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[Review] Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence

June 20, 2016

From the fight over Common Core and concerns about charter school expansion to the fallout from Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to the public school district in Newark, New Jersey, the role of philanthropy in shaping education reform has been a topic of discussion for years. Indeed, foundation funding for education has nearly quadrupled over the last three decades, while major funders like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation have been routinely criticized for their top-down approach and outsize influence in advancing specific reform agendas.

Cover_policy_patronsWhat role, then, should foundations play in supporting education reform? In Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, Megan E. Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, explores the question by comparing the "outcome-oriented" models of Gates and Broad with the more traditional "field-oriented" approaches of foundations such as Ford and Kellogg. Based on archival material and extensive interviews conducted anonymously with foundation and grantee executives and staff as well as education experts, her book offers a nuanced look at how major education funders view their reform strategies — and how they are viewed by others.

Founded in 2000 and 1999 in Seattle and Los Angeles, respectively, the Gates and Broad foundations are the "new players" in the field of education philanthropy, which before their emergence on the scene had been the domain of East Coast institutions like the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Annenberg and Ford foundations. It was the latter's $500 million Annenberg Challenge, launched in 1993 and now widely viewed "as a failure due to its dilution of capital across too many school districts, resulting in a lack of concentrated impact," however, that really brought philanthropy's role in education reform to the fore. In contrast, Bill Gates and Eli Broad, who are closely identified with the rise of philanthrocapitalism in the mid-2000s, have focused their efforts on achieving "concrete outcomes that yield significant return on investment...initiatives that reflect market-based values, such as choice and competition." In their view, Tompkins-Stange writes, foundations "should act as effective, efficient problem solvers that can circumvent bureaucratic blockages and catalyze innovation."

In 2006, Gates, whose support earlier in the decade for the creation of "small schools" within large public schools had little impact, shifted his focus and that of his foundation from structural education reform efforts to systemic reform, with an emphasis on teacher effectiveness and state standards and assessments. According to a former staffer, the foundation had "a very explicit theory of action about working at the state level to create a policy environment that would be supportive of the kinds of changes that [Gates] wanted to make." At the federal level, Gates has supported both Common Core and the Obama administration's Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation (i3) initiatives. Between 2005 and 2010, the share of its education funding allocated to policy advocacy — which, according to a Gates official, enables the foundation "to get maximum leverage out of the program invest that we make" — quadrupled, to 20 percent annually ($78 million in 2009).

In addition to its support for Common Core, the Broad Foundation has invested heavily in charter management organizations, "merit pay" for teachers, alternative pathways to certification, training professionals from other fields to become urban district administrators and principals, and the restructuring of district governance. Since 2012, it also has pursued a strategy to more directly target policy change through "transformative" federal and state policy investments — directing 40 percent to 50 percent of its resources to such efforts.

In the more traditional field-oriented camp, which holds that foundations "should be vehicles to foster citizenship and mobilize broad political participation," the Ford Foundation, since its founding in 1936, has supported what a staffer describes as "the basic infrastructure of citizen action...civil society groups, networks, alliances...for people to organize themselves for progressive causes." For example, it supported groups advocating for policy reform in support of civil rights in the 1960s, funded scholars and public interest law institutions working to advance school financing reform in the 1970s, and more recently has pushed for expanded learning time in public schools. Under its new president, Darren Walker, it also has announced that it will focus 100 percent of its resources on efforts to address inequality, in all its guises, even as it continues to support its "core values of building [the] capacity of communities to participate — building more agency and power, and offsetting efforts of elites and business leaders." As one Ford staffer told Tompkins-Stange: "Elites don't understand what policies [are] best for communities that are underserved. It's a disconnect to have an education strategy that's market driven [and] might drive away the creation of good schools in neighborhoods with low capacity."

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is another major philanthropy that has been involved in policy advocacy since its founding. Recently, the foundation reorganized its programs into three cross-cutting areas — education and learning, health and well-being, and family economic security — so as to better serve vulnerable families across program areas and "build collective policy action." It differs, however, from Gates, Broad, and even Ford in that it engages in policy "behind the scenes" rather than directly. "[I]n a subtle and understated way," one staffer told Tompkins-Stange, "it's part of our DNA here…that we give voice to those who are invisible and voiceless in policy conversations" and let "grantees speak for themselves."

Embedded in the Gates and Broad foundations' DNA, in contrast, is the entrepreneurial mindset of their living donors, both of whom founded and led hierarchical corporations, are accustomed to executive control, and view social issues as problems that can be solved by applying data-driven technological solutions (in Bill Gates' case), or putting the "right people" with managerial expertise into leadership positions (in Eli Broad's case). Both foundations are driven by a "tremendous sense of urgency" to achieve "transformative," "game-changing," and "major" impact, Tompkins-Stange writes, and their staff "often view[s] democratic governance as a hindrance or obstacle." Both foundations also are willing to use their respective founders' brand and political capital to influence policy, seeing it as a means to more efficiently achieve desired outcomes.

