From Microsoft's Bill Gates to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, acts of philanthropy from prominent billionaires are significantly shaping the world one donation at a time.
Professor Jeffrey Henig, who teaches political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, recently co-authored a book that describes how powerful organizations and influential individuals use donations to advance policies they support.
Entitled "The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy and Reform," the book talks about the measures to improve K-12 in the United States, which includes the movement to break large schools in New York City into smaller ones, the expansion of charter schools, and the push to teach computer science as part of public school curriculum.
Professor Henig mentions that although contributions from big donors are only a fraction of New York City's funding for education, they still have a huge impact on public school policy.
The tension is clear for politicians, experts said. As more funding is welcomed to support schools, policy-makers are also increasing the risk of allowing others to influence their agendas.
Why Education Philanthropy Is Important
Experts said the education sector is a famous "graveyard" of philanthropists, especially because of its size. Across the country, K-12 accounts to about $600 billion of national funding.
The influence of philanthropy grew under former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's regime. At the time, the Bloomberg administration courted big donors as it pushed policy changes which triggered backlash from many parent groups and teachers unions.
Current NYC mayor Bill de Blasio is facing a different set of issues. His policies appeal to organizations that the Bloomberg administration alienated, but he's having difficulty raising money for the nonprofit organization called Fund for Public Schools, which was created by Bloomberg to attract private donors.
Henig says that although much of the funding for K-12 in the U.S. still comes through tax revenues and the public sector, the latter has been squeezed in previous years and has become resistant to tax increases.
"Local leaders -- whether they're progressive leaders like de Blasio or corporate, Republican-style like Bloomberg -- find that philanthropic support is an important source of discretionary funds," says Henig.
These funds are more flexible than public funds, Henig says. They can be targeted faster in the directions of new priorities or support, and are less subject to several rules about public control and transparency than publicly-raised revenues.
The New Education Philanthropy
The foundation and charitable community is huge and diverse. Henig says many of the initiatives that the community has undertaken have positively supplemented public dollars or nurtured innovations that public leaders and other communities have embraced.
"I would not be among those who would argue that philanthropy in education is in itself a threat," he says. "I think it's something to be welcomed."
However, Henig says he and fellow educator and scholar Rick Hess are concerned about a concept called "new education philanthropy."
Henig also shed light on the tendency of big donors to be more deliberate in their use of money to influence policy and to use philanthropy to fund research intended to support their vision.