The power of third sector organizations in public education

Nina Kolleck (Department of Educational Research and Social Systems, Free University of Berlin, Berlin, Germany)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 8 January 2019



The purpose of this paper is to address school–NGO interactions by analyzing the power of foundations – a specific type of third sector organization or NGO in education.


Data are collected through a quantitative survey, qualitative interviews, official documents, reports and websites. Social network analysis and grounded theory are used to analyze the data with the aim to develop a theoretical approach.


The study identifies three dimensions, i.e. relational, structural and discursive dimensions of power. Based on the analysis of an illustrative multi-stakeholder initiative, the paper highlights the role of foundations in framing educational settings, concepts and structures of the education system as such.

Practical implications

The three-dimensional power perspective offered in this paper is particularly useful for scholars investigating school–NGO interactions or multi-stakeholder partnerships in education. Furthermore, it is of crucial importance for practitioners, school principals and education administrators dealing with school–NGO interactions given that foundations seem to be increasingly able to draw on new sources of power in these interactions.


While the number and power of the third sector in education continues to rise worldwide, there is wide consensus that NGO power in education has, to date, hardly been researched. This paper contributes to this dearth of research by uncovering foundations’ different sources of power and by developing a theoretical approach for analyzing the power of third-sector organizations in education.



Kolleck, N. (2019), "The power of third sector organizations in public education", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 57 No. 4, pp. 411-425.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited


The outcomes of international student assessments (such as the Programme for International Student Assessment) have raised questions about the global competitiveness of educational systems in many countries. One of the reactions to these rankings has been a surge of interest in the role of social networks between schools and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in processes of educational improvement (Lewis and Patrinos, 2011). Since 2010, a rising number of cross-sectoral networks have emerged in which formal education actors (e.g. schools) and NGOs (non-profit and for-profit organizations) seek to address current challenges in education worldwide (de Boer et al., 2018; Rowan and Meyer, 2006). NGOs are becoming progressively involved in school improvement initiatives and scholars observe that NGOs are increasingly exerting power on schools and educational systems worldwide (e.g. Berkovich and Foldes, 2012; Eyal and Yarm, 2018; Kolleck, 2016; Verger, 2012; Yemini et al., 2018). At the same time, there is a wide consensus that there is still only little research on the power of private influences in education (Souto-Otero, 2015) and that research has so far neglected the power of NGOs in educational settings and schools (e.g. Berkovich and Foldes, 2012; Eyal and Yarm, 2018; Fahrenwald and Feyerer, 2018; Verger, 2012; Yemini et al., 2018). This is especially true for foundations, which can be characterized as a particular type or legal category of NGO – being established as charitable trusts with specific purposes (e.g. education, culture, religion, etc.) and awarding grants (i.e. funding foundations) or supporting and investing in own projects and activities (i.e. operating foundations).

This paper seeks to contribute to this research gap by analyzing the power of foundations and by developing a theoretically based empirical approach which may be used in future research to systematically study the power of foundations as a typical form of NGO in education. More specifically, the paper aims to find answers to the main research question as to how foundations wield power in order to shape the education agenda and exert influence on schools.

Although interactions between foundations and schools are not unidirectional but rather reciprocal, the analysis for this paper is focused on the power exerted by foundations. It suggests a systematic approach to understand and analyze foundations’ opportunities for, and limitations on, exerting power in education. This in turn may be extended and used to study reciprocal influences in school–NGO interactions.

While studies highlight the growing importance of the power of private actors in education systems (e.g. Souto-Otero, 2015) and refer to the lack of studies in particular with respect to the role of companies and foundations in schools (e.g. Verger et al., 2016a; Yemini et al., 2018), to date, most scholars in education research have used an intuitive notion of power. Some have focused on a single dimension of power such as structural power (e.g. Menashy, 2018) or discursive power (e.g. Kolleck, 2017). Hence, a systematic power perspective which distinguishes the different sources of power and the varying faces it may embody has been missing so far.

