Education Philanthropy and the Possibility of Public Good

First published by NORRAG, April 2020 – republished here in advance May 20, 2021, when I will be speaking to the International Education Funders Group, a consortium of education philanthropies.


Philanthropic giving for education and international development is having a “moment.” It is in the news regularly in North America, the subject of popular and academic books, news shows, and podcasts. Academic researchers and public intellectuals alike are raising important questions about the legitimacy of corporate philanthropies and their roles in remaking both domestic and global education futures. 

Yet philanthropy from the rich north to the global south has been a constant feature of international financing
for development for more than a century, predating the emergence of what today we might describe as the global development regime, with its architecture for educational aid and development. And within OECD countries (as well as in other regions), philanthropy for education has an equally long trajectory. Can it really be all that “new”? 

In this short piece, I argue that what most makes new philanthropy “new” in this present era is deeply linked to changes in world order. New philanthropy’s perceived threat derives at least in part from broader changes in three spheres – in the interstate system, the world economy, and shifts in the locus of political power within the nation state. 

If we think about the changes in these three spheres and the types of threats that these changes pose, I’m hopeful we can also begin to identify ways in which philanthropic giving to education can make redemptive contributions during the coming decades. Philanthropy – like all forms of human organization derived from economic or political power – can accelerate harm. Yet surely, once we have itemized these harms, it behooves us to also ask: under what conditions, in what ways, might philanthropies offer a unique opportunity to do good? (Reich, 2018). 

Philanthropy Meets a New World Disorder 

Scholars who study world order, whether from realist, liberal or more radical lenses, describe the global order as one of increasing precarity. The notion of world society anchored by a coalition of largely liberal states, with common liberal values, has been profoundly eroded by changes in the US – which increasingly sees its interests as separate and unique from other liberal democracies. Authoritarian political regimes are on the rise, often wielding unanticipated levels of economic power on the world stage. Nonstate actors and civil society – the boundary spanners and norm entrepreneurs responsible for advancing both domestic and international human rights during the 20th century – now struggle to build lasting alliances and coalitions within an increasingly fragmented world order. Illiberal nonstate actors are on the ascendance as norm entrepreneurs. 

Economic changes of the past half century have been at least as profound as these political shifts. Technological and scientific advances, along with economic globalization, have certainly contributed to improvements in rates of poverty worldwide. But they are no longer celebrated for creating an increasingly “flat”, networked and more open world. Instead, technology has fed new forms of economic and informational monopoly that threaten the very foundations of liberal democracy. Capabilities for collective action and self-government both within nation states and across them have been more constrained than empowered by our most recent decades of economic progress. As tragically illustrated by the current retreat from climate action, and by other areas of in critical need of global coordination (migration, peace, information privacy), we seem to be moving farther – not closer – to consensus (or capacity for consensus) about global public goods. 

This is the world of disorder that new philanthropy enters.

As so much recent literature argues, it is entering not as an innocent partner, since, like the wave of philanthropic enterprise last century’s guilded age, in large part this philanthropy is built on the private bounty of recent economic growth and technological advance. The new big corporate philanthropies, are deeply intertwined with the “winners take all” strategies of their corporate founders (Reich, 2018; Giridharadas 2019). Yet as I will argue below, philanthropy is not monolithic, and it may also enter world order as a player with unique capabilities. 

Partnering for Educational Development? 

When new philanthropies come calling to the world of international development in education, they no doubt are struck by a range of pathologies among the bilateral (donor) governments and multilateral agencies whose explicit goals are the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. For education, these pathologies can be summarized as follows: 

• Education receives a very small share of overall official development financing. 

• Education official development assistance (ODA) is skewed towards middle income countries – and is decreasing for Sub-Saharan Africa, where the world’s largest population of youth in 2050 are projected to face a set of seemingly insurmountable economic, environmental and political challenges. 

• Education ODA tends to favor higher levels of education including scholarships (especially among G7 countries); ODA flows have neglected in particular early childhood education, and the educational needs of refugees and migrants. 

• There is a lack of coordination among aid donors; and a tendency to offer aid in siloed, projectized formats that do not align around country needs or strengthen national technical and political capabilities. 

• A stubborn number of children remain out of school; and in many of the world’s poorest economies, large numbers of children attend school but learn little. 

