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Last Thursday, AEI hosted a conference on the “new” education philanthropy. Eight papers were released that described changes in K-12 and higher education philanthropy since Rick Hess’s 2005 volume “With the Best of Intentions.” (The papers and the event video are available here, and the dialogue on Twitter about the conference can be found using the hashtag #NewEdPhil.)
There were lots of great data points to ponder: did you know that the “big four” K-12 education foundations were mentioned almost 10 times as often in print media in 2013 as in 2000? Or that the Gates Foundation gives 22.6% of its higher education budget to community colleges, whereas 13 other large foundations give an average of 1.8%?
There’s much more to be found in each of the eight papers, but here are three takeaways:
Trying to get greater return on investment, many foundations have begun to give with an eye more toward policy change and advocacy than toward investing in school systems directly. According to Jeffrey Snyder, a doctoral student at Michigan State University, more recently established foundations have overlapped in their grantees to a much larger degree than traditional foundations, which gives the appearance of a more coordinated philanthropic effort. And “This Week in Education” writer Alexander Russo predicts even more coordination and even more focus on advocacy in the future.
In our paper, AEI research fellow Mike McShane and I find that 15 times more negative articles were written about philanthropies in 2013 as in 2000. Larry Cuban, professor emeritus at Stanford University, wrote a paper that provides his own critique of education philanthropies. It describes the pitfalls inherent in faithfully implementing a new policy, and he said at the conference that “educational philanthropists are myopic about the difficult journey from policy to practice.” And as Joanne Barkan, a writer for Dissent Magazine, said, philanthropists often stay in their own bubble and fail to ask difficult questions.
It’s clear that foundations are shifting their strategic priorities, but it’s not clear that they’re learning as much as possible from those shifts. Papers by The Marshall Project writer Dana Goldstein and by Michigan State assistant professor Sarah Reckhow and U. Michigan lecturer Megan Tompkins-Stange both demonstrate how philanthropic foundations recently began to align their policy and research priorities with hot-button policy debates. Snyder’s paper demonstrates clear distinctions between the giving behavior of newer and older foundations.
However, many people argue that foundations are not held accountable and tend to operate in secrecy. They can pull out of failed investments largely unscathed, whereas the communities and students involved suffer the consequences. And foundation officials are often reticent to discuss their experiences on the record. As NewSchools Venture Fund CEO Stacey Childress said, foundations are often highly secretive and very powerful—and might not even be aware of their own strength.
This all means that philanthropies may not be learning as much as they could from their previous experiences. Russo identifies 8 lessons that foundation officials have learned, which is encouraging, but could they have learned more? As Howard Fuller, distinguished professor of education at Marquette University, said in his remarks Thursday, “If there was no fight, you can be assured that nothing would be different.”
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