In exploring how foundations wield power in order to shape the education agenda and exert influence on schools, this paper does not consider whether foundations should gain power nor does it intend to make a value judgment about the power of foundations in education. Instead, the purpose of this paper is to systematically analyze the different ways NGOs succeed in exerting power, what sources they can use and what helps them to be successful. Building upon Lukes (2005), it differentiates three dimensions of power: the relational, structural and discursive dimensions of the power of NGOs in education. According to this perspective, relational power stresses that individuals always possess a relative degree of power, which they may make use of in specific situations. Hence, an actor A can influence an actor B if, during a social interaction, he gets what he wants and is successful in influencing actor “B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (Dahl, 1957, p. 203). Discursive power relates to the power of words, i.e. the shaping of discourses, perceptions or interpretations. Structural power, finally, can be conceptualized as formal decision-making power which enables actors to control resources, maintain financing arrangements, set rules and keep a superior economic position due to historically constituted, economic or organizational structures.

By following this line of argumentation, the paper avoids a purely rationalist or structuralist assessment and combines different theoretical perspectives on NGO power in education, which allow for operationalizations using different methodological approaches based on actor-centered, structural and discursive methodologies. Hence, the main objective of the paper is twofold: on the one hand, it analyzes how the different sources of power, i.e. the structural, relational and discursive power sources, are used and implemented by foundations. On the other hand, it aims to classify foundation’s sources of power in education and to synthesize empirical findings according to grounded theory to develop a theoretical approach which can be adapted in future studies on power relations in school–NGO interactions worldwide.

The paper is divided into seven sections. Following this introduction, background information on the power of NGOs in education is discussed. The third section provides the theoretical approach of the study. The fourth section introduces the case – a multi-stakeholder initiative which has been implemented in one of the poorest German regions, the Ruhr area, with the aim to restructure its educational system. Furthermore, the methodology used and the data collected are presented. The subsequent section analyzes how one of the biggest German foundations wields power in education by establishing a large and far-reaching multi-stakeholder network. Empirical results are discussed in the sixth section. Finally, the theoretical approach developed in this paper is synthesized, the strengths of the three-dimensional power perspective are outlined and foundations’ opportunities to use the three sources of power as well as the limitations they face are discussed.


The demand for an involvement of NGOs or foundations is not new but rather has a long tradition (Verger et al., 2016a). As in the past, schools aim at gaining private support for equipment, provisions or school improvement and third-sector organizations such as foundations seek power in schools in an effort to gain legitimacy or to take part in the shaping of norms and social values at the earliest possible moment. The retreat of the state (Strange, 1996), the reconfiguration of power relations between state and non-state actors (Kolleck, 2012), the “rise of policy networks” (Menashy, 2018) as well as the changing role of non-state actors and public pressures have urged NGOs to increasingly try to become involved in education and to take part in debates on school development (Ball, 2012; Verger et al., 2012).

As a result of the global competition between educational systems due to the rise of international comparative studies in education, the number and scope of school–NGO interactions have increased significantly worldwide (Verger et al., 2016b) and foundations have become important players in processes of school improvement (Kolleck and Kulin, 2016). Schools have turned into strategically significant cooperation partners for foundations. This is also reflected in the fact that education belongs to the most relevant fields for foundations in countries such as the USA and Germany as well as in Europe (Thümler et al., 2014). Foundations are increasingly creating partnerships or multi-stakeholder networks that aim to promote equitable participation (Menashy, 2018) and help shape public understanding of the concept of education (Kolleck, Bormann and Höhne, 2015).

On the one hand, scholars argue that although multi-stakeholder partnerships give the impression of equal rights for stakeholders, “the degree to which such partnerships truly reflect equitable participation and power remains uncertain” (Menashy, 2018, p. 13). Actors such as schools often remain weaker in such partnerships than NGOs (e.g. Eyal and Yarm, 2018; Yemini, 2017). On the other hand, studies highlight that a collaborative culture is common in cases where NGOs do not jeopardize the power of state actors (Yemini et al., 2018, p. 257).

