Worlds of Education

Private foundations as policy shapers: new and emerging modalities of influence within the philanthropic sector

published 23 November 2017 updated 23 November 2017

By Clara Fontdevila and Antoni Verger, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

The philanthropic sector has experienced significant changes in the last few decades. Not only has the sector become increasingly diverse but, more importantly, a new entrepreneurial approach has gained centrality.

Under this new approach, sometimes known as venture philanthropy, a growing number of private foundations are re-orienting their activity and intervening more explicitly in the processes of policy change.

Venture philanthropy is characterised by a distinct understanding of donations as investments from which significant returns are expected, and by a shift in the nature of the goals that philanthropic actions are expected to achieve. In this respect, venture philanthropy is less about supporting particular programmes, and more about promoting macro-level policy change in different policy domains, including education.

Policy influence strategies

In both the academic and policy fields, discussion about the specific policy influence strategies articulated by philanthropic organisations remains relatively scarce. At most, researchers have focused on more conventional modalities of influence, such as lobbying and conditional donations. In this post, we have categorised the emerging strategies that are being articulated by foundations as a way to influence educational reform processes, and we reflect on the main risks they entail:


Knowledge mobilisation


With the rise of evidence-based policy, the production and dissemination and research have become powerful channels to frame policy debates. In this context, foundations play an increasingly central role as funders of think tanks, research institutes, and/or individuals that are able to produce and promote knowledge products aligned with their own policy agenda. Knowledge mobilisation represents a departure from more traditional forms of scientific philanthropy in that boundaries between advocacy and research are more deliberately diluted in order to favour the advancement of a particular agenda. Such trends may ultimately incentivise a more instrumental and selective use of research at the expense of empirical reliability and scientific rigour.


Supporting grassroots advocacy

: By nurturing some civil society organisations and grassroots movements whose agenda is deemed to align with their particular policy programmes, foundations are increasingly able to apply pressure for policy change within certain policy circles – or frame a particular reform in terms of “popular demands”. While philanthropic financial support to civil society activity is argued to be potentially empowering, it risks dissociating civil society action from its bottom-up component in the eyes of public opinion, ultimately having a demobilising effect.


Leading by example

: Some foundations are increasingly investing in pilot projects, not as experimental or timely interventions, but with a view to these interventions being scaled up and adopted at a system-level. This strategy is less likely to trigger an immediate reaction of opposition, given the low public scrutiny and increased levels of autonomy vis-à-vis traditional educational stakeholders. This applies particularly to controversial policies, such as charter schools or school vouchers. These ventures are frequently presented as a useful means for creating a flexible space to produce innovative solutions. However, by engaging in these strategies, philanthropic organisations frequently end up competing with the State, becoming instead agents which replicate, substitute, and even discourage public innovations.



: The capacity of foundation to shape policies is very much associated with their brokerage position – i.e. their capacity to connect different actors and social spheres. In some instances, investment in networking translates into the establishment of formal, goal-oriented coalitions able to push for particular policies and exert significant pressure among policy circles and on public opinion. However, informal or casual networks also play a crucial role when it comes to creating a conducive environment for education reform. These networks are routinely underpinned through seminars, conferences or social events where connections can be strengthened and particular policy ideas and rationales can be normalised and popularised. Because private foundations are usually connected with the for-profit sector - and given their role as brokers - they are instrumental in understanding the increasing presence of corporate actors and interests in educational change.

The shift towards philanthropic sector involvement in the processes of education policy making could ultimately compromise the public and open nature expected from democratic debates on educational change. As Stephen Ball and other authors have argued, the processes around education policy are being increasingly privatised and driven by a limited number of private actors, which are not democratically elected nor held accountable for their decisions. Thus, a better and richer understanding of the motivations and mechanics behind philanthropic engagement in educational reform is vital if more inclusive and democratic processes of educational change are to be promoted.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.