Education Funding Opinion

Philanthropy Gets in the Ring: Edu-Funders Get Serious About Education Policy

By Rick Hess — May 16, 2012 14 min read
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The year 2005 seems like a long time ago. That year, I published a hard look at education philanthropy titled With the Best of Intentions: How Philanthropy is Reshaping K-12 Education, using the dismal experience of the then recently concluded $1.1 billion Annenberg Challenge as a jumping-off point. At the same time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was walking away from the disappointing results of its enormous investment in small high schools.

At that point, Gates foundation officials were, for the first time, seriously considering whether to play an active role in shaping public policy. Race to the Top, the Common Core, Democrats for Education Reform, and StudentsFirst were unimagined. No one regarded New Orleans, Washington, D.C., or Newark as hotbeds of school reform. Diane Ravitch was still a champion of school choice and accountability, and few had heard of Barack Obama, Michelle Rhee, Deborah Gist, or Geoffrey Canada. No Child Left Behind was still novel and fairly popular, and not a single state was trying to build teacher evaluation around value-added systems.

In short, it was a different educational world. And I think it’s fair to say that a handful of key philanthropists have been responsible for much of the tectonic shift that we have seen since. A generation of new philanthropists—with names like Gates, Walton, Dell, Broad, Fischer, and Arnold—charged into the K-12 arena in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s. Having made billions in technology, energy, retail, and the like, they shared an impatience, an entrepreneurial bent, and a focus on measured outcomes that set them apart from established education givers.

Now, let me be straight—I think most of these developments have been good and promising. Obviously, readers are free to disagree. But, whatever one’s view, the past seven years offer telling insights about the evolving role of education philanthropy, the promise and the perils of the muscular philanthropy that unapologetically tried to change policy, and how both funders and the rest of us can best navigate the waters ahead.

A handful of key philanthropists have been responsible for much of the tectonic shift that we have seen since 2005.

A decade ago, a big frustration for edu-philanthropists was the sense that they would invest in exciting programs or practices, but that these never seemed to deliver lasting improvement. A piloted reading or mentoring program would offer promising results, only to disappoint when scaled. Or a foundation would underwrite professional development or a new curriculum for several years, only to see it die on the vine when outside funding dried up. Or funders would help launch dynamic schools, only to see them fall apart when the charismatic founder left.

Where an earlier generation of donors had chalked up the challenges to problems of implementation or program design, the new philanthropists were much more receptive to the notion that the problem was the inhospitable cultures, systems, and policy environments in which those scale-ups were being attempted. New donors who had made their fortunes in the new economy frequently staffed their foundations with Teach For America alums, MBAs, or other nontraditional educators and focused on problems posed by system rigidity, leadership, and policy. The new givers gravitated toward a strategy that rested on three key insights, all sketched out in Best Intentions (Hess, 2005):

First, University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene’s seminal analysis pointed out that the amount of edu-philanthropy is so small that it’s ridiculous to think that investments in programs or practice will have a noticeable effect. Using various approaches, Greene calculated that all private giving combined amounts to perhaps 1% of total K-12 spending—or, maybe, one penny on the dollar. Consequently, he argued that philanthropy only mattered when it funded “high-leverage investments” (e.g., when it altered policies or practices governing the long-term use of the public funds that account for 99% of school spending).

Second, Don McAdams, founder of the Center for Reform of School Systems, argued that philanthropy typically entails limited dollars in the grand scheme of things, but has an outsized influence because this money is nimble and can be used to drive a state or a district’s reforms, where it’s hugely difficult to redeploy more than a sliver of public funds.

Third, a vital piece of leverage was producing research and supporting advocacy in a manner that would shape policy. Policy analyst Andy Rotherham argued that this kind of investment could be aptly captured by the adage: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Foundation-backed advocacy, research, and proof points that new rules were possible and offered a way to alter public policies and priorities in order to create the conditions for long-term, systemic change.

At the time, I heartily endorsed the policy-centric approach that the contributors had encouraged, but also wrestled with some of the repercussions. I worried about foundations being wedded to reformers and thinkers who tell them what they want to hear, the perils of groupthink, the disinclination of critics to challenge deep-pocketed funders—and how all this gets even dicier when foundations are actively pursuing an agenda in policy or research.

What’s the Deal?

Caustic critics have accused the Gates foundation and other deep-pocketed donors of buying America’s schools. The truth is, even big-dollar philanthropy is pretty miniscule when viewed alongside the nation’s K-12 spending.