In the past, research on the power of NGOs was primarily conducted without specific conceptualizations of power and only a few studies have implemented systematic theoretical approaches to study these power relations. Studies adapting a specific definition of power were explicitly limited to one of the sources of power, such as NGOs’ discursive power (e.g. Kolleck, 2017) or structural power (e.g. Menashy, 2018). Previous research has also elaborated questions of legitimacy and how effectively NGOs have wielded power in schools or educational settings (see e.g. Thümler, 2017). From this point of view, NGOs are treated as interest groups, wielding their power within schools or school systems (e.g. Yemini, 2017). Despite the increasing relevance of multi-stakeholder partnerships in education, there is broad consensus that both the power of NGOs and processes of legitimization, which grant civil society actors the right to wield power, have been neglected by educational and social scientists so far (see e.g. Menashy, 2018).

The current study contributes to the literature on school–NGO interactions and multi-stakeholder partnerships by analyzing how foundations wield power in order to shape the education agenda and exert influence on schools.

Theoretical orientation

Power is one of the most controversial concepts in social sciences in general and in education research more specifically. In the past, studies on educational organizations or institutions have often implemented a Weberian understanding of power (Samier, 2002). Weber (1968) represented a very broad, bureaucratic and leadership-oriented perspective on power by defining it as “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability exists” (p. 53). This conception of power makes it easy to analyze the way different state actors wield power on the shaping of educational systems. However, against the background of the increasing relevance in recent years of non-state actors, we need a new conceptualization of their power given that NGOs’ sources of power and the ways in which they use it are likely to be at least partly dissimilar to states.

In the current literature the increasing power of NGOs in education is often described as neoliberal (e.g. Verger et al., 2016b) as it is based on a conception of homo oeconomicus. Although the terms “neoliberalism” and “homo oeconomicus” were not in use until the nineteenth century, they are often related to the ideas of Smith who highlights that individuals have sympathy for the well-being of others and claims that the social prosperity granted by the “invisible hand” does not come from self-interest and profit-seeking but rather from “sympathy” for others. Thus, the act of observing others makes people aware of the morality of their own behavior and provides the basis for general social order (Smith, 1761; Kolleck, 2011). This ambiguity among self-interested, rational and profit-driven behavior and individuals’ sympathy for others may also be observed in the literature on civil society involvement in education. On the one hand, scholars highlight that the increasing power of non-state actors in education is associated with sympathy for others, social innovations (Dees, 2005; Thümler, 2017), pluralism and educational equality (Patrinos et al., 2009). On the other hand, critiques are related to the fear of a dominance of neoliberal ideologies as well as self-interested and profit-driven behavior in education systems and schools (Ball, 2012).

However, while the neoliberal notion of power, in contrast to the Webearian understanding, does also consider non-state actors to be powerful, it does not distinguish the different power sources educational actors may use.

In the academic literature, there are only few studies which focus different dimensions of NGO power in education. With the aim to examine power asymmetries within the Global Partnership for Education, Menashy (2018) applied to the educational context a conceptualization of structural power as developed by International Relations Scholars. Structural power is also analyzed by Au and Lubienski (2016) who showed that non-profit organizations, such as the Gates Foundation, are successful in introducing political change and shaping educational systems. Though the Gates Foundation does not seem able to privatize public education, it has been successful in marketizing the educational “system by giving the public sector a more market-like institutional environment” (Au and Lubienski, 2016, p. 39). In other words, while the superior position of the Gates Foundation in economic and political structures has not enabled the organization to introduce a more privatized school system, it has allowed it to privatize the policy process by influencing rules in its favor. The authors conclude that “these private philanthropists are not just influencing public policy, but are private policymakers, unaccountable to the broader public” (Au and Lubienski, 2016, p. 38).

In contrast to this structural perspective on NGO power, other scholars implement a more relational viewpoint and study NGO power by analyzing interactions between NGOs and schools (e.g. Eyal and Yarm, 2018; Kolleck, 2014; Yemini, 2017; Yemini and Sagie, 2015). These studies are more focused on the exploration of collaboration, mutuality, social relations and interactions when studying power relations in education. The relational perspective of power has already been expressed by Dahl (1957) as a phenomenon resulting from relationships among people.

