Mark Dowie has a problem. He likes philanthropy, but distrusts philanthropists. So, in the name of making them more accountable to the public, he calls for “breaking up” the largest foundations and requiring a third of all foundation trustees to be appointed by elected officials. For the “uncharitable rich” who might not set up foundations at all, he proposes confiscatory taxes and redistribution of the money directly to the poor.
Unless Ralph Nader (who wrote a glowing jacket blurb for this book) manages to capture the White House, there is not a ghost of a chance that any of this will ever come to pass. Nor should it, for in his zeal to subject philanthropists to greater popular control, Dowie risks destroying what makes philanthropy valuable.
American Foundations: An Investigative History is the latest in a tradition of foundation critiques that goes back to the birth of the Rockefeller Foundation nearly a century ago. Like those who were skeptical of John D. Rockefeller’s plans to use his wealth to promote the “well-being of mankind throughout the world,” Dowie believes philanthropists really want their charities to advance narrow, class-based interests, usually economic, but sometimes political or social as well. Far from adopting left-wing agendas (as conservative critics claim), their trustees and staff have remained largely faithful to this purpose, producing grants that have been too cautious at best and harmful to their supposed beneficiaries at worst, Dowie contends.
Dowie tries to make this case by examining a number of areas in which major foundations—especially Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller—have played important roles. Thus, in education, he argues, grant makers have done more to support the training of experts useful to business than to create “an enlightened citizenry.” Their funding in the arts has too often favored the “safe and established,” or commercial fads, over work and institutions that are creative and important for “public purposes.”
Foundations arising from health care fortunes, such as Robert Wood Johnson, have been too wedded to a “medical model,” Dowie says, in which doctors, hospitals, and drug companies play key roles, while giving short shrift to the effects of poverty, the environment, and other public health conditions that require political responses. Likewise, he faults the Pew Charitable Trusts, whose assets come from an oil company, for being too willing to encourage its grantees to reach agreements with energy firms and regulators, rather than insisting on more investment in renewable sources, such as wind and solar power.
The longest and most interesting chapter in American Foundations examines the “Green Revolution,” the series of projects supported chiefly by Rockefeller and Ford that invariably winds up near the top of any list of important grants. By underwriting research into new strains of rice and other food staples, as well as training in high-yield agricultural methods, foundations are widely credited with having helped prevent extensive famines in Asia and other parts of the world. Yet to Dowie, their efforts were really motivated by Cold War politics and designed by plutocrat trustees and foundation technocrats to keep Third World peasants from fomenting Communist takeovers. Moreover, by promoting agribusiness over traditional agriculture and ignoring population growth, the Green Revolution may have left the nations it was designed to help worse off, at least in Dowie’s eyes.
But Dowie offers little real evidence for this or any of his other charges. Virtually all the criticisms of the Green Revolution—and grant making activities in other areas—come from consultants whose advice was rejected, applicants whose proposals were turned down, interest groups with their own axes to grind, or foundation staffers reconsidering their positions, notwithstanding Dowie’s views of their motives. Had he really done some investigating, Dowie would have easily discovered, for example, that the growth rate of the world’s population has actually slowed, just as proponents of high-yield agriculture said it would once farming became more productive. And if the Pew Trusts are indeed to blame for stopping their California grantees from pushing for more investment in wind and solar power, they deserve credit for having helped keep what is now a bad energy crunch from becoming even worse.
Dowie’s real objection to foundations is that they frequently don’t take the advice given by Dowie and the people he admires. But it is hard to imagine that making them more accountable to the public than they already are would change that. Judging from controversies over federal grants for education reforms and the arts, foundation support in those areas would likely become less daring if trustees were to start looking over their shoulders at elected officials. Moreover, despite his complaints about the Green Revolution, Dowie provides no information about what residents of the countries affected by it think.
Nor does breaking up big foundations into “smaller,” billion-dollar pieces seem a recipe for more effective grant making. As Dowie himself notes while retelling the now-familiar story of how conservative foundations acquired more influence over the public policy agenda than far better endowed liberal ones, how much foundations spend is less important than what they spend it on.
While Dowie reports that some newer foundations—usually created by the heirs to great fortunes—have tried to include public “representatives” in their grant making, he is silent about how these experiments have turned out. In fact, on those few occasions where American Foundations singles out a philanthropist for praise, it is apt to be someone whose grant making style is the old-fashioned one. Whatever else one might say about two of Dowie’s heroes—George Roberts, who founded the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund, or Irene Diamond, whose gifts created an important research center on AIDS—neither seemed to want or need advice from the public before deciding what to support.
The real problem with philanthropy today may be that there are too few such self-confident, inner-directed philanthropists, who mix their own values and interests with their concern for what is good for others. Heeding Dowie’s advice—as perhaps too many already have—will not make them more numerous.
Leslie Lenkowsky is professor of philanthropical studies and public policy at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.