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July 18, 2017


Credit: Pixabay.com

Last week I raised some questions about a new Massachusetts organization, in Massachusetts Parents United: Old Wine in an Empty Bottle. The three major funders identified on MPU’s website are The Walton Family Foundation, The Longfield Family Foundation, and the National Philanthropic Trust. There are two characteristics to examine today and we’ll call them “Don’t call me I’ll call you” and “What’s your measurement?” (Read on, there will be a Bonus Issue).

1.      Don’t call me I’ll call you

With major givers, you don’t find them they find you. Many do not accept applications. The Walton Family Foundation is big into funding start-up charter schools and explains that process here. Forms for current grantees in education and the environment are  here. MPU doesn’t seem to fit either category. So let’s look to “Instructions for Grant Applicants: All Other Grants.” (Note: WFF’s site provides a “Formal Budget Proposal” and “Proposal Budget Template”).


The Walton Family Foundation does not accept unsolicited grant proposals, except from public charter school developers who meet certain criteria described in Public Charter Startup Grant Program.


Because we accept only solicited proposals, an organization interested in applying for a grant needs first to send a brief letter of inquiry. The letter should succinctly describe the organization and the proposed project, specify and briefly explain its relevance to a particular Walton Family Foundation funding area and initiative, and provide an estimate of the funds that would be requested. . . .


If, based on the letter of inquiry, the project appears to match our funding criteria and priorities, the applicant may be invited to submit a formal grant proposal and budget. An applicant should not submit a formal grant proposal until such an invitation is received. 


The Longfield Family Foundation has a very specific focus: “The creation of more high-performing schools in Boston, with the ultimate goal of all children in Boston receiving a quality education, to provide Boston youth with necessary skills and opportunity for success.” (italics in original). As to selecting grantees:


In most cases, we identify and evaluate all prospective grantees through a careful screening process. We believe this proactive approach strengthens the effectiveness of our investments. It also ensures we choose partners that are aligned with our mission and will be likely to have a strong impact in our areas of interest. Due to our level of direct interaction with our partners, unsolicited proposals are rarely funded. However, interested parties are welcome to send a one- or two-page concept paper with an organization description and project outline, including timeline, cost and expected outcomes.


MPU describes its mission as “building safer neighborhoods, affordable communities and bringing high-quality education to every child across the Commonwealth.” Only the last item would fit either the Walton or Longfield criteria and if those philanthropies stayed true to their own statements, MPU would need to be much more specific on how it intended to help bring high quality education to Massachusetts students.

2.      What’s your measurement?

A good deal of philanthropic giving these days comes with precise conditions. As I wrote in Unmasking the Philanthrocapitalists Who Almost Bought Massachusetts Schools, “The way they operate is to make specific, targeted investments to influence public policy, and not no-strings-attached bestowals to do-gooder charities.”

The Walton Family Foundation’s practices provide an example. WFF expects applicants to detail how expected “Outputs” and “Outcomes” are to be measured and how progress is to be evaluated. Quantitative measurement of progress toward specific goals is very important to the WFF – the website provides a detailed guide titled How to Construct Performance Measures 2.0.

The Longfield approach to aiding Boston school children is similar. It offers not just money but “Hands-on project implementation,” “Resources, including strategic community relationships” and “Specialized knowledge of local education and education reform initiatives.” Longfield states that “We are solely interested in outcomes-based projects that improve student learning and achievement. We constantly evaluate our work to ensure we are doing all that we can. Without assessment, we will never know if we are accomplishing our undertaking.”

Both Walton and Longfield emphasis a data driven approach to programmatic analysis, and aspiring grantees need to display this in their applications.

3.      Bonus issue: What is National Philanthropic Trust?

The third major contributor identified on MPU’s webpage is National Philanthropic Trust, which is a donor advised fund. A DAF is administered by a charitable sponsor. Donors establish and fund the account and then recommend grants from their accounts to other charitable organizations. Prof. Ray Madoff sees DAF’s as presenting challenges to democracy, but they offer real benefits to givers. Donors can avoid having to administer the funds, they are tax advantaged, and donors can advise the sponsoring organization how to distribute the funds (it’s not a legal requirement that the sponsor follow the advice but in what Madoff calls the “wink and a nod basis” the donor’s advice is followed).

One aspect of DAFs not taken up by Madoff but addressed by Jane Mayer in Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right is that DAFS offer wealthy individuals the opportunity to direct their money to political causes while guaranteeing anonymity. Mayer looked at a DAF named DonorsTrust which allows wealthy individuals to give to that anodyne sounding sponsor, and then direct DT to contribute to more controversial non-profits (such as climate science denial fronts) without exposing their participation.

As to National Philanthropic Trust, we can say that someone made a donation to NPT and then advised that some portion of that donation be granted to MPU. But we’ll never know who that grantor was.

It’s fair to say that Massachusetts Parents United: Old Wine in an Empty Bottle was not warmly received by MPU and its followers. One response was “They don’t need your permission to fight for their right to #SchoolChoice.” That is exactly correct; they don’t need my permission for anything. But they do need the permission of their donors.

The Washington Post recently adopted a new slogan: “Democracy dies in darkness.” I agree.

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money (and other things). I don't write about education policy.]

Massachusetts Parents United, Walton Family Foundation

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