A third group of studies investigates how third-sector organizations make use of discursive power. Scholars arguing along this line focus on the analysis or reconstruction of debates on education to study how NGOs seek to: shape values, traditions and future generations; gain social acceptance as legitimate actors in education; be observed as necessary participants in education policy (Kolleck, Bormann and Höhne, 2015) and foster trust in their capacities and know-how (Kolleck, 2017; Yemini, 2017). These studies often relate to the work of Foucault (2013), who stressed that discourses are always related to the fight for power and fields of knowledge.

To better understand the opportunities available to, but also the limits, NGOs as they seek to influence educational norms, settings, structures or the global educational system as such, this paper proposes a methodological design, which draws on qualitative and quantitative analysis. Building upon Lukes (2005) who differentiated relational, structural and discursive dimensions of power of NGOs in education it uncovers the sources of power foundations may use when interacting with schools by analyzing an illustrative multi-stakeholder initiative established by one of the largest German foundations. The next sections discuss the methodological approach chosen to derive theoretical information from empirical findings.

Method and justification of the illustrative empirical case

To empirically analyze the different dimensions of the power of NGOs in education, this paper analyzes the establishment of an illustrative multi-stakeholder or cross-sectional initiative, which was initiated by one of the largest German foundations in the Ruhr area – one of the poorest regions in Germany.

The case: adapting collective impact in Germany through establishing a multi-stakeholder initiative

In recent years, an increasing number of multi-stakeholder initiatives or cross-sectoral networks have emerged with the aim to foster interactions between schools and foundations or NGOs and to collectively address current challenges in education systems worldwide. With these initiatives, practitioners and researchers also seek to respond to an observed lack of collaboration in education and the postulation that this may result in many of the current educational problems (Bryk et al., 2011, p. 130).

Practitioners and researchers have developed a diverse number of concepts to address these challenges. Examples of such concepts include networked communities (Bryk et al., 2011), professional learning communities (e.g. Stoll et al., 2006), turnaround strategies (e.g. Peurach and Neumerski, 2015) or collective impact approaches.

In Germany, the first effort to implement an educational network (initiative) based on the principles of collective impact was realized in 2013 in the German Ruhr area. One of the largest and most powerful German foundations in the education sector established the multi-stakeholder initiative as a joint educational initiative with the aim to strengthen educational justice in this area. The Ruhr region is the largest metropolitan area in Germany and among the five largest metropolitan areas in Europe. It consists of 53 cities and municipalities and 5m inhabitants (including about a million children/young people). This region is characterized by an increasing social polarization and a large percentage of individuals with migrant backgrounds or refugees, especially among the youth.

Mixed methods approach

This paper implements qualitative and quantitative techniques to analyze the illustrative case and to develop a more general theory on NGO power in education. More specifically, it uses document analyses, qualitative in-depth interviews and a quantitative questionnaire including network analytical items. Hence, the paper applies a mixed method approach. Official documents, reports and website data are used as complementary data sources. Data are analyzed using qualitative and quantitative techniques of social network analysis as well as grounded theory to study the interactions of the actors involved in implementing the collective impact initiative and the power relations therein. In the following, the methodological approach and the analysis of the collected data are described in more detail.

Qualitative sampling and data collection

In a first step, 21 individuals responsible for establishing the collective impact initiative were interviewed in 2015 using a semi-structured interview guideline and qualitative network maps (Kahn and Antonucci, 1980). The number and the institutional background of the interviewees were determined in advance to ensure that actors from schools and the foundation were involved. Interviewees were asked, in particular, to provide information on the current situation of the collective impact initiative, their motivations and aims concerning their involvement in the initiative, their relationships with other important individuals as well as general opportunities and challenges. Transcribed interviews were evaluated according to the rules of grounded theory by Strauss and Corbin (1996) and with the help of the analysis software MAXQDA.

Quantitative instrumentation, sampling and data analysis

Following the analysis of qualitative data, an online survey was constructed and implemented. In accordance with a snowball approach, individuals known to be involved in the initiative were addressed with this questionnaire and were asked to name their cooperation partners (Kowald et al., 2015).