Some – but not all – of the new philanthropies have seen these pathologies as evidence that the interstate order (and governments) is poor at delivering change. This has led them to focus on financing disruptive change from outside the state, including through financing private provision, competition among service providers, and technological fixes (for example through individualized instruction). Meanwhile, traditional philanthropies, including many of the new family foundation emerging in Asian and middle-income countries, continue to focus where philanthropies always have – providing scholarships and funding named chairs and institutions in tertiary education, and by doing so rarely reaching the poor or most marginalized. 

But many others, including some of the biggest players in international education, have taken a more collaborative
or “public goods” path. Some have aimed to focus on strengthening citizens and popular demand for education quality (see for example, the Hewlett Foundation); some focus on education rights and the use of education to support citizen voice, civil rights and citizenship education (Soros Foundation). Others have taken up thematic areas of focus (play-based learning and early childhood education; 21st century skills; education for girls, refugees and other marginalized populations). Another group seeks to support national capacity to achieve education for all, and invests in national systems (Aga Khan Foundation, Mastercard Foundation). 

Even these more collaborative, public goods players, suffer from common pathologies that reach back into the history of 20th philanthropy. They tend to see themselves as scientific evangelists – elevating the use of evidence and data as unique sources of universalized truth while at times neglecting the voices of the communities and citizens they aim to help. They are not transparent about their funding and decision-making processes; and often engage in programming that is not harmonized or aligned to country or local needs. And they tend to look for “like-minded” allies – by for example, forging primary alliances with international organizations that think about social change through the lens of the new managerialism – while neglecting the slower, harder work of supporting authentic national and regional coalitions for change. 

Yet at the same time, we need to look only to the work of sociologist and evaluation expert Carol Weiss, to understand how important organizational learning has been in the history and evolution of US based philanthropy (Weiss, 1995). In the 1980s and 1990s, efforts to collaborate, coordinate and learn from one another became the hallmark of North American philanthropic organizations, leading to new kinds of programs that centered not only on science, but on supporting the engagement of citizens in defining their own solutions. Such changes were accompanied by fresh commitments to monitoring and accountability of philanthropy – including through arms-length funding to watchdog organizations. 

I foresee a moment, in the not too distant future, when the new crop of late 20th and early 21st century of education philanthropies will also enter such a period of consolidation and organizational learning. They will do so because they realize that longer term challenges of world order threaten to undermine their shorter-term educational goals and objectives; and because they will understand that the through line from educational change to a more sustainable world order travels not through the supply of one size fits all solutions to human needs, but is rather at its core profoundly educative, empowering people and organizations with the skills, knowledge and collective capacity to puzzle out their own, novel solutions. 

Four Ways to Make Global Education Philanthropy Better. 

With this in mind, I want to end this intervention by pointing to four broad areas where I believe there is immediate opportunity for philanthropies to improve their engagement in international education development by taking a longer term, intergenerational approach to the investing in global education and related public goods. 

In doing so I draw heavily from Rob Reich’s recent book, “Just giving” (2018) in which he explores the legitimacy of
US based philanthropic giving. Reich argues that the tax incentives provided to corporate philanthropy in the US
is essentially a transfer of taxpayer dollars from public to private authority. He also presents empirical evidence (very much complimented by the OECD study of international philanthropy presented in this volume) that only a small share of philanthropic given is truly redistributive (eg, focused on the poorest people or countries). He therefore calls for greater regulation and public scrutiny of what are essentially public subsidies for private giving. 

At the same time, Reich argues that there are potentially two legitimate reasons for governments and citizens to support and subsidize private giving. He notes that the endowed, perpetual funded foundation is more likely than almost any other political or economic institution in the modern world to be able to think beyond the present political fray, towards longer term futures. Philanthropy thus may be a unique source of scarce “risk capital” for addressing longer term social problems – like climate change – that require sustained innovation and a focus on intergenerational collective needs.

Further, foundations can play a unique and important role in supporting the associations and structures of civil society, thereby helping to build intergenerational capacity for social democracy. In both ways, foundations can protect the heritage of future generations – especially if regulated and incentivized to focus in these domains by governments. 

Reich’s arguments are not framed in the context of changes in world order, or the problem of international development, but I believe they capture normative imperatives for philanthropy that are especially relevant when thinking about the erosion of global structures for coordination and the pathologies of the current education for international development regime. 

