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What's new is old? Industrial philanthropic focused on institution building; today's philanthropists are backing bold, entrepreneurial initiatives and advocating for broad-based reforms.

Philanthropy as we know it in the United States is an omnipresent entity. It has greatly shaped American society, including arts and culture, health care, colleges and universities, and schools. Major philanthropy has played a crucial role in K-12 education since the mid-to late-1800s, creating new schools, supporting research, infusing schools with fresh curricula, and shaping young minds.

Philanthropic interest in K-12 education has grown substantially in the past 10 years (Hess, 2005). In fact, the Foundation Center estimates that 25% of philanthropic giving goes to K-12 education, and that the 30 largest foundations account for more than 50% of all philanthropic giving to public schools (Foundation Center, 2010; Bishop & Green, 2009). Although philanthropy is minimal when compared to public support of education, it "often represents significant discretionary spending within the education sector" (McCarthy, Contardo, & Eckert, 2010, p. 253).

But critics have pointed to the lack of educational expertise held by philanthropists and the intrusive nature of their giving. Diane Ravitch recently argued that large-scale, corporate philanthropy has disproportionate influence on American education and is steering it in the wrong direction. In The Daily Beast, she described "a small group of billionaires that is promoting privatization, deprofessionalization, and high-stakes testing as fixes for American public schools" (Ravitch, 2011) and implied that other foundations are falling in line. About Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, in particular, she said, he "is using his vast resources to impose his will on the nation and to subvert the democratic process" (Ravitch, 2011, n.p.).

Chris Tebben of Grantmakers for Education, said it's not that simple. "Funders most certainly range in their perspectives on key issues, such as the merits of charter schools or the most efficacious ways to develop education's human capital. Ravitch's suggestion that a few wealthy individuals set an agenda that is followed lockstep by all of education philanthropy flies in the face of this reality, in which grant makers experience deep and passionate divides on how to achieve and sustain meaningful gains in student outcomes across the education pipeline," Tebben said (2010).

Ravitch (2011) describes the "billionaire boys club" approach to philanthropy as new and more recent. However, in many ways, the actions of today's philanthropists mirror the actions of philanthropists in the late 19th and 20th centuries. According to philanthropy historian Merle Curti, writing about the history of large-scale philanthropy in the 1950s, "Much that is now taken for granted in our educational programs owes a major debt to philanthropy in implementing the national idea of equality of opportunity"(1958, p. 433).

So, how does the current burst of philanthropic interest in education compare to the do-gooders of bygone eras?

Early philanthropists

Beginning in the late 1800s, industrialists began giving to education in myriad ways. Many industrialists from the North came South after the Civil War to look for semi-skilled workers for their railroads, steel mills, and coal mines. In order to ensure that workers were well trained, these men invested in primary and secondary schooling as well as college education. Many of these semi-skilled workers were African-Americans, and the industrialists educated them for menial labor and typically for self-serving purposes (Anderson, 1988; Anderson & Moss, 1999). Much like Ravitch's critique of Gates and other philanthropists (including the Walton family and Eli Broad), historians have criticized these early philanthropists for their invasive and oppressive philosophies of education. Historians have shown that, although harboring some altruistic values and ideas, many industrial philanthropists such as John D. Rockefeller Sr., Andrew Carnegie, and Julius Rosen wald, were pushing a selfish agenda focused on keeping African-Americans and the poor on the lower rungs of society (Anderson, 1988; Anderson & Moss, 1999; Watkins, 2001). These education historians also argue that the philanthropists attempted to control the minds of young people and intervened in school curricula (Watkins, 2001).

The Bill Gates of past generations was John D. Rockefeller Sr. In 1902, the oil tycoon created the General Education Board (GEB), an education philanthropy that wielded tremendous influence over rural primary and secondary education as well as higher education (including medical schools). Since many fewer individuals had access to cash during Rockefeller's life, it could be argued that he had much more influence than Gates philanthropically. Over the course of its existence, the GEB awarded $180 million in grants to education institutions (Fosdick, 1962; Harr & Johnson, 1988). Rockefeller Sr., his colleagues, and his son John D. Rockefeller Jr. were heavily involved with their grantees, dictating the use of funds in almost obsessive ways. For example, in the Rockefeller archives, there are copious notes related to the funding of everything from books and curriculum to landscaping and selecting teachers (Fosdick, 1962; Harr & Johnson, 1988; Gasman, 2007; Gasman, 2003).