The questionnaire encompassed questions about socio-demographic characteristics (e.g. gender, age, formal education and training), the respondents’ professional relationship to the initiative, their main affiliation, the length of their collaboration and their professional position within the initiative. Interviewees also provided information concerning the respondents’ identification with the initiative’s five goals. Finally, the questionnaire included network analytical items concerning the social relations and the qualities of the relationships between the individuals involved in establishing the educational initiative. Here, network analytical scales as applied in the General Social Survey (Burt, 1984; Merluzzi and Burt, 2013) were used (Kolleck et al., 2017).

In total, 954 individuals were invited to participate in the online survey, of which 786 took part (response rate: 82.4 percent). Among these respondents, 334 (42.5 percent) stated that they had been working for or collaborating with the initiative and were asked the full range of questions.


Relational power

Relational perspectives are based on assumptions of methodological individualism and explain power following Dahl’s (1957) notion of power, i.e. as a phenomenon resulting from relationships among people. Researchers studying NGO power in education based on this perspective employ an actor-centered approach. Relational power has often been observed in lobbying or advocacy initiatives (e.g. Kolleck, 2009) when NGOs or foundations undertake media campaigns, commission and publish favorable research results, use social media or facilitate collective action, design teaching materials, directly contact political decision makers on education-specific issues or propose policy solutions. Hence, this aspect of power has links to social network theory in that actors are regarded as being embedded in social configurations and the interactions, social relations and characteristics of the environment are placed at the center of empirical analyses (e.g. Kolleck, Jörgens and Well, 2017; Kolleck et al., 2017).

According to a relational perspective on power, educational challenges are addressed, for instance, through the design of successful collaborations between schools and NGOs. This intention is also expressed in the material collected from interviews with foundation staff:

How can I change something structurally or strategically and who do I have to win as a partner? Who can turn the right screws?

(Interview 16)

The interviews analyzed for this paper point out that relational power does not arise solely through predefined roles within the network, but that it is dependent on individuals:

So, of course that’s also […] a merit of the people who sit there on the central positions, who of course also have a certain professional history and also know people.

(Interview 7)

According to this citation, relational power results from the individual positions in the network, the connections and the possibilities for accessing information through social relationships. By improving the cooperation between school and extracurricular educational organizations, the initiative seeks to strengthen educational justice in this area. Special features of this collective impact initiative are its regional approach and that it is funded by a single foundation, which provides financing for the project to the sum of Euro 15m for each of the two phases. Visualizations of the network data collected through surveys show that the backbone organization, which is funded by the foundations, has the most powerful role in the network.

In Figure 1, the nodes represent the respondents. The connections visualize both the cooperation and the transfer of information. The color of the nodes shows the actors’ professional affiliations, and the size of the nodes visualizes their power and centrality. In Figure 1, the larger the node is, the higher its value is according to eigenvector centrality (i.e. the more influential the node is within the network).

Figure 1 shows that centrality and power in the network are unevenly distributed. While the network was characterized by a large number of actors with low centrality values, there were only few large nodes that apparently control the cooperation and information flows. These findings coincide with our assumptions about the relevance of the backbone organization in collective impact initiatives (e.g. Hanleybrown et al., 2012). Moreover, this apparently important role of backbone organizations should be discussed in the context of the short duration of the educational initiative. At the time of the data collection, the initiative had been under way for less than three years. The finding that a few individual actors play a dominant role in the network can be regarded as problematic because of the foundation’s intention to limit the funding period of the project. This raises the question of whether the initiative will survive when the backbone organization and its central nodes disappear. Altogether, however, the findings gathered with social network analysis show the success of the foundation in strategically connecting organizations from different sectors and thereby increasing its relational power.

The backbone organization’s central role shows its central position and its sources of relational power. At the same time, network analytical results demonstrate that the foundation has failed to successfully involve schools. Whereas the backbone organization, which is affiliated with the foundation, has a central role in the implementation process, educational actors such as schools were found to be hardly integrated (Kappauf and Kolleck, 2018). This lack of integration concurs with qualitative results indicating weak trust and low motivation of these actors to become involved in the cross-sectoral collaboration.

