Blog: The Educated Reporter

Education Philanthropy and How to Cover It

(Flickr/BES Photos)

News of foundations and philanthropists partnering with school districts seems more and more common as states have struggled to provide adequate funding for K-12 education, while district leadership seek new avenues to give students an edge.

School districts accept funding from foundations. And foundations get credit for funding opportunities for students to succeed. But do foundations receive enough oversight for the work they fund? A panel of experts who spoke at the Education Writers Association’s recent National Seminar in Chicago explored the issue.

Cornelia Grumman of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute posed two big questions: Are foundations having an impact on education? And how well are they being covered?

Kevin Corcoran is a strategy director at Lumina Foundation, a private nonprofit committed to helping people get high-quality postsecondary credentials. Before joining Lumina, he worked as a journalist for 20 years. Knowing what he knows now, the former reporter had several suggestions for journalists covering foundations.

Here are a few of Corcoran’s tips for reporters:

  • To start, reporters should obtain the 990 IRS forms of the foundations they are researching, and find out what a foundation’s investments are.
  • Look at speeches delivered by a foundation’s leadership.
  • Get to know the program officers.
  • Find out which organizations are their key partners.
  • Look at meetings they have, to see  who they are bringing together.
  • What are foundations funding: For instance, teachers, infrastructure, research?
  • Understand what the foundation’s orientation is and what its staff believe in is important.
  • How do the foundations measure success?
  • Ask folks what it’s like to work with a  foundation, and whether it is open-minded.

Michigan State University professor Sarah Reckhow suggested a few unreported stories.

  • Has the foundation you are covering shifted missions?  
  • What states get the most foundation money and what are on foundations’ agendas?

Panelist Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute said that much of the press coverage is positive or neutral. “Media is not doing a good job of holding philanthropists feet to the fire.”

And recipients also are unwilling to push back on foundation ideas, he noted.  “School districts really don’t want to piss off foundations. They are the people who give you money to do what you really want to do. Therefore, there’s not a lot of criticism by the government or education,” he said.

Here are a few of his suggestions:

  • Reporters should ask about a foundation’s metrics and outcomes they are interested in because those help clarify their agenda.
  • Determine who made the decision to apply for and accept the philanthropic dollars, and whether the organization or school district tried to obtain feedback from all constituencies.
  • Most foundations are going to do regular evaluations of their grantees. Foundations should be willing to share the performance of their grantees. They should want to share with you who they want to fund. If they don’t want to, it’s fair ask why not.

Christine Tebben, a consultant specializing in education policy and philanthropy, pointed out there are around 70,000 foundations in the country, and “we usually hear about three or four of them. I think there are many being overshadowed.”

The larger foundations are trying to influence the smaller ones to bring similar efforts down to a local level, and invest local dollars in their initiatives. The small foundations may support the national work but they also have their own interests and priorities, she said.

The local foundations are much more likely to support the priorities of their local leaders and schools superintendents, while the national funders tend to support only those districts whose plans align with their foundation’s strategic priorities, Tebben noted.

Here are a few of Tebben’s suggestions for reporters:

  • Grants are great for transitioning things, not so great for sustaining things. Ask what a district is on the hook for if they take a grant?
  • Find out how many people are employed through grant money and what happens when that money runs dry.
  • Foundations can help bring institutions together, transform how learning happens and help with early learning. There needs to be more stories that talk about risk.