Foundation funds shift to third-party lobbyists

Large foundations that donate to colleges have, in the past five years, shifted their focus toward lobbying for national education policies instead of giving directly to universities.

National trends show foundation officials are allocating more funds toward third-party nonprofit organizations, such as College Board and Complete College America that lobby and conduct research on behalf of the foundations’ agendas – limiting higher education institutions’ role, according to a paper presented Monday at the American Educational Research Association by the Claremont Graduate University.

The study examined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which increased its funding to media, policy and nonprofit organizations to more than $15 million in 2010, up from no contributions in 2005. The boost in third-party funding demonstrates a deviation from the traditional model of giving directly to colleges in favor of having “identified states and state leaders as key partners in reform,” according to the report.

“We believe that this shift is significant, because it means that these mega-foundations may be setting a new precedent for the role of philanthropy in higher education and in American society as a whole,” Cassandra Hall, an author of the Claremont Graduate University study, said.

Contributions from foundations represented 40 percent of total fundraising at GW, totaling $36 million in 2011. So far in fiscal year 2012, foundations have given more than $26 million, though David Garofalo, senior director of communications in the Division of Development and Alumni Relations failed to provide data for the past five years.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York, which expands educational programming and democracy abroad, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, focusing on medical advancement, have been the largest contributors to GW this year. Both are private organizations that provide grants to institutions they believe align with their missions.

“These financial contributions are attached to supporting university programs and are designed to support faculty research and projects,” Garofalo said.

He said faculty research priorities drive deans’ outreach to specific foundations. Foundation funds to GW have been spent on projects, such as student and faculty research.

The Lumina Foundation, examined in the study, is a private educational foundation that has invested more than $1 billion since its founding in 2000.

“What kind of work we are funding has changed,” Vice President of Policy and Strategy for the Lumina Foundation Dewayne Matthews said, adding that the group still gives grants to colleges and universities. “We are interested in having a broader impact.”

Matthews said the Lumina Foundation has always engaged in philanthropy, but has more recently focused on specific issues, such as higher education access.

This new route for expenditures may indicate a lack of foundation trust in universities’ abilities to solve their own problems, which then deters organizations from funneling funds into schools, Hall said.

Former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who has written widely on the topic, does not believe the foundations’ shift toward lobbying is a new trend.

“It has always been thus. There was no ‘golden age’ when dollars were distributed by angels without an agenda of their own,” Trachtenberg said. “Mostly I was a petitioner. I went to many foundations, hat in hand, seeking support for GW.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.