Discursive power

In contrast to the conception of relational power, discursive power can be defined as the power of words, i.e. the shaping of discourses, perceptions or interpretations. This second dimension of power is related to norms, ideas and social interactions. It is reflected in discourses, cultural values and communicative practices.

Empirical analyses for this paper show that the foundation is active in debates on restructuring the education system in the Ruhr area in order to increase discursive power. For the foundation, the discursive field of education provides possibilities to bring in its own understanding and to advance social impact. Its former secretary general, for instance, has explicitly referred to educational issues as a chance to influence norms, values and the “young generation” in general:

It is through education that we pass on our values and traditions, as well as the technical skills needed for building the future. Therefore, it is certainly of the highest relevance for charitable foundations across the globe, and the first issue that needs to be addressed whenever we set out to support the young generation.

(Lorentz, 2014, p. x)

This citation is one example of the foundation’s desire to be legitimized as an actor with power in education. This idea was also expressed in the qualitative interviews. For example, one of the key players involved in establishing the multi-stakeholder initiative emphasized the foundation’s power in setting the agenda:

[…] this foundation as a new controlling actor who also operates in agenda setting and, of course, has a particular interest in placing their themes.

(Interview 12)

Or in the initiative’s self-description:

Complex social tasks such as the sustainable change of the education system in the Ruhr Metropolis can only be mastered if all systemically important actors participate in it. For this reason, the work of XY (the multi-stakeholder initiative, author) is based on the approach of “Collective Impact”. The concept developed in the USA focuses on bringing together actors from different areas through networking, motivating them to formulate binding common goals and thus multiplying the impact of their actions.

(RuhrFutur, 2018)

These quotes indicate the self-empowerment of the foundation in the education sector in the Ruhr area. The articulated goals express the foundation’s dominant intentions. Education is described as a means of solving societal problems and of taking part in the shaping of societal change.

This orientation is also expressed in the visionary character attributed to the initiative:

These are people who […] simply have such a vision for themselves where they want to go. […] This is an important basis for such a joint work.

(Interview 18)

The education sector is also regarded as an ideal place for foundations to initiate and implement educational innovations (Kolleck, Bormann and Hurrelmann, 2015). Hence, foundations do not only seek to legitimize their own activities in education but also use the discursive field around education in order to bring in their own reform ideas. It is against this background that we can interpret the foundation’s intention to bring about educational reforms through establishing the educational initiative RuhrFutur:

They asked us burning questions we had not thought about before. They have led us to consider alternatives and to rethink organizational procedures.

(Interview 6)

If foundations succeed in being accepted as innovative actors in society, they may also improve their relative position in the public sphere. The initiating and financing foundation plays a special role in the constellation presented here. As the lending institution, it has the final decision-making power over the granting of financial resources:

The foundation is in a position from which it can continuously legitimize our activities […] It can potentially become dangerous because it decides on our existence.

(Interview 4)

Finally, though its financial resources are small compared to what the government invests in education, the foundation is becoming increasingly involved in the shaping of discourses and related values, ideas, norms and concepts.

Structural power

Structural perspectives are based on assumptions of methodological structuralism. In general, structural power can be defined as formal decision-making power which enables actors to control resources, maintain financing arrangements, set rules and keep a superior economic position due to historically constituted, economic or organizational structures.

According to structural power perspectives, actors are embedded in a structural system and confronted with the predetermination of behavioral options due to social positions in the hierarchy, asymmetries, financial advantages or unequivocal material resources. “Deeply embedded in these structures, actors may moreover be unable to recognize their own exercising of power, nor their subordination and oppression” (Menashy, 2018, p. 14).

Arguing from a structural power perspective, foundations possess various possibilities to exert power in education. On the one hand, governments have the control over education systems meaning that public education is an instrument of nation states to strengthen legitimacy of national systems. This structurally superior position of the state is also highlighted by foundation staff in the interview data analyzed for this paper:

Many of our projects can only work if they are supported by the Federal Ministry. So, we need to convince the Ministry that these projects are valuable and important.

