September 21, 2016; American Prospect

In a recent interview in the American Prospect, Megan E. Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, explains that she begins a class she teaches on the subject of philanthropy with the opening question, “What is the foundation that you most admire?”

Although many people working in the nonprofit sector could probably answer this open-ended question without missing a beat (and possibly with a few backup answers to spare), she notes that her students provide responses like the Salvation Army, which is a well-known nonprofit but not a philanthropic foundation. She has concluded that outside of the nonprofit sector, “most people really conflate foundations and public charities, and there’s not a real understanding of who gives the money and who does the work on the ground.”

Attempting to continue what has become a growing national debate about the role of foundations in shaping national policy, her new book, Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform and the Politics of Influence, looks at four national foundations and examines how their “organizational histories, strategic priorities and valued expertise” have shaped their roles in influencing national policy.

Making the case that “arguably, no social sector in the United States is more heavily impacted by foundations than K-12 education,” with funding that has nearly quadrupled during the last three decades, Tompkins-Stange focused her study on four of the twenty largest philanthropies that are active in the education sector: the Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation, Kellogg Foundation and Ford Foundation. She argues that the approaches each of these foundations take to public policy can be tracked via four “interrelated and mutually reinforcing institutional norms”:

  • How do the foundations manage grantees?
  • How do the foundations select partners?
  • How do the foundations frame problems?
  • How do the foundations evaluate results?

In keeping with her aim that this book “be accepted as an academic and empirical book, as opposed to a piece of advocacy,” she details her methodology in an appendix. Adding more detail about her approach, in the Foreword, Robert B. Schwartz, senior research fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, describes her method as “compelling.”

She somehow managed to persuade sixty foundation insiders, including senior people from these four foundations, to sit for extensive interviews, and because she promised them anonymity, they are for the most part remarkably candid.

As a key example of her findings, Tompkins-Stange indicates “Gates and Broad tended to frame (social) problems in a ‘technical’ fashion, preferring to address social issues that have a clear solution and where a causal link exists between the problem and the results.” In contrast, she explains that Kellogg and Ford “primarily framed problems in an ‘adaptive’ way, viewing problems as caused by multifaceted factors that are frequently political, social and cultural in nature and cannot be solved through technical intervention.”

The book includes many valuable insights from foundation insiders and grantees regarding the business of grantmaking. As an example, one interviewee listed as “a grantee of both Gates and Broad” echoed a common refrain for development staff:

A not-insubstantial part of the job is maintaining relationships with program officers. [It’s] absolutely crucial. You cannot run a place like this by looking at a website and following grant guidelines. That is in no way the way it works at all.

The book also provides insights from foundation officials, such as this individual from the Ford Foundation who shared information about the organization’s changed perspective.

We’re rejecting these purely scientific, rational grant-making viewpoints. [Foundation] metrics are usually like, “A leads to B and this will eventually happen.” Foundations can sit in an ivory tower and predict, here’s how the world’s going to work over the next twenty years. We just don’t think that’s reasonable anymore.

The book concludes with some thought-provoking questions regarding the role of philanthropic organizations in a democracy. According to Tompkins-Stange, this discussion “is a necessity in order to enable the American public to be more critical consumers of the reform measures and policies that affect them.”—Anne Eigeman