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Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence

reviewed by Kathleen deMarrais & Elizabeth M. Pope - December 13, 2016

coverTitle: Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence
Author(s): Megan E. Tompkins-Stange
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612509126, Pages: 216, Year: 2016
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The system of philanthropy is, at its essence, predicated on and inexorably intertwined with the existence of income inequality in a capitalist system—a fact, that until very recently, has been often overlooked in current dialogue as foundations attempt to ameliorate the effects of poverty and inequality. (p. 149)

Through Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, Megan E. Tompkins-Stange urges foundations toward more transparent and accountable conversations about the inherent contradictions in today’s system of philanthropy. By its nature, this system illustrates the extremes of income inequality in the U.S. The author draws readers into the elite world of four of the largest and most influential philanthropic foundations in the American educational sector: Gates, Broad, Kellogg, and Ford. Through semi-structured interviews with 60 foundation insiders, she sought to understand “the norms that motivate the foundations’ policy-related activities” (p. 153) with questions designed to elicit their interpretations of each foundations’ culture, values, and worldviews.

The book is organized into seven chapters. The introductory chapter sets the context of philanthropy and education since the 1990s with a review of the growth in the number of foundations, an increase in their assets, and additional involvement in shaping educational policy across the United States. Tompkins-Stange alerts readers to her research aim of examining the role of philanthropic foundations in the educational policy arena and how these four foundations negotiate their roles as private organizations operating within public educational policy spheres. She argues “[a]s private wealth has risen, so has public critique about the role of influence of foundations in the public arena, and as a result, foundations remain guarded against the threat of possible reputational damage” (p. 2).


In Chapter Two, Tompkins-Stange details the history, resources, and strategic initiatives of each of these key foundations by peppering the narratives liberally with interviewee quotes. In Chapters Three, Four and Five, the author presents her conceptual model focusing on two contrasting modes of operation within the foundations, outcome-oriented and field-oriented. She follows this discussion with a chapter detailing these foundations’ approaches to managing grantees, selecting partners, framing problems, and evaluating results within these two orientations.

The new players on the philanthropic scene, the Gates and the Broad Foundations, operate much like their corporations. They are both outcome-oriented and act as strategic investors concerned with leveraging a return on investment. These organizations approach their work with centralized control of initiatives, are highly engaged, act in a hands-on manner, use a grasstops approach to selecting partners in elite and/or expert organizations, and seek technical solutions with quantifiable results. In contrast, the Kellogg and Ford Foundations, with much longer histories of grant giving in education, tend to operate on what Tompkins-Stange calls field-orientation. They (a) use a decentralized approach delegating control to grantee organizations, (b) prefer selecting partners through a grassroots and community-based organization approach, (c) select complex problems with less clear solutions, and (d) expect both qualitative and quantitative metrics to demonstrate outcomes. As one Kellogg staff member explains,


We try very hard not to do things to the community but to do things with the community . . . I feel like whatever the solution is, it needs to be people driven and investing in people to do that work, and developing people to do that work, I think is critical. (p. 86)


In Chapter Six, Tompkins-Stange examines philanthropic foundation involvement in education policy in detail, particularly at the federal level. She argues “[t]his close coupling of foundations with government is the result of a deliberate strategy by outcome-oriented foundations to pursue a coordinated suite of education reforms in partnership with government in order to produce the most concentrated impact” (p. 114). Throughout this chapter, readers are treated to insiders’ views of the Gates Foundation’s influence on government through its coupling with the Obama administration’s Department of Education and strategic successes in the Common Core Curriculum and Race to the Top initiatives. In this discussion, readers begin to see critiques of the role of the new philanthropists, particularly Gates. As one Gates source mentions, "a growing concern [exists] about whether education reform is driven too much by wealthy people who don't really understand" (p. 120). Another respondent makes the following note:


[p]eople see [foundations] as outsiders coming in because they have a lot of money and trying to dictate to states and school districts what the best thing is. I think some of these districts . . . the opponents think you don’t know our community, so you come in here with a lot of money and tell us what to do. (p. 120)


In her final chapter, Tompkins-Stange addresses the core questions at play in her text: what is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society and what are the consequences of strategic philanthropists’ efforts to influence public policy through philanthropy. She argues:


[t]his tension is at the heart of the recurrent debate that has surrounded foundations over the past century and is rooted in the double-edged sword of foundation accountability to the public. On one hand, foundations are fundamentally private organizations that influence policy priorities outside formal democratic deliberation–a critique that has generated concerns about plutocracy. On the other hand, foundations may benefit democracy as an efficacious alternative to the bureaucratic state. In this argument, foundations sponsor innovation, catalyzing the state to scale promising programs and initiatives, in what Reich characterizes as the “discovery” rationale. (p. 128)


Policy Patrons is particularly interesting from a qualitative methodological standpoint. The book is an excellent example of what anthropologist Laura Nader (1972) referred to as studying up. In her plea to anthropologists, Nader urged studying the middle and upper ends of the social power structure “to contribute to our understanding of the processes whereby power and responsibility are exercised in the United States” (Nader, 1972, p. 1). Perhaps unknowingly, Tompkins-Stange responds to this early plea concerning the methodology she employs in her study. In her book, she demonstrates an ability not only to gain access to an elite group of philanthropic insiders, but also use their words where participants themselves respond to critiques and tensions as they reflect on the role of philanthropy in today’s educational policy environment. Tompkins-Stange is able to study up by gaining access to high-level foundation staff in exchange for promises of anonymity. From her previous work as a contractor for a private foundation, Tompkins-Stange uses her professional and personal contacts to gain entry to key insiders in the target foundations. A sampling of interviewees’ titles illustrates her level of access and includes the following: President, Director, Program Officer, Policy Officer, Director of Advocacy, Analyst, Communications Officer, and General Counsel. While this anonymity provides candid reflections on the foundations’ efforts and strategies in educational policy initiatives, readers have no way of assessing informants’ current or former roles, relationships, or contexts within the foundations without this information. The author introduces their comments throughout the book with phrases like “one informant,” “a Kellogg respondent,” “a Broad staff member,” “a Gates grantee,” “a Ford source,” or “the interviewee, a professor.” This decision ensures anonymity but also limits readers’ ability to assess interviewees’ positionalities. However, given the deep and insightful perspectives into the inner workings within each of the selected philanthropies, the trade-off is worth Tompkins-Stange’s promise.


Throughout Policy Patrons, we move from detailed descriptions of the ways these four philanthropies work to the overall tensions around the current role of philanthropy in America. Tompkins-Stange uses key philanthropic insiders’ responses to provide richness and depth to her study. The book offers a unique contribution to a growing scholarly literature on philanthropy and education aimed not only toward an academic audience but also toward those in the policy sectors as well. The book is well-organized and written in clear, interesting, and descriptive prose. This ensures the text has the ability to reach well beyond an academic audience. Tompkins-Stange’s contributions include an insiders’ view to each of the four elite foundations. It also demonstrates her ability to engage foundation insiders in reflections about their work and associated tensions and critiques.




Nader, L. (1972). Up the anthropologist: Perspectives gained from studying up. Retrieved from


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 13, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21759, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 6:22:16 PM

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About the Author
  • Kathleen deMarrais
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    KATHLEEN DEMARRAIS is a professor at the University of Georgia with research interests in philanthropy and education and qualitative research methodologies. She is co-editor of (with T. Jameson Brewer) of Teach for America Counter Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out (2015).
  • Elizabeth Pope
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH M. POPE is a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia studying transformative learning through interfaith dialogue and the use of digital tools in qualitative research methods.
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