American Foundations: Roles and Contributions
edited by Helmut K. Anheier and David C. Hammack
402 pp., $64.95
Foundations famously lack feedback mechanisms. More often than not, the donor who created the foundation is dead, and the organization he or she launched is unaccountable to voters or markets. The questions that haunt professional philanthropy are: How are we doing? How is the sector as a whole doing? What is the sector as a whole doing?
About once a decade, a funder convenes scholars to issue papers about the state of grantmaking. In 1999, for example, Philanthropic Foundations, an anthology assembled by historian Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, tried to measure the health of the philanthropic world, with decidedly mixed results. (Please see Philanthropy, March/April 2000.)
American Foundations is the most substantial philanthropic progress report since Lagemann’s. The Aspen Institute sponsored a three-year study headed by Helmut K. Anheier, a public policy professor at UCLA, and David C. Hammack, a historian at Case Western Reserve. Aside from the book’s 26 contributors, the acknowledgments list an advisory board of 31 scholars, 7 research assistants, 6 editors at Brookings, 4 statisticians, and 3 in-house editors. There were also several conferences at the Pocantico Conference Center, the former home of John D. Rockefeller Sr., now a posh meeting facility supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Unfortunately, this massive effort has resulted in a tedious volume that adds little to our knowledge of foundation effectiveness. Few of the chapters are worth a reader’s time.
American Foundations is divided into eight sections. Topics addressed include the ways foundations have funded elementary and secondary education, post-secondary education, health care, the arts and humanities, international programs, religion, and political activism.
Most of the authors write badly, producing turgid prose, dense with jargon. Foundations variously “have a determinative impact,” “serve an important legitimation role,” and work (with a nod to Michel Foucault) “to create epistemic communities.” A typical sentence? “In the archival findings section of this chapter we investigate the values and norms foundations of different ideologies were trying to appeal to when invoking different frames in the rationale for their giving.”
The editors pride themselves on getting the Foundation Center to release a great deal of raw grantmaking data to be refined by the authors of commissioned papers. Occasionally, this statistical analysis yields useful information. Peter Frumkin of the University of Texas and Gabriel Kaplan of the University of Colorado at Denver took Foundation Center data and supplemented it with statistics compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education. On the basis of their research, authors conclude that donors interested in helping higher education might consider giving to community colleges, which only receive about 2 percent of the foundation grants going to post-secondary education. Frumkin and Kaplan further suggest that donors who want to help minorities and the poor go to college should be especially interested in the nation’s community colleges.
Most of the other scholars who crunch Foundation Center data, however, come up with very little that is pertinent or interesting. Far too many of these chapters consist of a tallying up of grants in a particular category, with no analysis of what the money was used for. Far too many of the authors present tedious lists of grants, without any mention of who awarded the grants or what was done with the money.
But it’s not how much money a foundation spends on a particular program that matters; it’s how well the money is used. For example, a strong case could be made that Charles Murray’s 1984 book Losing Ground was the catalyst that sparked a chain of events that ended with the passage of welfare reform in 1996. (Please see Philanthropy, September/October 2005.) It would be a useful exercise for a historian to look at the grants Murray received from the John M. Olin Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and others to write and promote his book, and what other foundations did to counter Murray’s proposals or to block welfare reform.
But that’s not the approach of Jennifer E. Mosley of the University of Chicago and Joseph Galaskiewicz of the University of Arizona. They look at the funding strategies of 14 foundations in the welfare reform debate of the 1990s, including left-of-center funders such as the Annie E. Casey, Ford, and Charles Stewart Mott Foundations, and right-of-center grantmakers such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley, Sarah Scaife, Smith Richardson, and Olin Foundations. Using a classification tool called the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE), they conclude that in 1995–96 the conservative funders spent 53 percent of their welfare-related grantmaking on research, while more left-wing foundations only spent 30 percent of their welfare funding on research, which, they argue, demonstrates conservatives’ “efficacy in impacting [sic] policymaking.”
But since liberal foundations are an order of magnitude larger than conservative ones, the left-wing groups could match the conservative groups dollar for dollar on welfare reform research (or anything else) and still have plenty of money left over for other grants. But even if the authors had provided that context, counting grants or dollars spent in debates over welfare reform would tell us very little. We need to know the background context of welfare policy, the strategy behind (and the structure of) the grants, and the quality of the work they funded. Analyzing how foundations helped pass welfare reform requires quantitative methods, yes, but more importantly, it requires qualitative evaluation.
Moreover, a paper by Robert Wuthnow of Princeton and D. Michael Lindsay of Rice University shows how problematic the NTEE classifications can be. According to NTEE classifications, foundations spent 2.6 percent of their 2001 grants on religion. But Wuthnow and Lindsay found that the NTEE had difficulties in classifying religious grants. A Ford Foundation grant to the Archbishopric of Guatemala was considered an “international” grant, not a religious one. The NTEE said that 8 percent of the Maclellan Foundation’s grants went to religion. The Maclellan Foundation, a Christian grantmaker that, according to its website, acts from “a deep desire to be good stewards of God’s resources,” believes that all of its grants are religious. The NTEE might have good reasons for its classifications, but those reasons are hardly dispositive. How reliable are they? It’s not clear.
Two additional chapters are worth noting. James Allen Smith of the Rockefeller Archive Center has a fine chapter on how foundations support the arts. He deftly examines the sea change in patronage for high culture. Once supported by individual benefactors such as Henry Clay Frick or John D. Rockefeller Jr., the arts today are increasingly funded by foundations. A particular strength of American high culture, he also notes, is its grounding in a competitive market. Funding does not come entirely from patronage, but also from the consumers who voluntarily buy books, tickets to performances, and admission to museums.
Steven Rathgeb Smith of the University of Washington competently summarizes the changes in the laws affecting American foundations, including debates over regulations concerning supporting foundations, the increased use of program-related investments, and the consequences of revising the IRS’ Form 990. Smith’s chapter is an excellent summary of the legal issues foundations face.
If we are going to understand foundations better, we need critics adept at analyzing their particular strengths and weaknesses. These critics, however, need to do more than count grants and crunch numbers. They must consider how effectively the money is used. American Foundations is a tepid, lifeless volume because its authors and editors are more concerned with statistical analysis than how—and if—foundation giving changes lives.
A final note: I review a lot of different books, and read even more. But I can’t imagine anyone who would enjoy reading this book. I just can’t.
Contributing editor Martin Morse Wooster is the author of The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of “Donor Intent”.