Like Rockefeller, Sears & Roe-buck tycoon Rosenwald focused most of his philanthropy on education, building more than 5,000 schools for blacks in the South between 1913 and 1930. Of course, most historians forget to note that black communities were required to raise matching funds in order to acquire a school. Of note, the name on the schools was Rosenwald's and not that of any black citizen who helped raise funds (Anderson, 1988).

Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1905, and his foundation has since had a profound influence on both K-12 and higher education. For example, Carnegie funded the creation of libraries in local communities and on many college campuses throughout the nation. Also of note, the foundation created the Educational Testing Service in 1948--leading the way to an education world heavily influenced, and not always in the most positive ways, by standardized tests.

In 1936, Henry and Edsel Ford established the Ford Foundation, which has played a substantial role in education. In the 1950s, the Ford Foundation made one of the first grants to support the public broadcasting system and also helped establish the advanced placement program in U.S. high schools. In 1968, it pushed over $10 million into law schools to set up law school clinics. More conservative critics have accused the Ford Foundation of backing opposition movements or pushing against the status quo. On many campuses, the Ford Foundation helped change the curriculum, funding women's studies and African-American studies programs during the 1970s and beyond. Much like the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation was hands-on and involved with its grantees on the ground level.

In 1994, former ambassador Walter Annenberg gave $500 million to education, which, at the time, was the largest donation in history to K-12 education. With this contribution, Annenberg supported major reform efforts in many U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago. Much like Rosenwald, Annenberg required grantees to produce matching funds. Funders such as Rosenwald and Annenberg wanted to ensure accountability by communities and school districts, respectively. They also wanted to gain buy-in from these communities, making sure that they had a stake in creating schools or reform movements. In Annenberg's case, evaluators and critics have concluded that altruism and cash alone can't transform and reinvigorate education (Hess, 2005). Most of the critics say the Annenberg grants were poorly managed and ill-conceived and that the changes weren't systemic. Perhaps this is the case, but when are we ever happy with reform efforts in education?
Total U.S. charitable contributions in 2010: $290.89 billion
Biggest beneficiary sectors

Religious organizations  $100.63 billion (35%)
Other                      $89.1 billion (31%)
Education                  $41.67 billion(14%)
Foundations               $33.00 billion (11%)
Human services             $26.49 billion (9%)

Source: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. (2011).
Giving USA 2011: The annual report on philanthropy for the year
2010. Chicago, IL: Giving USA Foundation.

Note: Table made from pie chart.

Current era philanthropists

Like their earlier counterparts, today's education philanthropists also acquired their money through successful businesses. Bill Gates founded Microsoft Corp., Eli Broad made his fortune in real estate, and the Walton family through its chain of retail stores. However, in contrast to the earlier philanthropists, today's foundations have been pushing agendas, reframing education, funding the implementation of new ideas, and swaying public opinion on education.

Both Ravitch and Hess are correct that foundations as a whole are being more proactive in their approach to education support. Because there are more foundations and more wealthy individuals to create them, the effect is increasingly significant.

Today's foundations see public schools in crisis and no longer think this crisis can be ignored. They aren't willing to wait for educators to change. They don't automatically believe or trust that education schools or K-12 educators know the best ways to improve student learning. Today's philanthropists, most of whom acquired their wealth as entrepreneurs, aren't inclined to give in traditional ways or to organizations that reinforce bureaucracy or the status quo. Their foundations are lean and agile, making decisions in a rapid manner. They're looking for swiftness with regard to return on their investment. Many are impatient with schools and universities that operate at a much slower pace than their companies and foundations.

One major difference between today's philanthropists and individuals like Rockefeller and Carnegie is a focus on specific policies and reforms. The industrial philanthropists focused much of their efforts on institution building. Today's philanthropists are backing bold, entrepreneurial initiatives aimed at reforming education and are advocating at the national and state level for broad-based reforms. Rather than giving small gifts with few strings attached, foundations expect transparency and they watch the activities and actions of grantees closely.

Today's grant makers operate with a success-oriented agenda. They have moved on from supporting those entities that beg for assistance to empowering those with a success strategy. They fund specific issues and problems rather than trying to tackle every aspect of education. They focus their efforts. Today's funders prefer to support innovative people and organizations with great ideas--experts with determined energy. They aim to invest in meaningful ways, to increase institutional capacity, to challenge the status quo way of operating, and to create a competitive environment that spurs ingenuity. They want measurable results and continual evaluation. According to McCarthy, Contardo, and Eckert, "Corporate philanthropy leaders agree that data should be used to determine where to invest, measure outcomes, make changes to programs and strategy, and increase internal and external buy-in and support for successful investments" (2010, p. 256).

