I think there can and should be some hard-nosed analysis of the major philanthropies currently active, but that's a little different from what I've read in the past few days. I don't agree with Stanley Fish on everything, but when I strongly disagree with something I see in the political sphere, my instinct is to academicize it. At AERA's retrospective on his 1988 book that analyzed 19th and early 20th century foundations, Jim Anderson demurred commentary on today's philanthropies. Leo Casey had the most recent shot at such an analysis a week ago, and that focused on the "seeing like a state" perspective of Ed Trust et al. I am not analyzing the philanthropies today but just pointing out some relevant questions that would be appropriate research topics.
- What is the long-term strategy of the most active foundations such as Gates and Broad? While most folks focus on the national scene (see the links in Casey's blog entry), both foundations have spent millions trying to influence local school districts, but with somewhat different aims and tools. My impression: Gates uses its money as bait for districts to try the foundation's panacea du jour, from small schools to a certain high school curriculum to ... well, whatever strikes the foundation's key officers next year. On the other hand, Broad's strategy relies on creating a professional network of superintendents it has sponsored in multiple ways, from its chosen professional development to what I have heard is pushing its candidates in specific searches. I have good reason to conclude that the Broad Prize is the end of that process, and a promise to districts that they will be rewarded for picking Broad candidates for leadership.
- What is the role of inside-the-Beltway organizations in those strategies? As Jim Anderson said this spring, you can't really know how the pieces all fit together unless you have access to the confidential documents (which he did for historical foundations). Yet you can probe around the edges of those roles for Education Trust and others. My impression: Since the DC-centered organizations have their own agendas, even if overlapping with the perspectives of foundation officers, this is less a matter of funding a specific agenda than with a type of philanthropic venture capital: seed a bunch of organizations with operating resources and see what they can do. That gives the funders an important reputational stake in the fortunes of their beneficiaries, but without necessarily a stake in the specific agendas of their beneficiaries. The recipients of aid can give reputational credit back to the funders if the recipients thrive. And even if they don't thrive, well, ...
- What do the foundations' failures tell us about them? My impression: We can laugh at Ed in '08's ineffectiveness thus far, and at the collapse of the Gates small-schools initiative, but both efforts indicate serious persistence on the part of the sponsoring foundations. These are not necessarily nimble operations, but they have the depth of resources to invest heavily in strategies, even when individual strategies might well fail.