A philanthropic watchdog group is hoping to light a fire under charitable foundations that support education by releasing a report Wednesday that points out how few of them focus enough attention on helping the most needy students.
The study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy said that only 11 percent of American foundations devoted at least half their grants to programs that benefit vulnerable students. It looked at 672 foundations that gave at least $1 million to educational causes from 2006 to 2008.
It said only 2 percent met the watchdog group's other main criteria for philanthropic success: spending 25 percent of its grants toward advocating for long-term change, through community building, advocacy and civil engagement.
The Washington, D.C.-based group believes that is the best way to improve learning for all children. It released the report at the Grantmakers for Education annual conference in New Orleans.
When the group released a broader report on all kinds of foundations last year, it was criticized as being too paternalistic. This year, foundations have been more reluctant to take issue with the ideas, with several organizations saying they want more time to read and understand the report before commenting.
"If no one thinks this report is pushing the envelope and is outrageous in some way, then maybe we didn't go far enough," said Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the committee, which was founded 35 years ago to be a voice for nonprofit and marginalized communities.
Dorfman said his organization is comfortable with a robust debate and puts out these reports to get people talking. The organization's next targets will be foundations that focus on health, the environment and arts and culture.
"Sometimes, philanthropy as a sector is too polite and uncomfortable with mixing it up," he said, adding that he believes the news media doesn't do enough to effectively criticize and question the nonprofit world.
The committee said the purpose of the report is to get foundations thinking and talking, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have an agenda.
Included in a list of questions suggested for starting discussion about these issues are statements that seem to encourage moving toward the organization's goals. "How do you measure up against exemplary grantmakers?" the report asks, for example, and then lists the organizations it considers exemplary.
Several of the biggest foundation contributors to education are included on this list, including the Ford Foundation, which made $154.8 million in grants for education from 2006 to 2008, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which made $21.4 million in grants for education during that time period.
Dorfman said he doesn't expect education foundations that don't focus on needy kids to change their missions. He said he wants those who are focusing on the most vulnerable children to do so effectively, but adds, however, that there is an equity crisis in the country that needs more money to fix it.
"Ultimately, foundations need to be true to their missions," said Larry McGill, vice president for research at The Foundation Center, a national authority on philanthropy since 1956.
McGill didn't find the criticism in the report unwelcome, and he said he believes others will find it useful.
"For some people, anything that appears prescriptive isn't going to be welcome," McGill said. "It looked to me more like an invitation to consider new possibilities."
Maybe not quite such a gentle discourse, said the author of the report, Kevin Welner, an education policy research professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
"We're asking these philanthropies to ask themselves these tough questions," Welner said, adding that he was surprised by how few foundations were engaged in tackling inequity.
All the foundation scores were not listed in the report, but the committee welcomes foundations to call for their numbers.
National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy: http://www.ncrp.org/