School & District Management

Grantmakers Seeking to Influence Policy

December 07, 2010 11 min read
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When Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri signed legislation this summer to establish a state funding formula for public schools, he didn’t do so at the Statehouse or a school: He signed it at the headquarters of the Rhode Island Foundation, a nod toward that philanthropy’s role in helping to devise and marshal support for the plan.

The community foundation worked intensively on multiple fronts to move the effort along, said Neil D. Steinberg, its president and chief executive officer.

“We funded research to support a funding formula,” he said. “We funded convenings of people across the state, and we actually went up [to the legislature] and testified and lobbied.”

Although direct lobbying on education by philanthropies appears to be rare—and is effectively prohibited for many because of their legal status—Mr. Steinberg’s foundation is not alone in pursuing ways to influence policy.

A recent report from the nonprofit group Grantmakers for Education finds that philanthropies nationwide are increasingly getting engaged with education policy matters at the local, state, and federal levels through a range of activities, in recognition of the powerful reach of government in setting priorities for schools and directing far more money than philanthropies ever could.

“The message we have communicated to our members is: If you’re serious about improving educational outcomes for students in this country, you have to think very carefully about the role of policy to do that,” said Christine T. Tebben, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a national network of public and private philanthropies based in Portland, Ore. “Policy is really an important part of the toolkit.”

Some prominent national grantmakers, perhaps most notably the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have been deeply engaged in the policy arena for some time and are seen as wielding a powerful—and, to critics, outsized—influence. But plenty of other philanthropies with more of a state or local focus are stepping forward, too.

The Rodel Foundation of Delaware, for instance, has been active in policy-related work for several years now. Recently, it provided money and other support to help the state put together its successful application for a federal Race to the Top grant. It also helped launch an advocacy group called Education Voters of Delaware.

The KDK-Harman Foundation in Austin, Texas, is gearing up to fight likely cuts to the public education budget in that state’s upcoming legislative session, amid a tight budget squeeze.

And the Ohio Grantmakers Forum, a state association of philanthropies, played a key role in an effort to develop consensus among various stakeholders around a set of education policy recommendations for Ohio. The forum then promoted the plan to the governor and lawmakers, and many of the ideas were reflected in legislation enacted in 2009, said George E. Espy, the group’s president.

Despite strict federal and state rules on lobbying, all grantmakers are free to provide general operating support (and specific project support meeting federal guidelines) to nonprofit organizations that engage in some lobbying activity, experts say. But in any case, observers emphasize that plenty of activities beyond lobbying for a bill can influence policy.

“In reality, there’s quite a bit that foundations can do that ranges from informing through public-awareness campaigns to coalition building, community organizing, trying to build the advocacy capacity of organizations ... and [supporting] research” that informs policy, said Julia E. Coffman, who advises philanthropies and is the director of the nonprofit Center for Evaluation Innovation in Washington, which as part of its work evaluates the effectiveness of advocacy efforts.

‘A Radical Thing’

Most grantmakers traditionally have eschewed engaging in the policy arena, experts say, whether because they thought it was inappropriate, illegal, or too risky to their reputation.

Ms. Tebben, from Grantmakers for Education, recalls the reluctance she perceived from many foundation officials to consider wading into policy matters back in 2002, at a conference her organization hosted.

“We had maybe one session out of 30 where funders were talking about policy,” she said. “And it was seen as a radical thing. ... People would say, ‘We don’t like to use the word policy.’ People were very, very anxious about it.”

Now, she says, the discussion has shifted from whether philanthropies should engage in the policy realm to how to do so effectively, what roles to serve, and how to evaluate their impact.

The organization’s most recent annual conference, held this fall in New Orleans, featured a variety of sessions that touched on policy and advocacy issues.

Among the most prominent philanthropic actors in the education policy sphere in recent years are some of the largest, such as the Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

(The Gates Foundation provides financial support for Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.)

Gates, for one, has supported a range of advocacy and policy-related organizations and projects, including attempts to toughen state high school graduation requirements; promote the development of more rigorous, common standards; and improve teacher quality.

The Seattle-based foundation recently provided grants of $250,000 each to nearly half the states to write their applications under the Race to the Top program, part of the 2009 federal stimulus law. Nine of the 12 winners got Gates aid. The $4 billion competitive grant program was designed to propel education changes focused on such issues as turning around low-performing schools, rethinking teacher evaluations, and embracing common standards.

In another example, the Gates and Broad foundations jointly underwrote the high-profile Ed in ’08 campaign, aimed at both giving education more prominence in the last presidential election and trying to get candidates to focus on a set of core issues, including strong and uniform standards, teacher quality, and extended learning time. They reportedly spent about $25 million on the venture.

The report issued last month by Grantmakers for Education, based on a survey of 164 grantmaking organizations, points to the rising prominence of engaging with public policy as part of their agendas.

