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Education Opinion

Getting In: The Challenges of Access to Elite Foundations

By Guest Blogger — May 26, 2016 3 min read
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Note: Our guest-blogger this week will be Megan Tompkins-Stange, an Assistant Professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Her first book, Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, will be released June 1 by Harvard Education Press.

The most frequent question I’ve received about Policy Patrons is “How did you get in?” That is, how did I get the informants to talk to me, and more importantly, to say anything beyond the party line?

In the foreword to Policy Patrons, Robert Schwartz, a leader in the field of education philanthropy and a former senior official at Pew, underscores the rarity of the interviewees’ candidness, writing that I “somehow managed to persuade sixty foundation insiders, including senior people from these four foundations, to sit for extended interviews.” Indeed, as Schwartz knows well, private foundations are essentially inaccessible to most citizens. Joel Fleishman, former president of the Atlantic Philanthropies, describes the typical foundation culture as one of “diffidence,” where distrust and secrecy infuses interactions with outsiders.

When I started the research that became Policy Patrons ten years ago, several of my faculty advisors believed that elite foundation officials represented one of the more impenetrable demographics I could possibly elect to interview. I was daunted, but not dissuaded, by these concerns. In a strange way, a culture of diffidence was familiar to me: prior to graduate school, I worked as an undergraduate admission officer at Stanford, and was struck by the parallels between the elite admission and philanthropy worlds.

The few, the proud, Stanford admits.

Both contexts were veiled to the public and the subject of great curiosity from outsiders. Both favored employees who displayed, in the words of one source, a “certain degree of sophistication” - coded language for an ability to navigate wealth and power with at least the appearance of comfort, or what Shamus Khan describes as the “ease” of elite privilege. Both used doublespeak to appease, but not commit to, the people who sought a coveted and prestigious resource and the legitimacy it conferred, whether admission to Stanford or a grant from a major foundation. Robert Schwartz and Nancy Hoffman describe this circumspection in the following way: "...to seal the curtain around foundations, good program officers are schooled in decorum. They are socialized to be pleasant, to listen well and respectfully, and not to disclose doubt, confusion, or dissatisfaction.” These are no better words to describe my experience as an admission officer—or my attempts to gain access to the inner workings of foundations.

Thus, I entered into the process of researching Policy Patrons with several cards in my favor, besides the obvious advantage of being a white person from an upper middle class background: my professional experience in elite institutional contexts through admissions; my status as a graduate student at an elite institution, where my mentors had significant political capital within philanthropy that they were willing to spend. In short, I was a relatively “connected” person to the elite foundation world, yet I was still very much an outsider. It took multiple years to gain the trust of informants, even with the promise of confidentiality and the benefit of personal endorsements from mentors.

And therein lies a key question: if it was so difficult for me to break into this culture, given the various advantages I had, how would the “average citizen” or the average grassroots organization do so? Foundations are rarely exposed to the voices of those who disagree with their actions. Restricting the ability of citizens to access foundations only underscores concerns about foundations’ undue influence in education policy—concerns that have been amplified in recent years, as foundations have invested in policy and advocacy-related initiatives to an unprecedented extent.

So, how did I get in? In a nutshell: through sheer persistence, over the course of years; whether my persistence is attributable to arrogance or naiveté is still up for debate. (As far as getting into Stanford, unfortunately, I can’t comment—it’s basically impossible these days. #nerdnation)

Bill and Melinda Gates model Nerd Nation attire during Stanford commencement.

Thanks for reading! Tomorrow I’ll wrap up my guest posts with some reflections on the balance between philanthropy and economic inequality.

--Megan Tompkins-Stange

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.