According to the Foundation Center, the five biggest K-12 givers in 2010 were:

• Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — $209 million;
• Walton Family Foundation — $110 million;
• W.K. Kellogg Foundation — $58 million;
• Michael and Susan Dell Foundation — $55 million; and
• Silicon Valley Community Foundation — $35 million (Foundation Center, 2012).

The top 10 donors gave about $585 million in total, out of total reported giving of $983 million. This total amounts to not even one-fifth of 1% of the $600 billion or so that the U.S. spends on K-12 schooling; the entirety of reported national giving in 2010 didn’t even add up to 5% of what New York City alone spent that year. Facebook Mark Zuckerberg’s enormous, widely discussed $100 million 2010 gift to the Newark, N.J., schools will amount to less than 3% of district spending during the four-year period in question.

That said, the “reform-minded” foundations (think Gates, Walton, Dell, et al.) have clearly developed a playbook that powerfully leverages their investments. For instance, $60 million in donor support was critical in helping former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee fund and win passage of a path-breaking collective bargaining agreement in 2010. Funders have been critical in encouraging the burgeoning success of influential, nonpartisan advocacy groups like Stand for Children, Advance Illinois, ConnCAN, and a wealth of imitators. A wave of philanthropy played a crucial role in creating a charter-centric New Orleans school system that has posted impressive results and become a national model for charter advocates.

The Gates and Broad foundations spent nearly $30 million on ED in ’08, an effort that failed to stimulate grassroots interest but that helped put the Common Core State Standards on the map. Subsequent funding, primarily by Gates, provided essential support for developing the Common Core and for states starting to wrestle with implementation. Foundations have played a critical role in Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), and developing and promoting teacher evaluation systems that draw far more heavily on value-added determinations. Whatever one’s take on this legacy, funders seem to have learned how to get a lot more oomph for their penny on the dollar.

The Big Shift

Clearly evident is a growing emphasis on three things: advocacy, research, and efforts to upend structural constraints. Although, historically, most foundation giving has focused on programs and practices (e.g., professional development or a new reading program), new efforts have taken to heart the lesson of leverage. A thicket of new advocacy groups now exists to mobilize parents, organize champions of charter schooling or merit pay, and challenge the more traditional powers (like teacher unions and school board associations). Research, most notably the Gates foundation’s $400 million Measures of Effective Teaching project, has started to refine, justify, and build a comfort level with dramatic changes in established policies. Pioneering efforts to upend tenure, remove barriers to charter schooling, or build out data systems create proof points that can reassure skeptical policy makers and offer replicable models.

As long as philanthropy is independent of government, even muscular efforts that promote certain policies or reshape the system are healthy and even invaluable.

Now, some critics have fretted that this kind of assertive philanthropy represents an assault on democratic values or is an invidious conspiracy to take over schools. I find these critiques less than compelling. Muscular philanthropy focused on public policy is hardly new. I don’t remember these concerns about the pernicious influence of grantors when the Ford Foundation bankrolled litigation to boost edu-spending in the 1970s and 1980s or when the Annenberg Challenge championed a mash-up of popular mid-1990s reforms. The big difference seems to be that those who dislike what Gates is promoting happened to like the Ford agenda. Active engagement by individuals, associations, communities, businesses, and nonprofits of varying resources and effect has long been part of our nation’s pluralist fabric. We’ve always been a Tocquevillian nation, where progress springs not from the genius of central planners but from the pushing and shoving of a hearty stew of self-interested actors.

I find assertive philanthropy to be an enormously healthy development, within limits. Philanthropy provides a vehicle for identifying and supporting promising individuals and ideas outside the public education bureaucracy. Some donors can light the way forward even as others provide a balancing wheel to counter the fads and groupthink of the moment. In the end, as long as philanthropy is independent of government, even muscular efforts that promote certain policies or reshape the system are healthy and even invaluable.

The Danger of the Echo Chamber

I find characterizations of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Michael Dell, John Arnold, or the Walton family as billionaires out to buy schooling to be off the mark, mean-spirited, and fairly incomprehensible (if these individuals were really focused on accumulating another billion, do critics really think that tedious campaigns to alter state policies on teacher evaluation or school choice would be the most promising path?). That said, there are real, significant causes for concern about the new philanthropy. And, as exasperating as it might seem, especially amidst volleys of cheap, ad hominem attacks, foundations that wade into policy have a responsibility to embrace criticism and feedback much more productively than has been the norm. After all, choosing to give funds in a way that changes policies for millions of kids and communities is different from underwriting a mentoring program. This kind of high-leverage giving is useful and, I think, necessary because no one else can play that role, but it does bring with it a new level of civic responsibility.

