New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Democracy / Philanthropy and Education

Maribel Morey Reviews Tompkins-Stange’s POLICY PATRONS (2016)

Editors’ Note: HistPhil co-editor, Maribel Morey, reviews Megan Tompkins-Stange’s new bookPolicy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Education Press, 2016).

In Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, Megan Tompkins-Stange provides a fascinating peek into staff mentalities at the Gates, Broad, Kellogg, and Ford foundations. This is a rare treat because, as she notes, “[f]oundations’ actions are frequently opaque, concealed in order to protect against legal and reputational risk” (8). It is little surprise then that Tompkins-Stange had to guarantee anonymity to the foundation staff members she interviewed. These anonymous interviewees included a foundation president, directors, and program officers. There were also several academics, philanthropic consultants, grantees, and individuals from professional philanthropic associations and other foundations. All in all, she conducted sixty interviews between 2010 and 2015, with each averaging about an hour (152-53).

From this data, Tompkins-Stange concludes that these four philanthropies’ approaches to policy reform “can broadly be located along a spectrum of two contrasting modes of engagement, defined by 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?” (54).

The author uses this analytic framework to organize her presentation of interviews, and ultimately, to contrast the mindsets of Gates and Broad staff members against those at the older Kellogg and Ford foundations. Readers learn that the former two foundations maintain control over their initiatives with grantees; prefer to work with elites; pursue narrow problems with technical solutions; and have a preference for quantitative methods in judging the effectiveness of their programs. By contrast, interviews with Kellogg and Ford informants suggest that these organizations maintain a preference for delegating control to grantees; working with community-based organizations; pursuing complex societal problems; and, using qualitative and quantitative measurements to analyze the value of their grants. Tompkins-Stange concludes the manuscript with a discussion of elite philanthropy in a democratic society, a topic addressed by some of her informants as well.

The vast majority of the book is dedicated to these comparisons and contrasts between foundations, and this seems to be where the author is most comfortable: teasing out the differences and commonalities of these organizations and serving as a vehicle for her informants’ differing viewpoints. I found this material very helpful in making sense of these foundations’ distinct and overlapping approaches to education policy reform, the main type of policy discussed in the book. At the same time, I wish that the author would have stopped more often throughout the chapters to share her thoughts on the interview material. She spent six years on this research, so she is likely more thoughtful on these topics than even many of her informants.

To be fair, Tompkins-Stange does inject her own judgments at times, and particularly in the final chapter where she theorizes on the role of elite foundations in democratic societies. She does not criticize any of these foundations for their differing strategies for policy reform, but does think that it is problematic that they dominate policy discussions to the point that their particular approaches to education reform, for example, become “commonsensical” to colleagues in philanthropy, government, and even the public. At that point, she explains, the public loses perspective on the other ways to shape policy (a point which she could have elaborated further).

Tompkins-Stange also brings in her personal voice in the final paragraph of the book: calling foundations to be more responsive to public criticisms of the sector and to be more open about their policy work (149). In this way, she suggests, elite philanthropy could play a greater democratizing role in American society.

The author emphasizes that this current lack of transparency between large foundations and the public is a danger to honest, deliberative democratic life in the United States. It also made me think about its consequences for the future of philanthropic scholarship.

As a historian of elite philanthropy, I access foundation material at the Rockefeller Archive Center and the Carnegie Corporation papers at Columbia University. I have no illusion that these archives provide researchers such as myself with unlimited access to foundation data, but there is a certain freedom to reading through board minutes, annual reports, and correspondence at my own leisure and without the watchful eye of foundation staff. And from this information, I come to my own understanding of these organizations. Moving beyond the archives to published work, I also have an obligation to footnote any material I use, so that future scholars can find these sources and question my analysis of them.

Of course, scholars long have accepted different methodological norms for the historical and present-day study of foundations, which reflect their differing levels of access to philanthropies’ present and past files. We are accustomed to restricted access to present-day material; to subject matter just a few decades old; and to particularly sensitive, historical files. So while it makes sense for a historian of philanthropy to base her research on archival material, it does not seem surprising that a scholar of contemporary philanthropy such as Tompkins-Stange might need to rely on anonymous interviewees.

As researchers of philanthropy in a democratic society, though, we really have an obligation to question these differing methodological expectations. Foundations are publicly subsidized and they try to socially engineer the public, so arguably, they should remain accountable to the public in the present day. And what better way to remain accountable than to make not only their past, but also their contemporary material open and accessible to the public and its scholars? Of course, foundations will have their own reasons for shielding their more recent work from public view (and some of these might be based on fair motives), but scholars invested in a democratic society should push forward arguments for greater transparency. In the process, transparency expectations hopefully will shift a bit.

If today’s newer elite foundations do not find such arguments convincing; at the very least, I hope that they have plans to establish archives for future historians. The Ford Foundation houses its archival collection at the Rockefeller Archive Center; but to the best of my knowledge, the other three elite foundations discussed in Policy Patrons do not have archives open to researchers. Will the newer philanthropies such as Gates and Broad, for example, see value in maintaining archives? If they do, which reports, correspondence, and board minutes, if any, will they allow researchers to see? And if they do not, what will be the new methodological norms for future historians of philanthropy?

In this book, for example, Tompkins-Stange relied most heavily on interviewees to provide some sense of their organizations’ internal dynamics. And out of necessity, she covered her sources’ identities. And in her recently-published book on the Gates Foundation, No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, Linsey McGoey relied solely on published material and sources outside of these elite foundations. Instead of open access archives, will tomorrow’s historians need to rely mainly on oral interviews and published material?

In the world Tompkins-Stange wishes at the end of the book (and that I hope becomes a reality), foundations would be aware of their duty to remain accountable to a democratic public. Within the context of academic research, this should push them to make their work available to future scholars, but arguably too to students of the present-day. In such a world, a scholar such as McGoey would have access to internal documents at the Gates Foundation. And a researcher such as Tompkins-Stange would not need to tiptoe around and meet with “informants” in order to offer the public some glimpse of who they are and what they do on behalf of the public.

For the sake of philanthropic studies—and for American democratic life—let’s hope that elite foundations respond to Tompkins-Stange’s call for greater public engagement.

This book provides an inside-look into the internal dynamics of four large philanthropies and their respective outlooks on American policy (and education policy reform more specifically). It thus will appeal to philanthropy and education scholars, engaged citizens, and foundation and nonprofit staff.

-Maribel Morey, HistPhil co-editor.

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