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A skeptical eye on philanthropy.

Oct 17, 2001 at 12:00 am

Most Americans don’t pay much attention to foundations. We think of them as nice organizations that keep the good shows coming on public TV and radio, help the symphony and the zoo and fund the search for the cure of particularly nefarious diseases or learning disabilities. When we think foundations, we mostly have warm fuzzy thoughts of nice nonprofit types making life a little better for everyone.

Mark Dowie, the onetime Mother Jones reporter who nailed Ford Motor Company for the exploding Pinto phenomenon two decades ago, says it’s not quite that simple. Dowie’s new book is not as high-impact as some of his earlier, classic muckraking, but it offers fascinating, stimulating reading about these relatively new and increasingly powerful American institutions and the people who run them.

American Foundations touches lightly on a wide swath of 20th century domestic history as it recounts some of the triumphs and screwups of early philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. For example, early in the 20th century Carnegie helped build more than 2,400 public libraries (Detroit’s main branch among them) and created a national transferable pension system for teachers. But he gave almost no money to public, primary and secondary education. Instead he focused almost exclusively on the most elite colleges and universities — in an era when only 20 percent of high-school seniors went on to colleges. One Rockefeller spin-off, the Spellman Foundation, did build more than 5,000 rural schools for black Americans in the South, but this was the exception the proved the rule: Early American philanthropy was very elitist in its self-proclaimed mission of fostering the increase and spread of knowledge.

After this overview, the book peeks behind the scenes of some of modern philanthropy’s most spectacular triumphs and failures — more recent projects such as the attempted eradication of malaria, the so-called 1960s Green Revolution, and even California’s current energy “crisis.” The World Health Organization did greatly reduce malaria in some tropical countries for a while, but then the mosquitoes which spread the disease developed resistance to the DDT used to control them. The Green Revolution in agriculture has been extremely problematic. Its heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, combined with extensive mechanization of Third World farming practices did lead to an initial burst in farming productivity. But that has since fallen off, while the subsequent ecological and sociological consequences have been severe.

Dowie makes a convincing case that foundations are very powerful institutions that bear more than mere watching from the sidelines.

The book is so engaging because he writes from his research rather than merely about it. Dowie’s got all the numbers he needs and draws from them skillfully. But it’s the hundreds of brief stories — often quick sketches of fascinating philanthropists of the past — that enliven his freewheeling, research-driven text. Pithy quotes from a wide range of critics and culprits complement each chapter’s multiple subheadings. Dowie traverses an invigorating cross section of American society as he writes about foundations in their key settings, both historical and modern: education, science, health, the environment, food, energy, art and human services.

Dowie is open-minded about his subject, offering many more questions than answers. Sometimes, he says, foundations are a very good thing, sometimes they are downright dangerous. In all cases, he says, they are essentially uncontrolled (except by their founders and hand-picked successors) even as they are quite busy affecting most aspects of American — and global — life as they attempt to “do good.”

He points out that foundations will steadily become more powerful as government, under attack by both philosophical and corporate opponents, becomes less powerful. And with the rise of both “progressive” and “conservative” foundations, the political debate will become ever more contentious even as it becomes more distant from everyday people.

Dowie’s own questions about foundations range from the philosophical to the practical. Can foundations, funded by wildly successful capitalists, ever fundamentally transform the system that made their founders so wealthy in the first place? Do foundations ever enable, or always disable, genuinely radical solutions? Would limiting the size, life span and direct family control of foundations make them more progressive, effective or democratic? What’s the best way to organize these rapidly growing, increasingly powerful institutions so that they do more good and less harm? Or would more “regulation” of foundations chase away the relatively few wealthy people who genuinely do want to build a better world with their money — whatever that means?

Plainly, American Foundations: An Investigative History means to start a conversation among the people who work at, fund, or are funded by any of the country’s 50,000 foundations, which now boast $400 billion in real assets. Since both the number and size of American foundations will soon explode as today’s massively wealthy boomer generation retires and begins to investigate philanthropy, that conversation is steadily becoming more important. As usual for the award-winning Dowie, this book is right on time.

Jim Dulzo is a regular Metro Times contributor. Send comments to [email protected].