve teaching and learning in both K-12 and higher education. The foundation, which is entirely separate from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, does not issue grants.

The bulk of the book is reserved for a set of essays offering analyses of grantmaking issues and case studies. It also provides statistics on giving.

A key impetus for the book was the news a few years back that several major philanthropies were getting out of education grantmaking, Mr. Ehrlich said.

“Within the space of a very few months, as you may recall, and without a lot of warning, a number of the very leading foundations, Atlantic Philanthropies, Pew Charitable Trusts, Kellogg Foundation, and others, either stopped funding education entirely, or radically revised their foundation guidelines in terms of education support,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich highlighted complaints from foundation leaders working with K-12 institutions.

“We heard that leaders of K-12 schools are so bogged down in bureaucratic pressures that innovation is difficult, scaling up is impossible,” he said.

“Issues of K-12 reform are so large that it’s impossible, at least unless you’re a Gates Foundation, to have a real impact,” he added, referring to the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The leaders interviewed from big foundations complained that school reform had become so politicized and so messy that projects were hard to plan and often impossible to implement, he said. Some foundation leaders felt they had seen little return on their investments in terms of substantial improvements in education or widespread change.

For their part, education leaders had plenty of gripes, too. “Foundations, they said, don’t learn well from each other,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “They talk about collaboration, but they rarely, rarely do it, … and they are accountable to no one.”

Foundation leaders “make lousy lovers,” as one education leader is quoted as saying, because they abandon ideas in their hurry for results, and decisionmaking is often seen as “opaque,” the book says.

The book suggests that both sides find it very difficult to be honest with one another, and describes a “mating dance” between the two around discussions of grant money.

Truly Unique?

In outlining the recommendations, Mr. Bacchetti emphasized the need to ground grant projects in what is already known.

Ray Bacchetti

“In eight years as a program officer, the most overused adjective I heard to describe a central idea of a proposal was ‘unique,’ ” he said. “It was nearly always inaccurate, sometimes made more so by its adverbial pal, ‘truly.’ ”

The editors suggest that philanthropies post information on their Web sites on all grants issued and why they were approved, as well as a sampling of applications that were turned down and why.

William Porter, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, said he welcomed the study.

“I think there is too little public introspection of philanthropy,” he said, adding that many of the frustrations described in the book seem on target.

But he said the difficulties should not be interpreted to suggest grantmakers are giving up.

“I do worry that the disconnect argument is overstated,” he said. “Education philanthropy is a field that is still very much engaged in the work of improving schools.”

Van Schoales, a former educator who is now a program officer at the Piton Foundation in Denver, said the book’s recommendations seemed generally on target.

“A lot of foundations are changing tactics,” he said, noting that his own philanthropy is working on strategies both directly with the Denver school district and on the outside, so that the work can have a lasting impact beyond the tenure of one superintendent or school board.

At the same time, while there may be good reason to take seriously the frustrations expressed by philanthropies and education leaders, Mr. Schoales said the differences aren’t all bad.

“Sometimes that tension is OK,” he said.

Vol. 26, Issue 12, Pages 10-11

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