In contrast, both WKKF and Ford, "as a first-order priority, value the democratic engagement of broad populations in decision-making processes as opposed to focusing on efficient and effective outcomes," writes Tompkins-Stange, and view their roles as "infrastructure developers, facilitators of debates, and conveners of people." For both these foundations, the ability to influence policy is "an end in and of itself — a way to build grassroots coalitions and to increase the democratic mobilization of the communities."

The different approaches shape how the foundations select and manage grantees, frame problems and solutions, and evaluate outcomes. In broad outline, outcome-oriented foundations tend to retain centralized control of an initiative; tend to select elite-run "grasstops" organizations as their grantees; choose issues that are amenable to technical solutions informed by a clear theory of change; and evaluate results using quantifiable metrics that can demonstrate impact. Field-oriented foundations, on the other hand, tend to delegate more control to their grantees; prefer to work with community-based organizations; adopt an adaptive approach to address multifaceted problems that may not lend themselves to straightforward solutions; and integrate both quantitative and qualitative metrics to assess impact within a broader ecosystem of variables. One striking example of the former's need to maximize ROI, writes Tompkins-Stange, is the Gates Foundation's decision early on not to focus on men and boys of color because it was a small, high-cost, hard-to-serve population — "not a very good use of your dollar," as one interviewee who had worked with the foundation put it.

Yet the differences between the two approaches are not always cut and dried, and indeed some foundations are exploring a "bottom-up versus top-down mix." For instance, at Gates, which in the past has worked primarily with "key influentials," there is now a push to reach out to grassroots civil rights groups, a former executive at the foundation said, because "they know they've got to work with organizations that are representing minority communities." And Ford is working with both grassroots and grasstops partners, "insiders" and "outsiders" — a shift initiated by former Ford president Luis Ubiñas (2008-2013), who came to the foundation from global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, that reflects a "greater emphasis on a foundation-centric locus of control and more emphasis on elite engagement." At the same time, one Ford official said, an influx of staff with managerial backgrounds who have been pushing for programs and projects with more defined timelines and outcomes has created some internal tension.

Of course, suspicion of top-down philanthropy and, more broadly, foundation policy activism is as old as the 1916 Walsh Commission's concern about wealthy industrialists' "meddling" in education and social issues, McCarthy-era accusations that foundations were "seed-beds of subversion" disguised as philanthropies, and 1960s congressional hearings that resulted in the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which, among other things, prohibited foundations from acting as "direct agents of influence" on any legislation or political campaign. Such concerns are alive and well in 2016, writes Tompkins-Stange, who heard from a number of interviewees that the Gates Foundation's significant investment in education reform might be construed as an effort to "strong-[arm] public policy" and could open the broader sector up to criticism. Some interviewees also worried that the push by some foundations to work more closely with government could lead to a group-think mindset, that reforms could be derailed when administrations change, and that sudden mid-course corrections on the part of foundations could damage the work of their grantees — concerns that could be grouped under the broader rubric of accountability, or lack thereof.

Indeed, "[a]ctive cultivation of broad processes of democratic deliberation represents one of the few mechanisms for foundations to demonstrate their accountability and legitimacy to the broader public," writes Tompkins-Stange. Unfortunately, the outcome-oriented approach, despite its emphasis on metrics and accountability, is often seen as not being accountable to low-income families of color who are directly affected by the education reforms championed by the foundations Tompkins-Stange examines in her book. And while the charge that "plutocratic processes" will never truly contribute to pluralistic, inclusive, democratic change applies to both types of foundations, the sheer size of a funder like Gates and the over-concentration of foundation resources in a few issues areas raises real concerns.

So what's a foundation to do? While Tompkins-Stange concludes that there is no single right answer, she is clearly concerned that so many people are willing to promote the outcome-oriented philanthrocapitalist approach as "common sense," "obvious," and "powerfully intuitive." Citing a 1981 critique of foundations' "class privilege," she writes: "The real success of a particular class's push for societal predominance occurs when it uses it political, moral, and intellectual leadership to articulate a basic world view that subordinate classes come to adopt." Moreover, given the financial, social, and political influence that foundations have on public policy, questions of democratic governance simply must be debated in more depth. As a Ford official told her, the sector needs "to think more rigorously about the conditions under which different approaches to philanthropy are more or less effective and more or less legitimate....[T]here are certain areas where it's fine to take a…directed top-down, scientific, concentrated approach, and there are other areas where it [is] disastrous to do that."

Who should lead the charge? Several interviewees suggested that major infrastructure organizations like the Council on Foundations, Independent Sector, and Foundation Center (PND's parent organization) should take more of a proactive stance with respect to these issues, while others noted that, given the ideological diversity of the foundation world, "professional associations were justifiably reluctant to spearhead a normative conversation." Nevertheless, as inequality of all kinds continues to increase in the U.S. — and around the world — a serious debate about the role of inclusive, democratic processes in philanthropy and the foundation world would seem to be in order. Policy Patrons offers a hopeful glimpse into how such a discussion might begin.

Kyoko Uchida is PND's features editor. For more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.

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