(Interview 1)

On the other hand, the retreat of the state (Strange, 1996) and the increasing governance without government (Rosenau and Czempiel, 1992) have also affected the education sector worldwide. They have resulted in an increasing privatization and marketization of education systems and a general trend toward an involvement of third-sector organizations such as foundations in education. The structural power of the foundation is also expressed in the interviews analyzed for this paper:

The foundation is the authority. They decide which projects get accepted, they define the content orientation of school improvement […].

(Interview 2)

While foundations are becoming more prominent and visible within education systems worldwide, there is a gap between different third-sector organizations with respect to the financial means on which their educational activities rely. Many foundations are able to draw on large financial resources in pursuit of their ideational or political interests; some others tend not to have the same capacities at their disposal.

In recent decades, however, the structural power of foundations active in education has grown in both respects: they occupy increasingly influential positions in education systems, they have expanded their rule-setting activities and they have greater financial resources at their disposal, which may be transformed into power. In contrast to foundations’ activities in other societal domains, however, most of these activities are developed with control or input by public authorities. Especially in countries like Germany, school education as a public good is one of the state’s priority tasks, and non-state actors operating in the education sector are faced with preconceptions and a lack of legitimacy. Foundations’ financial resources are still relatively small compared to the state. For instance, in Germany – which has the world’s second largest foundation sector – foundations spend only about as much on education projects each year as is invested by the German government in a single morning (Thümler et al., 2014, p. 7).

The foundation analyzed for this paper belongs to the financially strongest and substantially most influential NGOs in Germany in general and in the Ruhr region in particular. With a budget of more than Euro 37bn the foundation was able to establish various educational programs and initiatives and to substantially shape schools and the education system in general.


Against the multi-facetted nature of NGO or foundation power in education, one might want to understand the relative importance of each type of power. How can the different types of power be compared and which of the types is most important to gain influence in education or schools? The results of the quantitative and qualitative data analysis demonstrated above already give some indication. While many previous studies highlight the structural power expressed through a high amount of financial resources, we have learned that in countries, such as Germany, foundations spend only about as much on education projects each year as is invested by the government in a single morning (Thümler et al., 2014, p. 7). Thus, compared to the state the power of foundations seems to be rather weak.

Other scholars focus the relevance of foundations’ discursive power (e.g. Kolleck, 2017) and argue that “power is at its most effective when least observable” (Lukes, 2005, p. 64). However, by analyzing foundations’ discursive power it was shown that the attempts to increase legitimacy are not always successful and that the self-description of foundations as indispensable and competent actors in education are not uncontested.

Surprisingly, the paper demonstrated the central role of the foundation’s relational power, by showing the foundation strategically connected to other important actors. Against the background of these findings, one might further ask how to evaluate the increasing influence of foundations and NGOs in education and in schools. On the one hand, the increasing involvement of foundations is critical to the development of education systems. Fostering a fruitful cooperation between foundations and public schools is a matter of high priority and is coupled with the expectation of quality improvement and successful educational reforms.

On the other hand, the increasing power of foundations in the German education system raises concerns which are unique compared to other countries such as the USA or other European nations. These concerns mostly relate to the transparency and democratic legitimacy of the actions of German foundations. In Germany there is currently no legal framework for the public disclosure of non-profit organizations. Foundations only have to report to the tax office and to the foundation supervisory authority. The information given by foundations is subject to tax secrecy.

Compared to Germany, the USA is much more restrictive. Non-profit organizations that collect more than $50,000 gross are required to make the data submitted to the tax office publicly available and free of charge. Among other things, the reports of the organizations are available via ProPublica’s so-called non-profit explorer. In addition, reporting requirements are much more detailed and aligned with the third sector: information on, for example, the number of employees and full-time employees, the total amount of wages, as well as fundraising and lobbying expenditure.

In view of the lack of debate on transparency and accountability in the German non-profit sector, the question arises as to what distinguishes Germany from other industrialized countries. The lack of relevance of the German third party sector cannot be understated: its contribution to GDP is in line with that of the German automotive industry. In total, 9 percent of German employees work in non-profit organizations and over 23m people volunteer for the non-profit sector. Particularly in the area of social and health services, the third sector – dominated by the major German charitable organizations – forms an irreplaceable pillar of the German welfare state. Although the associations of voluntary welfare, which are very powerful in Germany, or the Federal Association of German Foundations are developing their own public disclosure standards, they rare of a voluntary nature.