Alignment and harmonization around national systems and capacity: Perhaps one of the most noted pathologies
of international development agencies is their tendency to focus on building an externally driven supply of technical and scientific capacity – often at the expense of support for sustainable national capacity to plan, implement, evaluate, innovate and form the political consensus needed to foster educational reform. Foundations can do what more self- interested international actors cannot: focus on the problem of local capacity, rather than the supply of international solutions. There is a second, important way that foundations can help developing countries: work with them to develop the regulatory and tax policies that keep foundations in their areas of core competency – intergenerational justice and long-range societal challenges. 

Critical path investments: In educational development, there are several areas that cry out as either imperative
for intergenerational justice; or as arenas where corporate philanthropes can productively use their business intelligence to disrupt market monopolies in educational goods and services without threatening the public good. For example: 

  • – Investing in programs of early years literacy and early childhood education that pay attention to 
  • intergenerational (adult/mother) literacy and sound principles of play-based development. This is an area that has low salience for governments and official development donors – but enormous potential to break intergenerational educational marginalization.
  • – Addressing the needs of the rising numbers of migrants by creating open source learning platforms and innovations that aid transferable credentials; 
  • – Disrupting the monopolies and corruption that continue to limit the supply/procurement of quality educational materials in many developing countries; and addressing the need for open source digital platforms for management of educational systems. 

Linking citizens: Education is a co-production in which parents, kids, communities, governments and their partners all play a role. International actors have placed a spotlight on direct “short run” accountability mechanisms between schools and families (for example through parent councils, school management bodies, school report cards, and citizen- led assessments). We need to think beyond these forms of transactional citizenship. Foundations can provide the risk capital to enable new forms of collective action on education issues – action that over time can improve civic engagement and the “long run” loop of accountability between citizens and the state. 

Transparency, Accountability and Organizational Learning: 

Finally, foundations can, indeed must invest in systems that ensure they are accountable to the public they aim to serve. Global philanthropies should invest in arms-length monitoring and social accountability of their own practices and initiatives. Shared investments across philanthropies in joint evaluation, monitoring and learning from their activities are also important. 

In this regard, the fact that some globally development philanthropies now report their aid flows to the OECD Development Assistance Committee is a first good step in this direction. I also see hope in the emergence of a number of new international and regional philanthropic affinity groups– like the International Education Funders Group; the Center for Asian Philanthropy and Society, and such mechanisms for harmonized giving as the Co-Impact and the Giving Pledge. I see hope when billionaires like Warren Buffet ask for increases in wealth and corporate taxation. And I see promise in the way that the Bill and Melinda Gates have reframed their philanthropic approach to US education, based on a critical and contentious published evaluation of their work – moving from investments in one size fits all best practices and top down levers of reform, to a focus on supporting organizational learning across schools and districts (Gates 2020). 

But such affinity groups and single organization accountability structures need to go farther, opening opportunities for greater debate and discussion with the public about their roles and accountabilities. As noted above, Foundations can play an important role in supporting better national and international legislation and regulation of their activities. They can fund public scrutiny of and social learning about their roles and their work. They can use affinity groups to socialize norms and expectations that limit their private authority and ensure their work meets public preferences and builds public capacity. Such investments are a critical part of ensuring philanthropic commitment to a shared vision of the public good. 


Burnett, N. (2019). Invited Essay: It’s past time to fix
the broken international architecture for education. International Journal of Educational Development, 68(C), 15-19. 

Gates, Bill and Melinda. (2020). Annual Letter: Why we swing for the fences. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. https:// media/annual-letters-list 

Giridharadas, A. (2019). Winners take all: The elite charade of changing the world. Vintage.

NORRAG. (April 2020). New Philanthropy and the Disruption of Global Education.

OECD (2018). Private Philanthropy for Development. The Development Dimension, OECD Publishing. https://doi. org/10.1787/9789264085190-en. 

Reich, R. (2018). Just giving: Why philanthropy is failing democracy and how it can do better. Princeton University Press. 

Weiss, C.H. (1995). Nothing as practical as good theory: Exploring theory-based evaluation for comprehensive community initiatives for children and families. Aspen Institute. 

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