Who stands to benefit? We all need to know

By Emma Rowe

Some of the richest and most powerful individuals and corporations in Australia are involved in educational philanthropy – giving money to public schools via foundations. Education philanthropy represents a powerful network from diverse sectors including political, business, corporations and media. 

This is framed to the public as charitable acts, and wanting to ‘give back’. But we need to ask questions: who stands to benefit? Who has the power to direct large-scale policy? What are the implications for democracy, social justice and equity? 

Philanthropy in education presents clear ramifications for transparent democracy and government, in addition to the funding of public schools, and the commercialisation of schools. As a public, do we welcome corporate funders in our public school sector, and what are the wider implications of this? 

This is venture philanthropy, wanting something in return. It is strategic and organised; partnering rather than giving. 

“Corporate welfare” designed by Rowe and Holme.

This could be policy influence, tax minimisation or the generation of profit for your business. This is what Bill Gates described as ‘creative capitalism’—a third-way approach ‘where governments, businesses and non-profits work together’. Venture philanthropy is investing, not simply granting. It aims to be entrepreneurial, high-impact and high-engagement.

Venture philanthropists aim for two primary strategies: first, to act as a type of ‘boundary spanner’, linking together a range of actors from NGOs, governments, corporations, intergovernmental agencies and business. Second, establish ‘knowledge brokers’ or ‘evidence brokers’ to leverage authority with the public and achieve large-scale reform.

How is this happening in education? Venture philanthropy is wide-spread in the US and the UK.  It rests on claims of altruism, whilst simultaneously generating profits and significant influence in education reform (surveys with educators show that the majority believe, for example, that the Gates Foundation is more powerful than the US government when it comes to education reform, and in their successful backing of numerous policy agendas, such as charter schools or the Common Core Initiative- they would be right).

We have to ask ourselves—is corporate-backed education reform a good thing? Do we want corporations to be more transparent in how they are driving large-scale policy and directing education reform? These large-scale reforms, as enabled by ‘big money’, are often enacted through ‘foundations’ which claim they are motivated by improving equity in education. In other words, the influence and the money trail is often not very easy to trace as they hide under subsidiaries or ultimate holding companies.

This is a short post which will only provide a brief introduction (the fuller length version is published in a peer-reviewed journal). Let’s consider just one example: the emergence of Australian Schools Plus, the first nation-wide charity with Deductible Gift Recipient Status, that enables corporations, businesses and high-net wealth individuals to give to public schools and receive a tax-deduction.

 Venture philanthropy

 Philanthropy in disadvantaged public schools was first recommended (in a significant way) in the Federal Review of Funding for Schooling (recommendation 41). The Gonski Review called for reform that would emulate models from the UK and the US, where academy schools and charter schools partner with philanthropists to lead ‘systemic improvements’. This recommendation was driven by venture philanthropic organisation Social Ventures Australia and supported by others (e.g. The Ian Potter Foundation, Origin Foundation – Origin Energy). 

The Report colloquially became known as the Gonski Review, in light of the chairman of the report – the ‘most well-networked business man in Australia’, corporate consultant David Gonski. Gonski is a well-known and long-term political advocate of corporate philanthropy, having sat on senior advisory boards for the Howard Government in the 1990s and early 2000s. Gonski was highly influential in ushering in high-level reform in this area. He is also the co-director of Australian Philanthropic Services ((according to current ASIC records, APS is a subsidiary of venture philanthropic organisation Social Ventures Australia– a central lobbyist for education reform. Please note that SVA stipulate that this relationship ended in 2017).

In the review’s advocacy for increased funding for disadvantaged students, the policy document became well-known and the broader public came to associate Gonski with educational equity (e.g. #igiveagonski). 

But one of the most enduring policies Gonski 1.0 has implemented is the introduction of corporate-backed funding of public schools, unclear money trails and questionable policy influence by ‘big money’. The following is a timeline which shows the key stages:

 Table 1. A timeline of key events.