Due to these developments and political circumstances, the sources of power have grown tremendously in recent years in line with an increasingly significant impact on education systems in German regions such as the Ruhr area. This growing self-image and self-consciousness is also manifested in the educational initiative in which a single foundation proclaims to restructure the whole education system in a region.


The paper has looked for answers to the overall question as to how foundations wield power in order to shape the education agenda and exert influence on schools. The paper has shown that the foundation was able to follow its goals through gaining more freedom in macro-level structures, though micro-level processes of bargaining and through taking part in shaping discourses. The three different dimensions of power provide this foundation with alternative means to exert power in education, allowing it to pursue multi-dimensional strategies if necessary. In other words, the foundation can employ discursive, structural or relational power resources at the same time or use them as substitutes, employing different forms of activities according to the specific situation or context or the requirements of the issue in question. For instance, it can attempt to rely on increased lobbying or relational power if the structural power is weak. Conversely, it can follow the strategy to foster the shaping of ideas and constructs if opportunities for lobbying are scarce.

Hence, according to this perspective, the power of NGOs in education has three faces and includes relational, discursive and structural dimensions. Relational power occurs when an actor A can influence an actor B (Dahl, 1957, p. 203). In contrast, discursive power is defined as the power of words, i.e. the shaping of discourses, perceptions or interpretations. Finally, structural power was defined as formal decision-making power which enables actors to control resources, maintain financing arrangements, set rules and keep a superior economic position due to historically constituted, economic or organizational structures.

Against the background of the increasing possibilities for the foundation to become involved in educational processes, one would expect stringent regulation of its activities. However, in Germany, such regulations and also transparency of the engagement of foundations in general has in the past been weak. The lack of transparency and regulation of third-sector organizations, such as foundations in Germany as compared to the USA and other European countries, is surprising, given that the German foundation sector – including more than 20,000 foundations with a base in Germany and increasingly large financial resources – is the second largest in the world behind the USA (Kolleck and Brix, 2017).

Hence, foundations have many possibilities to positively influence education systems and also to bring in their own innovative ideas, whereas state actors are hindered by bureaucratic rules and slowness. In the past, foundations have demonstrated their unique capabilities to contribute to valuable reforms in education, e.g. through establishing educational multi-stakeholder networks. “Free of political constraints, foundations have the ability to ignore disciplinary and professional boundaries, consider approaches others say can’t possibly work, and operate independently of passing fashions in the corporate or technological world” (Kolleck, 2017, p. 258). This strength of foundations’ activities and possibilities is fostered by the fact that foundations are hardly affected by the results of democratic elections.

However, despite these strengths for drawing on the sources of all three power dimensions, the successful use of power may also face limits as it highly depends on the legitimacy of the foundation’s activities in education. If, for instance, initiatives are not perceived to be successful, the power of the initiating foundation could decrease. Only if a foundation is perceived as a legitimate player in education does it have the opportunity to effectively use the three dimensions of power and implement the resources related to these.

Overall, this paper demonstrated that a three-dimensional power perspective is valuable for studying school–NGO interactions and the power of NGOs in educational settings. Hence, the theoretical perspective developed through a mix of quantitative and qualitative analyses in this paper may be applied in further research. Understanding the power of foundations in education is particularly useful for practitioners and scholars investigating school–NGO interactions or multi-stakeholder partnerships in education. Furthermore, it is of crucial importance for practitioners, school principals and education administrators dealing with school–NGO interactions given that foundations seem to be increasingly able to draw on new sources of power in these interactions.


Multi-stakeholder network according to eigenvector centrality, visualization based on the Force Atlas 2 algorithm as provided by the computer program Gephi

Figure 1

Multi-stakeholder network according to eigenvector centrality, visualization based on the Force Atlas 2 algorithm as provided by the computer program Gephi


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This research was supported by Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung NetKuB, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (KO 4997/4-1, FOR 1745) and Mercator Foundation (A16015).

Corresponding author

Nina Kolleck can be contacted at: