Foundations have played a remarkable role in twentieth century public life, and who can doubt that they will continue to do so in the twenty-first? But, at least in comparison to other major institutions of our public life—government and the corporation—there has been remarkably little attention paid to the ways that foundations go about their business. One reason for this may be the simple self interest of scholars, the vast majority of whom depend on foundations to support their work. To lift an old line from the playwright Congreve, “Heaven has no rage. . . nor Hell a fury” like a foundation scorned.
This is not to say that there has been no useful research on foundations. Over the past several decades historians have conducted a number of important studies, principally of big, old, and well-known foundations. And the library shelves are sagging under the weight of all the memoirs and biographies of philanthropists and former foundation heavies. But these books have their limits, the principal one being the authors’ tendency to believe that their subjects are at the center of the universe.
So, more than a century after the chartering of the first foundation, the world still awaits a serious, conceptually sophisticated, and statistically up-to-date explanation by a hard-headed outsider of why foundations act as they do. Dennis McIlnay has tried to write such a book, and it begins promisingly enough: “Foundations have unique values, languages, rituals, customs, and behaviors: a personality, in other words, that distinguishes them from other types of organizations.” Sadly, aside from some epigraphs from Aristotle and Willa Cather, this is probably the only bit of wisdom in the entire book.
For McIlnay, a professor of management at St. Francis College in Pennsylvania, the problems start at the very beginning. Despite his subtitle, he seems to have had a difficult time deciding who his audience was going to be. So he wrote his book for many audiences. “This book should appeal to practitioners because it contains little- known insights on foundations disclosed by foundation people themselves.” The book will also be useful for “trustees and staff of foundations,” to “philanthropists and their advisors,” to “students and professors in graduate programs and research centers on philanthropy,” and to “people from academic departments such as anthropology, economics, management, organizational behavior, political science, public administration, or sociology.” Oh, and don’t forget “trustees of nonprofits, legislators and public officials,” “the media,” and—well you get the picture.
McIlnay’s method is no less problematic. He has somehow concluded that the metaphor is the most useful theoretical device for coming to terms with foundations. “Nothing is as practical as a good theory, as the saying goes, and the metaphors in this book represent a new theory that can be used for the very practical purpose of understanding foundations.” There are, of course, many things that are more practical than a good theory, much less this hodgepodge of cliches, wishful thinking, and sloppy analysis.
For McIlnay, a metaphor is everything and it is nothing. “Metaphors lack readily apparent meaning, so we have to establish their significance for ourselves, helping us to create ownership of the insight.” Of course, metaphors are useful precisely because they do have meanings that most people will grasp immediately and without undue explanation. The six metaphors he uses as the explanatory framework for his book are the foundation as judge, editor, citizen, activist, entrepreneur, and partner. Let’s look at his “metaphors” one at a time and see how he does.
He begins his chapter on foundations as judges with the insight that “the central task of foundations is to choose.” He then spends an entire chapter arguing essentially that foundation officers ought to use good judgment and try to be objective when evaluating grant proposals. In the next chapter, he explores the metaphor of foundations as editors. The moral of the story here seems to be that not all grantseekers write like Balzac, so foundation officers ought to be patient and understanding with them. It is astonishing that McIlnay felt he needed to spend two chapters of his book explaining these ideas when two paragraphs would have sufficed.
In the next chapter, McIlnay explores the metaphor of foundations as citizens. When we speak of citizenship in this country, we are talking about the habits and dispositions that are necessary for the healthy functioning of our political system. When McIlnay discusses citizenship, he is really talking about how foundations ought to be more accountable and accessible to the public.
Foundations are, of course, required by law to provide certain kinds of information to the public (and to the government), but he wants them to go farther. He thinks they should all publish annual reports. He also wants them to be more honest and complete on their tax returns. (Apparently there is quite a lot of hanky panky going on in this regard, according to the author.) He thinks Congress should be involved, but heaven forbid they should pass any new laws. Rather, Congress should direct the General Accounting Office to conduct periodic accountability reviews of foundations to see how well they are doing at being accountable and accessible. Basically, then, McIlnay wants private foundations to act more like public charities, and since they have been unwilling to do this on their own, he adduces what are essentially veiled threats of government intervention. The fact that he couches this in mushy rhetoric about “citizenship” suggests that he is aware of how controversial these ideas might be if he were more open about them.
We move on to what surely is McIlnay’s most annoying metaphor—the foundation as political activist. In McIlnay’s telling, foundations are not sufficiently activist. They are, mirabile dictu, actually conservative institutions, whose boards are dominated by rich, right-wing, mostly male (though not dead) capitalists. Foundation staff members, fearful of losing their jobs and professional status, are reluctant to propose supporting anything the least bit risky or innovative. He knows all of this, according to his references, because he’s read some reports by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a left-wing philanthropy advocacy group. (He has read some of the research that comes to other conclusions too, but finds it ideologically biased and not very convincing.)
Yet, McIlnay also believes that foundations ought to support political activists. Why? “[B]ecause the problems of the public are the problems of foundations.” The reader will search in vain for a more compelling rationale or call to arms. But no matter. If one accepts his analysis, there remains a substantial dilemma for the aspiring activist: How does one go about convincing such hidebound and presumably reactionary institutions to do a complete about-face and start supporting your organization? The answer, of course, is that McIlnay probably knows better than to think that most foundations are conservative.
McIlnay hops on the “foundations as venture capitalists” bandwagon with metaphor number five—foundations as entrepreneurs. He thinks foundations ought to be less risk-averse and more adventurous, that they ought to be more willing to support people over the long term, and that they ought to spend more time and energy searching for talented people. Always full of surprises, he comments at one point that “philanthropy today overemphasizes egalitarianism at the expense of excellence.” (Here, he is following the analysis of the late Gerald Freund, author of the important book Narcissism and Philanthropy: Ideas and Talent Denied. Devotees of Freund will be chagrined to find no reference to him in McIlnay’s book.) McIlnay also thinks that foundations ought to be more aggressive about funding individuals directly (a la the MacArthur “genius” awards), so that not everyone who wants to receive a foundation grant would have to subject themselves to the tyranny of Section 501(c)(3).
The book’s final metaphor is that of foundations as partners (i.e., with the organizations they support). “Money is the heart of the relationship of foundations and grantseekers, and it can demean, distort, and destroy alliances not only between people but between organizations. For foundations, money is power, and awarding—or denying—it is a means of control over applicants and recipients.” This is, of course, a truism. For who disputes that the relationship between the grantseeker and the grantmaker is an imbalanced one? More hand-wringing goes on about this subject than just about any other in the philanthropy press and at conferences and gatherings. What is to be done about it (if anything), is the question, and McIlnay, once again, has nothing useful to say.
McIlnay’s “metaphors,” it becomes clear, do not describe “how foundations work” but how Dennis McIlnay would like them to work. He wants them to be softer and friendlier, more open and more diverse. He wants them to dig in for the long haul. He doesn’t want them to evaluate grant proposals too rigidly, or be too demanding of grantseekers. Oh, and just because some grantseekers don’t write very well doesn’t mean they’re bad people. He wants foundations to communicate with grantseekers, be nice to them, but be honest and respectful too. Oh yes, and he wants them to support political activists—actually, just the liberal ones.
None of this is new, or particularly interesting: it’s one part common sense, one part sloppy scholarship, and one part political nonsense. Indeed, one suspects that most of McIlnay’s intended audiences will find this book rather tedious. Practitioners—both grantseekers and grantmakers—will find little here that hasn’t been emphasized elsewhere a thousand times, usually no worse and often much better. Whatever else you do, do not buy this book to learn “how foundations work.”
John W. Barry is a contributing editor to Philanthropy.