2010Gonski is invited to Chair the Federal Government’s Review of Funding for Schooling – via a personal call on his mobile from Julia Gillard, then federal minister for Education (Gonski was on holidays at the time with his family). He was ‘taken aback’ by the invitation, considering his prior lack of experience in this sector. Gillard is a well-known advocate of philanthropy in education, as styled on the US-system. 
2011The Gonski Review is released. A major recommendation of the report is to create a fund to promote philanthropy in disadvantaged schools.
2012Eight leading not-for-profit organisations meet to discuss the foundation of a national charity to promote structured philanthropy in education.
2012The Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission (ACNC) Act 2012 passed by the Australian Government in order to reduce ‘red tape’ for charities.
2013The Australian Government provides $5 million seed funding (of public money) for the establishment of Australian Schools Plus Ltd.
July 2013Australian Schools Plus Ltd registered as a charity via Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.
2014/2015Federal Parliament passes legislation granting Australian Schools Plus Ltd Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR1) status (Tax and Superannuation Laws Amendment (2014 Measures No. 5) Bill 2014). Corporations, business and high-net wealth individuals are encouraged to give money to public schools in order to receive a tax-deduction.
2016Schools Plus launch online crowdfunding platform for public schools, called ‘Fundraise Yourself’.
2016‘Pioneers in Philanthropy’ is launched (hereby referred to as PIP). PIP is not a registered charity. PIP partners with banks and large media groups (e.g. Fairfax Family Foundation and the Commonwealth Bank).
2016Schools Plus includes board members from News Corp Australia, Foxtel, ABN AMRO Bank, and AFL Football. Their financial supporters have deep pockets: Commonwealth Bank, Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, Toyota, Google, Origin Foundation, Harvey Norman and many more.
2018UNSW Gonski Institute of Education is launched, funded by philanthropy including donations from David Gonski. The sources of the donations are not publicly available. UNSW stands for University of New South Wales. The Chair of the Advisory Board is an extension of Gonski’s network and the Schools Plus network: the chairman is the CEO of the Commonwealth Bank; committee members include the Chief Executive of the State Library of NSW (Gonski was the former board director); the general manager of the Paul Ramsay Foundation (donor to Schools Plus and the largest donor for Teach for Australia); and the CEO of the Centre for Social Impact (financially established by Gonski and three of his colleagues).

The federal legislation- which set an historical precedent – received very little media coverage, and none that was critical, questioning or investigating. It is overwhelmingly regarded positively that corporations, business and high-net wealth individuals can give to public schools. Arguably, giving to public schools is positive–but what is the price? It is important to note formidable influences in modern education policy in Australia.

Big money, big influence? 

Philanthropic organisations such as Schools Plus host a wide range of hybrid market-state actors across corporate and not-for-profit organisations, including board members from News Corp Australia and Foxtel (as part of the Murdoch empire), a former CEO from Deloitte and elite sporting groups (an AFL Football Club). Their financial supporters have deep pockets: Google, Toyota, Commonwealth Bank, Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, Origin Foundation (from Origin Energy), retail giants (Harvey Norman) and many more (note, this lists 2020 funders).

The following visual endeavours to illustrate just some of the donors:

A picture of Schools Plus and a snapshot of their high-profile donors, representing the wealthiest in Australian society.  

Effectively, each node represents a high-level of power from corporate, philanthropy or the government sector. The networks are characterised via reproductive values; and relational patterns and replications are evident across the network. Gonski’s professional and personal network is reproduced throughout the Schools Plus network; this includes banking giants, media oligarchs, and the wealthiest identities. For example, Gonski’s mentee Catherine Brenner, the former Chair of the AMP Bank, occupies a board role for Schools Plus. Major power-brokers are represented in the network: Roger Massy-Greene, ex-Bank of America and Rio Tinto CEO, political party donor, married to Belinda Hutchinson (co-director of Australian Philanthropic Services and long-term funder of Social Ventures Australia), is part of the Pioneers in Philanthropy (and a newly formed member of the ‘expert board’, and Director of AERO). Kim Williams is a former executive from Rupert Murdoch’s Foxtel and News Corp. The CEO of Schools Plus is a former corporate consultant from Deloitte (one of the big four).

The majority of board members represent financier or consultancy networks, rather than any experience or knowledge within the classroom, as teachers, school leaders or principals.