Leading influential philanthropies generally make a concerted effort at self-appraisal. They evaluate grants, engage in self-criticism, and convene groups to offer feedback on their giving. This is all swell as far as it goes, up until foundation officials convince themselves that they’ve heard the array of arguments and sorted through options.

When influential foundations and the federal government link arms, disagreeing with the President’s policies becomes an attack on the foundation agenda — and the foundation agendas, however subtly, get politicized.

The problem? Hard-hitting public exchanges—not private confabs—are the most effective forums for surfacing overlooked challenges, informing courses of action, or reframing the context in which decisions are made. The groups convened by foundations tend to include, naturally enough, friends, allies, and grantees. These aren’t the folks likely to offer a fresh take on strategy or to challenge comfortable assumptions—especially given the sensible disinclination of grantees to offend benefactors or of reformers to offend the engine funding their cause.

But, the truth is that foundations have a hard time getting smart, challenging, constructive pushback from the thinkers best equipped to do so. This isn’t a question of foundations trying to stifle free speech but of self-preservation making potential critics mealymouthed. First, academics, activists, and the policy community live in a world where philanthropists are royalty—where philanthropic support is often the ticket to tackling big projects, making a difference, and maintaining one’s livelihood. Even individuals and organizations that also receive financial support from government grants, tuition, endowments, or interest groups are eager to be on good terms with the philanthropic community.

Second, even if scholars themselves are insulated enough to risk being impolitic, they routinely collaborate with school districts, policy makers, and colleagues who want philanthropic support. Incurring the wrath of a major giver may make it more difficult for otherwise blunt scholars to collaborate with skittish colleagues, public officials, or educators. The irony is that leading experts on high schools, school choice, or urban school reform, for instance, tend to avoid commenting starkly on funders like Gates, Walton, or Annenberg.

All of this results in an amiable conspiracy of silence among the thoughtful and the serious. The usual scolds remain in the good graces of the foundations by training their fire on other, less sympathetic targets. Even if foundations take no explicit action, the natural instinct for self-preservation is enough to render a skittish education community even more reticent. The result: a vacuum that gets filled by incendiary voices and marginal figures with ideological agendas and nothing to lose.

These concerns are aggravated when we have foundations partnering with the federal government, as we’ve seen with Obama Administration initiatives like Race to the Top and i3. When influential foundations and the federal government link arms, disagreeing with the President’s policies is to attack the foundation agenda—and the foundation agenda, however subtly, gets politicized. Trust me, it’s no fun to square off against the executive branch or to be out of favor with the Secretary of Education. Indeed, it’s when presidential initiatives like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top are dominating the landscape and political pressures are encouraging leading thinkers to close ranks that the availability of diverse funders with distinctive views and priorities is especially vital in fostering healthy skepticism and critical analysis. When foundations are shoulder to shoulder with the executive branch or feel pressure to be “team players,” it threatens our ability to seriously debate and weigh the merits of either federal or foundation efforts (I’d argue that something very much like this happened with Race to the Top).

What to Do?

Odd as it may seem, I’m suggesting that foundations should make it conscious policy to welcome—even encourage—public criticism. I’m not talking about hired evaluations or strategic assessments conducted by friendly consultants but about rigorous debate over objectives, strategies, and outcomes. Given that even tart-tongued observers will be unusually reluctant to share their thoughts, foundations must make it extravagantly clear that they won’t blacklist critics and that they won’t look kindly upon anyone who does.

As for the explicit collaborations with the federal government, my advice is this: Stop it.

Of course, such debate inevitably entails critiques that may seem incomplete, wrong-headed, or unfair. However, the value of skeptics is that they raise unpleasant issues and make it possible for those inside an organizational bubble to see things in a new light. Engaging with critics in a real and sustained way is essential to forestalling the plagues of hubris and groupthink. (Foundations would find it easier to do this if the more vehement critics exercised a little more restraint and spent more time focused on substance and less attacking the motives of donors.)

As for explicit collaborations with the federal government, my advice is this: Stop it. It does indeed build on the notion of leverage. But it threatens to stifle criticism, leaves little obvious room for alternative approaches, and takes the risks to a whole new level. Ultimately, it’s a bridge too far.

Embracing public debate would require foundation boards to become more accepting of negative publicity than is the norm. It asks foundation staff to view themselves as fair game for public criticism, rather than stewards of noblesse oblige. This may seem like a lousy deal. But one lesson the new edu-philanthropists have learned is that mixed reviews are the painful price of relevance.


  • Foundation Center. (2012). Top 50 U.S. foundations awarding grants for elementary and secondary education, circa 2010. www.foundationcenter.org
  • Hess F. (2005). With the best of intentions: How philanthropy is reshaping K-12 education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.


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