We often think of philanthropy as simply making a positive contribution to the life of the republic.

But so-called “big philanthropy”—philanthropy carried out on the grandest scale by the wealthiest individuals and foundations—has a complicated place in a democracy like ours. University of Michigan public policy professor Megan E. Tompkins-Stange examines whether out-sized gifts lend philanthropists undue influence in our civic affairs in her new book Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence.

Professor Tomkins-Stange interviewed 60 individuals, including high-level staff at four of the largest and most influential foundations: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

Her subjects also included grant recipients and others who had interacted with these large foundations. She guaranteed her interviewees anonymity so they would speak frankly about the various foundations’ priorities, challenges, and decision-making processes. This gives her book something of a cloak-and-dagger feel, especially when she refers to this-or-that source as “an informant.”

Professor Tomkins-Stange examines two key issues. First, she outlines just how influential foundations have become in shaping public policy about issues such as K–12 school reform.

The Gates and Broad Foundations were especially influential in shaping Obama Administration initiatives such as the Common Core, Race to the Top, and Investing in Innovation; indeed, many U.S. Department of Education staff were hired directly from these foundations.

The extent of these foundations’ intertwining with federal policymaking is revealing in one of the book’s most telling anecdotes, relayed by a college professor:

A counsel for the [U.S.] education department came to talk about administrative policy. At one point he slipped and said “The Gates Administration.” He really did!

As Professor Tomkins-Stange outlines, unelected foundation staff have had enormous policy influence, in ways that can seem like either a welcome circumvention of a sclerotic policy-making process or an undemocratic hijacking of that process (or both!). She presents both sides of this debate.

And, second, given the influential role of foundations in public policymaking, Professor Tomkins-Stange examines whether or not foundations should be more transparent and accountable to the public, either by voluntary disclosure or by legal requirements to report on their operations.

Of course, weighing against such expectations of openness is the long-standing expectation that private individuals and organizations should be able to spend their own money in whatever way they see fit, including in philanthropic endeavors of their own choosing. 

Policy Patrons is hardly a beach book. But unlike many university-press policy books, it is not laden down with jargon and obscure statistical analyses but instead features extensive quotations from large foundation staff, grant recipients, and foundation critics. By letting foundation staff and others speak for and against big philanthropy’s role in public policy, and for and against greater expectations of transparency and accountability, Professor Tompkins-Stange lets the reader decide how to come down on these vexing questions.


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