Schools Plus is closely aligned with Social Ventures Australia (a venture philanthropic organisation). Their first CEO was Michael Traill, the CEO from SVA. Their prior registered address was SVA’s address. SVA were described as the ‘driving force’ behind setting up Schools Plus. There are similar people who hold roles. For instance, former board member of Schools Plus (Lisa Paul AO) is also the former director from SVA (this is common, including the newly formed AERO– many of the directors are former/current SVA directors). The face of these organisations tends to be far different to the engine (money) that is driving it. The big-name donors are also common throughout this network. This includes Google, Origin, or Commonwealth Bank (all donors to Schools Plus and SVA).

As an organisation, SVA have pushed forward major education reform, including Schools Plus, Bright Spots Schools Connection, the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO), and Evidence for Learning (a subsidiary of SVA). There is a capacity to influence high-level reform, including federal legislation. But, this is coupled with a lack of formal responsibilities or bureaucratic transparencies. It is undemocratic. There is a concentration of power within particular institutional affiliations.

It is important to note that the median tax that corporations pay in Australia is 1.64% (when analysing data from 2014 to 2019). This is because corporations offset their taxable income by giving to a range of foundations such as this– rather than paying tax to the government (which would then be distributed to public services). It is a win-win for corporations – they get to choose where their funds go – get ‘free’ company branding – win contracts from the government – get their product into schools and classrooms – and can claim corporate social responsibility as well!

Final note

This post is a preliminary and does not pretend to answer all the questions. I would encourage more scrutiny of organisations and foundations that influence public schools and public schooling policy. They will influence how public schools are funded, what kinds of products will be included in the public school classroom, and are influencing policy in schools, at state and federal level.

Emma Rowe is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Deakin University and 2020 Fulbright Scholar. Emma is a recipient of the Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Grant (DECRA) 2021-2024. Emma’s work examines educational reform and education policy, with an interest in  school choice, privatization and marketisation. Emma’s work has held a long-term interest in the reform of public schooling across OECD countries. 

This was written with the support of an ARC DECRA

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

5 thoughts on “Who stands to benefit? We all need to know

  1. I do a little educational philanthropy. I have been surprised, and a little worried, about how much say I was being offered on what the money was spent on. If educators don’t want venture philanthropy to skew policy, then they need to learn to play the game. They can learn about the process and politics of this at their friendly local start-up center.

  2. Marie Brennan says:

    This is important mapping, thanks Emma. It is hard to ‘read’ our education world in Australia with so little transparency in relation to funding and policy. The move of funding into so-called philanthropy – and into QANGOs instead of public infrastructure – not only skews influence and policy but actively removes public infrastructure such as research functions and curriculum expertise into private and commercial hands. In particular, such a move also is a further nail in the coffin of participatory democracy, in which teachers, students, parents and community members are able to steer schooling (in this case) within broad guidelines and policies, in ways that suit their community and their judgements of the future.

  3. Ann Lawless says:

    Really appreciate your analysis and honest approach

  4. thank you, another detailed analysis was commissioned by New Zealand teacher Unions –
    O’Neill, J., Duffy, C. & Fernando, S. (2016). Charities, Philanthropists, Policy Entrepreneurs, International Companies and State Schooling in Aotearoa New Zealand. Final report to the New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa, New Zealand Post Primary Teachers’ Association Te Wehengarua, and New Zealand Primary Principals’ Federation Ngā Tumuaki o Aotearoa.
    Retrieved 8 October 2020 from -

    “Schooling policy networks come into being and flourish due to the interactions of the entrepreneurial policy actors who navigate them. These actors collaborate and network in order to materially influence state schooling policy development and services delivery. Actors may operate as individuals, groups or organisations.

    In New Zealand, the consummate schooling policy actor since the late 1990s has been Professor John Hattie, … Hattie’s now global social networking approach might reasonably be described as a seamless fabrication of his public-good, not-for-profit and for-profit policy entrepreneurship and advocacy. His original scholarly work in the university setting has since been packaged, branded and monetised through the Visible Learning book series and Visible LearningPlus programme of teacher workshops and associated school certification offered internationally under licence to various commercial partners by Cognition Education; and most recently through the Visible Classroom App which has been commercialised in Australia, the UK and the USA via a partnership between the University of Melbourne and Ai-Media.” (p. viii)

  5. Piromax says:

    It seems to me that a true philanthropist never advertises his help. You can always make a donation so that no one knows who the money came from.

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