In the end, we have a lot of people who seemingly know very little about education making decisions related to the nation's children. These individuals work in corporate America--they care about American competitiveness and know what they want in terms of future employees. They want to align their corporate investments in education with their corporation's core business and bottom line needs. These foundation leaders have substantial capital and have a right to use it however they see fit. However, I would argue that they must act based on data, with the assistance of educational experts and with the best interests of the students they want to help in mind rather than merely their own interests. They must constantly be aware of the uneven power dynamics in philanthropic giving, refusing to assert control over education in a way that merely serves their purposes.

That said, educators must step up to the task of school reform if they don't want the so-called billionaire boys club to control the agenda. Educators must bring clear, concrete ideas to the table. We need to drop 'education speak' and jargon in national policy conversations and in teaching. Education is a practice-based discipline and should be accessible to the masses, not discussed in ways that only a few scholars can understand. We need to develop a positive attitude toward change and more of a willingness to let go of the status quo if it's not working. We need to stop arguing with one another and remember that the focus of our work and efforts should always be children. We shouldn't acquiesce to outsiders when they have bad ideas that rub against our expertise. However, when outsiders have innovative ideas, we need to be open to them rather than holding fast to our stubbornness. Education is a complicated structure and all of us are needed in order to make it work, improve, and thrive. Having more people at the table with more ideas seems like the best approach.

Given the growth of social media and networks, blogs, and capital, educational philanthropists will continue to have a substantial influence on American education. They can shape education much more quickly and more extensively than philanthropists of the past. Their money gives them access to policy makers and new forms of communication and ensures they will have a voice even if ignored by schools, educators, and education scholars. Rather than merely critiquing educational philanthropists, a better strategy is to work with them, educating them on what leads to student success. As we all strategize for the future of American education, we must remember that this is not about us, but about our children and those of our neighbor's. In our efforts, we must always remember to listen to the voice and perspectives of these children and their communities.


Anderson, E. & Moss, A. (1999). Dangerous donations: Northern philanthropy and Southern black education, 1902-30. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri.

Anderson, J.A. (1988). The education of blacks in the South, 1865-1930. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Bishop, M. & Green, M. (2009). Philanthrocapitalism: How giving can save the world. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.

Curti, M. (1958). Philanthropy and the national character. American Quarterly, 10 (4), 420-437.

Fosdick, R.B. (1962). Adventures in giving: The story of the General Education Board. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Foundation Center. (2010). Foundation giving trends. www.

Gasman, M. (2003). A word for every occasion: Appeals by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to white donors on behalf of the United Negro College Fund. History of Higher Education Annual, 22, 67-90.

Gasman, M. (2007). Envisioning black colleges: The history of the United Negro College Fund. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harr, J.E. & Johnson, P.J. (1988). The Rockefeller Century: Three generations of America's greatest family. New York, NY: Scribner.

Hess, F.M. (2005). With the best intentions: How philanthropy is reshaping K-12 education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

McCarthy, K., Contardo, J., & Eckert, L.M. (2010). Corporate investments in education during an economic downturn. International Journal of Educational Advancement, 9 (4), 251-265.

Meacham, J. (2009, December 20). Planetary problem solver. Newsweek, n.p.

Ravitch, D. (2011, May 23). Bill Gates: Selling bad advice to public schools. The Daily Beast.

Tebben, C. (2010, June 14). Our view of her view. Grantmakers for Education.

Watkins, W. (2001). The white architects of black education: Ideology and power in America, 1865-1954. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

"Muckrakers, progressives and socialists contended that large-scale giving placed far too much power over public policy in the hands of a few men whose fortunes after all had been created only because of prevailing social and economic conditions."

--Merle Curti,1958, p. 431

"The rise of nongovernmental organizations gives us real hope. You know, half of America's foundations have been created since I became president. It's an exploding thing. The promise of being able to create partnerships with governments and the private sector and proving we can do things much faster, cheaper, and better is really important."

--Bill Clinton, (Meacham, 2009, n.p.)
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Title Annotation:Philanthropies & education
Author:Gasman, Marybeth
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2012
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