May 16, 2018; ABC News (Associated Press)
Size matters in the world of philanthropy; it changes the rules in troubling ways. The Associated Press recently looked at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s ongoing efforts to “reform” American public education, a topic about which NPQ has often written, coming away with many of the same observations. The model the AP applies to its examination offers some insights into the growing number of organizations established by a new generation of wealthy donors to manage their resources as attempt to improve the world. The independence their size provides allows them to fund needed services and intervene in matters of public policy at the same time through the use of media and other influence.
Formed 18 years ago, the Gates Foundation now has assets of more than $50 billion. With the addition of a sizable contribution from Warren Buffett, it combines the assets of two the nation’s wealthiest families within an organization that is closely controlled by Bill and Melinda Gates. A primary focus of the Foundation has been “ensuring that all students graduate from high school prepared for college and have an opportunity to earn a post-secondary degree with labor-market value. The Foundation is particularly concerned with improving access to quality educational opportunities for lower income and minority students.”
From its very beginnings, the Foundation has put its significant resources behind this objective. According to the AP, the foundation has “contributed more than $6 billion toward reshaping American schools” since 2001, with as much focus on system change as specific programmatic projects. In a sector with chronic funding shortages, the Foundation’s grants have been major drivers of the effort to make public schools more competitive and choice-based. The Foundation supported the creation of a standard curriculum and national testing system so student progress could be measured through standardized tests. It made major investments in efforts to improve the effectiveness of teachers, which included tying student test outcomes to teacher evaluations. It supported experiments in restructuring schools that included the creation of “small schools” and the growth of independent charter schools. While many of these efforts proved ineffective, the Foundation’s size allows autonomy that, unlike most nonprofit organizations, lets it continue with its vision unchanged.
For example, the Gates Foundation was a major supporter for the creation of the Common Core Curriculum, an effort to establish a standard against which all students, teachers, and schools could be measured. Despite significant Foundation support, the effort to implement the CCC proved highly controversial and unpopular. In 2015, it lost federal government support when President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a reframing of nation educational legislation that explicitly removed the Department of Education’s ability to require states to mandate the CCC.
Many organizations, faced with little proof that their goals were being reached and a high degree of external opposition, would shift focus here. The Gates Foundation saw this as a spur to refocus and manage the political environment more effectively. Using more than $44 million in new grants, the Foundation continued to support organizations that could serve as policy experts to state policymakers and others who could change the public’s perception of the preferred solution. One of these grantees, Achieve, Inc., according to the AP, “collaborated with local leaders to compile information about new state education plans.” Mike Cohen, Achieve’s president, told the AP, “Our focus has always been about standards, about helping states set the right expectations for students in terms of what they need to know so that they’re prepared for success after high school.” The Foundation also funded The 74 Media, Inc., “which last year published an exclusive story featuring the analysis of state plans done by the Collaborative for Student Success and quoting an expert voice from the Council of Chief State School Officers. Gates gave all three groups money to work on Every Student Succeeds Act.”
From the Foundation’s perspective, this new approach to implementing a struggling strategy represents effective organizational learning. Allan Golston, president of the Gates Foundation’s US work, told the AP, “It’s necessary to take a multidimensional approach to play at the system-wide level. We’re thoughtful about the programmatic dimensions and advocacy and communications dimensions. That’s just the nature of being in education and we’ve learned over time that you have to be thoughtful.”
For critics, this approach is just a way to stay above outside influence; with no dependence on outside funders, accountability is only an internal process. “They’re doing it in a quiet way because they don’t want the general public to know they’re still meddling in education policy,” said Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education.
If nonprofit organizations, including charitable foundations, are granted their special status because of the public benefit they provide, the ability of large foundations to operate with little or no public oversight is troubling. The lessons we learned in 2007 and 2008 about the dangers of large financial institutions operating without appropriate oversight may now apply to large philanthropic organizations as well. As Erin Rubin, writing recently in NPQ, observed, “If we are truly in an ‘age of philanthropy,’ perhaps it’s time for an ‘age of self-examination’ in the sector as well. The civil sector was largely built to support democratic action, but are big philanthropy’s current narcissistic habits mostly a thwarting of it?”—Martin Levine