REVIEW: Promoting philanthropy’s ‘philosopher kings’

By Rick Cohen

Foundations apparently feel disrespected and underappreciated by the American public.

Joel Fleishman, a well-known scholar on philanthropy, founding director from 1971 to 1983 of Duke University’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy and currently director of the Samuel and Ronnie Heyman Center for Ethics, Public Policy and the Professions at Duke, has just published a book to assuage foundations’ collective hang-up.

In The Foundation: A Great American Secret, Fleishman unveils stories of foundation mega-successes that the public should know and embrace.

Some are actually quite renowned, ranging from the Green Revolution to Sesame Street, while others are much more obscure.

Fleishman’s solution is for foundations to get out there and tell more and better stories: Let people in on how wonderful foundations have been, and much of the endemic griping about philanthropy will dissipate.

No question that foundations need more disclosure and transparency, but stage-managed PR from the bevy of foundation communication professionals hardly seems to be lacking nowadays.

If foundations simply generate even more glossy annual reports and press releases, foundations will be less of a secret, but they may not be much more open and transparent than they were before.


Fleishman is caustically dismissive of foundation critics, lumping them into three unfortunate categories.

He labels as “Marxists” and conspiracy theorists those critics from the left who question who really benefits from foundation grants, spending and investment.

It’s as though the left imagines foundation mandarins in mysterious star chambers crafting rarefied strategies for protecting the upper classes and oppressing the proletariat.

The critics from the so-called “left” don’t need to be characterized so cartoonishly. For the most part, they raise questions about funding advocacy, getting more money from foundations for social justice, and promoting racial and class diversity in a pretty undiverse world of foundations, all topics that haven’t yet galvanized the attention of some 80,000 grantmakers.

A sampling of Pablo Eisenberg’s columns in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, none cited by Fleishman, constitutes a critique that deserves more than a “Marxist” or “conspiracy theorist” label.

The critics from the right, in Fleishman’s view, are simply the right wing, obviously ticked at philanthropy for supporting causes that the right thinks undermine an unbridled free market or endorse social causes that go against traditional family values.

To give it its due, much like left-wing critics, the right isn’t quite so monomaniacal in its criticisms, either.  Some of the thoughtful observers on the right such as the Hudson Institute’s William Schambra question whether mainstream foundations lean more to social engineering rather than supporting deTocquevillian charities.


Then there is the press, which Fleishman eviscerates as interested primarily in scandal, blowing things out of proportion.

Perhaps Fleishman himself is feeling a bit burned, having encountered some tough scrutiny from The New York Times for the Markle Foundation during his time as board chairman and, more recently, from The Wall Street Journal concerning his fundraising practices on behalf of Duke University.

Contrary to the perceptions of Fleishman and probably most foundations, the press is hardly a pack of wolves baying at philanthropy’s door.

A 2006 Packard Foundation-funded FoundationWorks study of media coverage of foundations between 1990 and 2004 — which includes the 9/11 charity and philanthropy debates as well as the news coverage that led up to the Senate Finance Committee hearings in 2004 — found only 1 percent were negative toward foundations.

The pathbreaking investigations of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team and the coverage by a handful of reporters such as Stephanie Strom of The New York Times are anomalies compared to the focus of most media dutifully announcing and extolling foundation “transactions”, or grants.


Acknowledging that foundations are about as immune from government regulation and oversight as any sector in society — something that his peers just about never concede as he does — Fleishman fundamentally suggests it is their lack of oversight from both government and the private sector, the unfettered discretion that foundation trustees and executives exercise, that makes them the remarkable successes that they have been.

But there is something that feels outmoded about the foundation success model that Fleishman highlights.

In nearly all of the cases mentioned in his book, the successes are examples where foundations largely call the shots, more or less strategic foundation initiatives, as opposed to responses to the requests or demands from nonprofits, communities and citizens.


The architects of these successes are foundation executives who, when successful, are almost like Plato’s philosopher kings — and queens, though mostly kings in this book — simply wiser, more gifted than the rest of society, veritable geniuses to whom the public has fortunately entrusted billions of tax-exempt resources.

To a man, and woman, these foundation leaders portrayed in Fleishman’s book — and who make the decisions for all but a handful of foundations — are almost all white people, in a nation that is rapidly becoming a “minority majority,” with the majority consisting in the aggregate of groups traditionally considered minorities.

Only recently have foundations begun to publicly acknowledge that there is something amiss when the nation’s Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 corporations have more racial diversity on their boards than philanthropic foundations demonstrate.

The statistics aren’t much better concerning racial and ethnic diversity among foundation CEOs and senior program officers.

In a society that is demanding more democracy, successful foundations as described by Fleishman function as they do because they are above and generally immune from democratic pressures.

There is much virtue in the foundation success stories related by Joel Fleishman, but the foundation models feel anachronistic.

Looking forward, the model that is needed in our democracy-challenged 21st century requires foundations to empower the nonprofit sector and divest themselves of some of their unfettered control.

The Foundation: A Great American Secret

By Joel L. Fleishman


357 pages

Rick Cohen is national correspondent for The Nonprofit Quarterly and former executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

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