Venture philanthropy in Australian public education

Venture philanthropy in Australian public education

Policy Brief #24-3March 2024


The policy networks of venture philanthropic organizations which invest in education-based partnerships in Australia are complex and often opaque, apparently skirting democratic transparency.

Venture philanthropy, also known as philanthrocapitalism, is a term applied to the conduct of intermediary organizations that seek to develop philanthropic partnerships while still turning a profit. Rather than simply giving money toward particular causes, these partnerships also seek a financial return on those investments. Venture philanthropic organizations often include education reform in this work, seeking to invest in initiatives related to public schooling.

Such partnerships alter the very manifestation of governance as these organizations are not accountable to the public with the same democratic transparency as the state. For instance, these partnerships provide indirect funding to schools, through the hands of intermediary organizations that are also looking out for their own interests, rather than having the democratic government designate that funding toward public schools directly. These venture philanthropic organizations operate within complex policy networks that must be examined beyond simple models of traditional government hierarchies and free market structures.

Using interviews, database records, and internet data, a recent study sought to examine the network through which the organization Social Ventures Australia operates. A large organization that has successfully lobbied for a number of educational initiatives in the country, all involving partnerships with the government, Social Ventures Australia has sought to alter the very landscape of venture philanthropy in Australia by influencing the operation of systems, investing in partner relationships, and advocating for structural change that seeks to bypass traditional boundaries. By positioning Social Ventures Australia as the hub of a network, the study was able to examine the organization’s various partners and funders. Conceptualized as a heterarchy, a combination of hierarchy and network, Social Ventures Australia maintains a complex web of relationships with a variety of partners.

Several related initiatives include Schools Plus, Evidence for Learning, and the Australian Education Research Organization, all of whom share various ties to Social Ventures Australia. These types of relationships are recognized as sharing co-affiliations whereby associations between organizations and individuals are complex, often messy, and frequently not so visible to the public. The Australian Education Research Organization is a good example of network governance in that it is a public organization that is essentially part-company and part-government. In particular, the Australian Education Research Organization can also be conceptualized as an evidence broker, an intermediary organization that brokers evidence by making research accessible to policymakers.

Policy networks, such as these venture philanthropic ones, may be visually represented in order to outline the constituent members and their co-affiliations. These relationships, however, are often otherwise opaque to the public which can become a point of concern when governance extends beyond the public sector without a sense of democratic transparency.

Figure 1
Social Ventures Australia (SVA) and its expansive network of funders, partners, and donors 

Social Ventures Australia (SVA) and its expansive network of funders, partners, and donors

This brief is based on part of a multi-year study by researcher Emma Rowe as published in the ECNU Review of Education and the International Journal of Educational Research.

Rowe, E. E. (2022). Philanthrocapitalism and the state: Mapping the rise of venture philanthropy in public education in Australia. ECNU Review of Education.

Rowe, E. E. (2022). The assemblage of inanimate objects in educational research: Mapping venture philanthropy, policy networks and evidence brokers. International Journal of Educational Research 114.


Emma Rowe is an ARC DECRA Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Education at Deakin University, as well as a Fellow at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Edited by: Paul Faulkner, Center for Evaluation and Education Policy