Educational Philanthropy Essay

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Since America’s earliest years, charitable institutions have served a diverse set of philanthropic purposes in the United States. While the majority of these institutions were historically tied to religious organizations, today there are many different types of private philanthropic bodies that serve a multitude of needs across many issue areas. While philanthropic participation in numerous matters has grown in all categories, the increasing existence of educational philanthropy in America provides perhaps one of the clearest illustrations of the ways in which private philanthropists can support and shape U.S. institutions. This entry begins with a brief history of general philanthropy, then looks at education-oriented philanthropy, its contributions, and some critiques.

A Brief History

America saw the first significant presence of private charitable institutions after the American Revolution, when numerous private foundations were created to serve a range of purposes in the construction of our country. While these foundations continued throughout the nineteenth century, American philanthropy as we know it today wasn’t fully realized until the first contemporary philanthropists, such as John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Andrew Carnegie, created private foundations to house their fortunes. During America’s industrialization, the presence of private foundations continued to grow in proportion to the accumulation of private wealth across the country.

Economically prosperous periods like these, and again much later in the 1980s, are largely responsible for the growth and maintenance of the large, private philanthropic foundations that continue to thrive today. Since these private foundations operate without many of the same restrictions that limit other American institutions, philanthropy presents interesting possibilities for involvement across endless issue areas. Philanthropic involvement in education provides an excellent example of this phenomenon.

Role In Education

Even the earliest American philanthropic institutions had connections to education, since some of the country’s first schools were created by the contributions of private donors and local religious organizations. Throughout U.S. history, private charitable contributions from individuals and organizations have supported schools. Today, educational philanthropic contributions constitute less than 1 percent of the total K–12 spending. However, there are currently over 600,000 philanthropic foundations in the United States with approximately 25 percent that provide financial assistance to schools. To understand the multiple roles that philanthropists continue to play in creating, shaping, and supporting American public schools, it’s important to understand the multifarious nature of their involvement.

While early educational philanthropy was primarily generated by personal contributions of time and service, the scope and influence of educational philanthropy has grown significantly. Today, there are nearly as many types of organizations as there are organizations themselves. These groups are categorized in a number of different ways. They may be think tanks, advocacy organizations, networks, researchers, data gatherers, grant makers, associations, community outreach organizations, foundations, and/or institutions. They range from small, local bodies that primarily support local causes to large, statewide and national institutions that influence broad educational reform efforts and policies.

The types of support offered by philanthropic organizations also differ based on the group’s mission. While some philanthropists support education with unconditional financial contributions, an increasing number of associations have a more “hands-on” approach to educational philanthropy. In these cases, financial support is often tied to the creation or implementation of certain educational reforms.

With all of the diversity among educational philanthropy organizations, it is clear that they provide a wide range of services to American education. Such services include, but are not limited to, researching issues and trends, supporting the efforts of other institutions and organizations, providing financial support, raising public awareness, analyzing policy, collecting and distributing donations, advising other donors, training practitioners and policy makers, offering technical assistance, and organizing grassroots and community efforts.

Notable Examples

To survey briefly the ways in which educational philanthropies have provided support, consider the following exemplars of philanthropic contributions to American public education that span our nation’s history.

In colonial times, several well-known higher education institutions were created and funded by philanthropic donors. Often, these colleges were named after their benefactors, such as John Harvard, Lord Dartmouth of England, and Governor Elihu Yale. As the decades passed, larger philanthropic organizations and foundations formed that continued to support public education. Consider, for instance, the support provided by the Rosenwald Fund for thousands of schools that served African American students during the Jim Crow era.

More recently, the United States has seen a surge of larger, national private foundations with educational philanthropy at their core. One of the best known examples of contemporary educational philanthropists is the Annenberg Foundation. In 1993, Walter H. Annenberg made the nation’s largest philanthropic contribution to American public schools when announcing his “Challenge to the Nation.” Designed to encourage and motivate others to do the same, Annenberg’s initial $500 million personal donation inspired another $600 million in contributions from individuals, businesses, foundations, colleges, and universities. Together, these examples convey the potential benefits and exciting possibilities evidenced by the philanthropic contributions to education like these.

Related Issues

While most would agree that private foundations focused upon educational philanthropy are predominantly beneficial to American schools, an overview of the topic would be incomplete without a brief acknowledgment of some of the issues related to philanthropic involvement in public education. Generally speaking, these are mostly matters related to accountability and sustainability. For example, there is concern over the possible intentional or unintentional influences that large private foundations may have on political matters and educational policy as a result of their research, outreach, advocacy, financial support, and so on. This concern is echoed by the philanthropic organizations’ careful negotiation of the line between advocacy and lobbying, since federal law prevents tax-exempt foundations from engagement in certain political activities. Some critics believe that private educational philanthropy organizations further muddle the already-confusing question of school governance in the United States and that outside involvement in educational issues by organizations such as these further contributes to the growing belief that public schools do not have the capacity to address their own problems.

Other issues related to educational philanthropy are less political in nature and revolve instead around the actual potential of private donors to make lasting, positive improvements in education. In this case, there are many unanswered questions that are just beginning to be explored by educational research. Such questions address issues of systemic reform, sustainability, and the long-term benefits and consequences of philanthropic involvement in public education.

Finally, it is also important to acknowledge that the private funding provided by educational philanthropists yields a seemingly insignificant proportion of overall public funding of education. However, the potential for influence is not realistically portrayed by this proportion.

Overall Contribution

The United States has a long history of private donor ship that can be traced back to its earliest days. While the size and nature of these contributions varies, they are united by their intention to support and enhance democratic society. As such, many philanthropic organizations throughout American history have served education, since investing in American children may be one of the best ways to positively influence broad social change. While it is impossible to generate an exhaustive list of meaningful contributions made by countless educational philanthropists throughout our history, it is important to acknowledge the uncountable influence of the powerful triad formed by philanthropists, practitioners, and policy makers on the American system of public education.


  1. Hess, F. M. (Ed.). (2005). With the best of intentions: How philanthropy is reshaping K–12 education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
  2. Hill, P. T. (2001). Education philanthropy for the 21st century. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
  3. Nielsen, W. A. (1996). Inside American philanthropy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  4. Sears, J. B. (1990). Philanthropy in the history of American higher education. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
  5. Taggart, R. J. (1988). Private philanthropy and public education. Cranbury, NJ: University of Delaware Press.
  6. Walton, A. (Ed.). (2005). Women and philanthropy in education. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  7. Business Education Partnership Forum:
  8. Chronicle of Philanthropy:
  9. Council on Foundations:
  10. Grantmakers for Education:
  11. The Philanthropy Roundtable:

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