Academic journal article The Foundation Review

Shaping Education Policy: The Importance of Clarity, Commitment, and Consensus Building

Academic journal article The Foundation Review

Shaping Education Policy: The Importance of Clarity, Commitment, and Consensus Building

Article excerpt

Keywords: State education policy; Education Advisory Committee of the Ohio Grantmakers Forum; advocacy for policy changes; broad range of stakeholders; philanthropy and education reform; collaboration; context, process, and results; clarity, commitment, and consensus building


This article describes how foundations in Ohio joined together in a sustained, strategic effort to influence state public policy to improve education, and it reviews the progress that has been achieved. Specifically, it details activities over the past seven years by the Ohio Grantmakers Forum (OGF) and its Education Advisory Committee, chaired by the president of the Cleveland Foundation.

The committee's multipronged effort focused on defining the problem through research and analysis, establishing a clear agenda for reform, and advocating for policy changes. This process involved a broad range of stakeholders through regional meetings and task-specific work groups. Ultimately, the OGF advisory committee established philanthropy as a credible and knowledgeable voice for education reform, and was effective in getting many of its recommendations adopted as state policy changes.

This effort reflects current theories that foundations can achieve significant impact by working to influence public policy. This article shares lessons underscoring the importance of clarity, commitment, and consensus building that may help other organizations interested in lasting and meaningful education-policy reform.


In the past few decades, foundations' interest and engagement in public policy have increased (Robelen, 2010; Grantmakers for Education, 2011). For the purposes of this article, we are using a common definition of public policy as an effort to influence public decision making (encompassing decisions by government bodies that have important impacts on public resource allocation or important behavioral impacts on individuals or organizations) (Ferris & Harmssen, 2009). Four main factors help explain this trend toward increased interest and engagement:

* Foundations are recognizing that their limited philanthropic dollars can have greater impact if they are used to affect how public dollars are spent (Greene, 2005).

* There is increasing understanding that laws governing foundations' ability to work in public policy give them considerable latitude to effect change, despite lingering perceptions to the contrary (Troyer & Varley, 2009).

* Given their public-benefit and problem-solving missions, foundations bear a strong civic responsibility to engage in the public decisionmaking process (Smith, 2009).

* As public decision making has devolved and decentralized, it has opened up more opportunities for foundations, particularly smaller local and regional foundations, to influence decisions regarding public policy (Arons, 2007; Ferris, 2009).

Education continues to be a critical focus of philanthropy at the national, state, and local levels. Nationally, education receives more philanthropic support than any funding interest area, with the exception of religion. An estimated one of every seven dollars given to charity goes to an education- related endeavor (Lenkowsky, 2005). As the need for education reform has moved front and center, the role of philanthropy in shaping education policy has garnered increased notice.

Advocates argue that foundations must invest in public policy to achieve broad-scale impact. Jay Greene (2005) estimates that philanthropic giving to K-12 schooling is only about one-third of 1 percent of all education expenditures:

Trying to reshape education with private philanthropy is like trying to reshape the ocean with buckets of water. The only realistic strategy for reform by philanthropists is to leverage their private giving by attempting to redirect how future public expenditures are used. (pp. 49-50)

In the overview to With the Best of Intentions: How Philanthropy Is Shaping K-12 Education, Frederick Hess (2005) of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research comments:

In a sector where even the most generous gifts are no match for the money routinely spent on outdated and outmoded systems, the "new" education philanthropy's influence will ultimately turn on its ability to change politics and policy. …

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