Grants to influence public policy or build public will for policy changes were identified as part of the portfolio of 70 percent of survey respondents in 2010, up from 60 percent in a survey from 2009, the report finds. In addition, 35 percent of the 2010 respondents said they planned to increase their engagement in the policy arena over the next two years.

The most popular strategy identified by grantmakers was policy research and analysis, followed closely by advocacy and coalition-building.

‘Creating the Ecosystem’

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said he’s not surprised to see the interest.

“It’s pretty clear to me that policy is the best lever for philanthropy to change education,” he said. “At the end of the day, you roll up all the philanthropic spending [in K-12 education], and it’s less than a penny on the dollar. ... You have to change the way public dollars are spent.”

Mr. Steinberg of the Rhode Island Foundation—which as a community foundation has a permanent endowment, receives donations from individuals, corporations, and nonprofits, and serves a defined geographic area—said his group only recently began engaging with K-12 policy, though it has long made education grants.

In addition to its work on the state’s new school funding formula, the foundation was active in helping Rhode Island prepare its successful Race to the Top grant and in drumming up support for it. In fact, Mr. Steinberg joined the team that went to Washington to present the plan to the U.S. Department of Education. Further, the foundation this year committed to provide a partial match for a winning award under the federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant program, for a union-led endeavor to build a new model for evaluating educators.

Deborah A. Gist, Rhode Island’s state education commissioner, said Mr. Steinberg’s group has proven a valued “partner” in helping to advance “some really important changes in education policy.”

“It has been partially the financial support that they’ve provided, but it’s been more than that,” she added. “They have in many ways been a convener, a leader, and a supporter of our efforts.”

Paul A. Herdman, the president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, said a key goal for his organization is creating a state policy environment that is conducive to fostering “world-class schools.”

Among its activities, the foundation has commissioned research and provided financial backing for a broad-based convening of educators, business leaders, policymakers, and others that devised a plan, dubbed Vision 2015, for reimagining the state’s education system. The plan set the stage for policy changes, including a new assessment system, Mr. Herdman said.

In Texas, the KDK-Harman Foundation is gearing up to help stave off anticipated budget cuts for education.

“As a private foundation, we are not allowed to lobby,” said Jennifer M. Esterline, the executive director. “But we can educate. We can advocate on behalf of issues. We just can’t specify bills.”

Also, her group is working with its grantees to help get them more engaged with public policy and is also encouraging fellow foundations to get more involved.

The growing interest of philanthropy in policy has been helped along by various groups, including the Alliance for Justice, a Washington-based organization that conducts workshops for foundations and other nonprofits about the do’s and don’ts of advocacy and influencing policy.

“Advocacy is really a big topic and includes lots of different activities, most of which you could do without any restrictions or limitations,” said Doug Lakey, a senior director at the alliance. “That’s a message we have to hammer over and over again.”

That said, the group also carefully explains the legal restrictions on lobbying and other direct political-influence work. Foundations classified as public charities, such as the Rhode Island Foundation, can devote a portion of their manpower and direct grants specifically for lobbying, but face strict limits and reporting requirements. As for private foundations, they are effectively prohibited from doing so or from earmarking dollars to grantees specifically to lobby, according to the alliance, as they must pay a prohibitive tax on any such expenditures.

Too Much Influence?

Some observers express deep concerns about the role philanthropy is playing in policy.

In a book published this year, education historian Diane Ravitch addresses the issue in a chapter called “The Billionaire Boys’ Club,” singling out in particular the Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations as collectively wielding what she sees as too much influence.

“It is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations,” she writes. “There is something fundamentally anti-democratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people.”

In an interview, Ms. Ravitch said she doesn’t oppose philanthropies engaging in policy work, but expressed alarm at what she sees as so much money and influence working in lock step, and to have converged around an agenda she says has largely been embraced by the Obama administration, leaving little room for contrary ideas.

“We are seeing the strangulation of the political process by this kind of monopoly of public and private funding,” she said.

Kevin G. Welner, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said he, too, is concerned about the heavy influence exerted by a small number of wealthy philanthropies.

He also says foundations would benefit from more actively engaging with the low-income communities they are trying to help.

“It’s not enough simply to say, ‘I’m doing this for the benefit of vulnerable communities,’ ” he said. “You actually have to collaborate with those communities. ... I’m concerned that there is too much top-down elite decisionmaking.”

As one promising example, Mr. Welner points to an initiative called Communities for Public Education Reform, a project of the New York City-based nonprofit Public Interest Projects. Launched in 2007, the initiative provides grants, currently in six locations around the nation, to help community-based groups use grassroots organizing to engage parents, students, and others in school reform efforts, including to influence public policy. Funding comes from more than 50 foundations, and the goal is to provide $30 million in grants over six years.

Ultimately, experts say it’s challenging to gauge the impact of philanthropy on public policy. Ms. Coffman, the foundation consultant, said she sees policy-related work as a smart investment, but urges caution in setting expectations.

“The policy arena,” she said, “is an incredibly complex environment that’s influenced by a large range of factors.”


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