Private foundations have supported a lot of good work over the years. And many supported the community organizing that I did during my twenty-year organizing career.

I often felt frustrated, however, by how most (though not all) foundations who sought public policy change would decide that they knew what the problem was; they knew how it should be fixed; and they knew how long it should take to fix it. Community groups, desperate for funding, would then often tailor their priorities around the funders’ agenda and the funders would become the groups de facto constituency. The groups’ genuine constituency — low and moderate income residents — would then be “brought along”….sometimes, and often for the short-term.

Of course, this strategy is contrary to how many major policy changes have often been made. In many instances, people who are most affected by the problem take a primary role in developing a solution and the political power to make it a reality (I’ll write more about this history in a future post). The foundation-driven strategy is the antithesis of how long-term effective community organizing works.

But many well-meaning foundations just don’t seem to see this.

A report issued this week from the Annie E. Casey Foundation is the latest example. Learning To Read:Early Warning! Why Reading By The End Of The Third Grade Matters provides an excellent summary of research on how poverty affects children’s academic growth. There’s doesn’t appear to be much in it that you couldn’t get from reading Richard Rothstein, but I figure you can never get enough well-written material showing how you have to deal with problems outside the schoolhouse walls in addition to inside them.

The report then announces the Foundation is joining with other funders to initiate an effort to expand after-school programs and summer learning opportunities.

Those are good things. However, they may very well not be the priority issues of the residents in the communities that the foundations are targeting.

A perfect example of this foundation mindset is how they write about parents:

Parents should read to and converse with their young children….Parents should understand why it’s important to read proficiently….Parents should…..Parents should find after-school activities for their children….Parents should….

There’s a lengthy list of “shoulds” for parents. Again, I’m sure it’s all well-meaning, and it’s “right.” I’m just not convinced that it’s “effective.”

Instead, how about if they had written something like this:

We feel that the best way to respond to the research findings in this report that highlight how poverty issues affect student academic achievement is by helping parents, schools, and other community residents participate more in public life and develop the self-confidence and life skills to do so effectively. Funders should support schools and community groups who want to engage residents and local institutions like religious congregations, business groups, neighborhood associations in conversations about how these problems affect their local communities and what they think should be done about it. Funders should support those schools and community groups who want to listen and work with residents as partners. Funders should leverage the relationships they have with public and corporate officials so these community groups can develop their own relationships with them.

I would characterize the kind of well-intentioned attitude that funders like Casey exhibit as paternalism. This is how one dictionary defines that word:

when people in authority think or act in a way which results in them making decisions for other people which are often to their advantage but which prevent those people from taking responsibility for their own lives

In the education field (and I’m sure in other areas, too), I’d suggest that there are a sizable group of funders who go further, and who can be even more damaging to the long-term public good. This is how Diane Ravitch describes them:

“The Billionaires Boys Club” is a discussion of how we’re in a new era of the foundations and their relation to education. We have never in the history of the United States had foundations with the wealth of the Gates Foundation and some of the other billionaire foundations—the Walton Family Foundation, The Broad Foundation. And these three foundations—Gates, Broad and Walton—are committed now to charter schools and to evaluating teachers by test scores. And that’s now the policy of the US Department of Education. We have never seen anything like this, where foundations had the ambition to direct national educational policy, and in fact are succeeding.

I’d characterize their attitude as being closer to neocolonialism, which a dictionary describes as “dominance by economic and cultural influence.”

Many might say that I’m overstating the case. But it seems to me that Eli Broad doesn’t hide that perspective when he tells the Wall Street Journal:

…he is enthusiastic about all the change that is possible when urban school districts go bankrupt—as Oakland, Calif., did a few years ago—”or what happened in New Orleans, which is the equivalent of bankruptcy.”

What do you think? Am I being too harsh?

(Note: Diane Ravitch has just written more the role of the billionaires)