A skeptical eye on philanthropy

Most Americans haven't paid much attention to foundations -- though many of us have donated money through them, particularly in the wake of the terrorist attacks. If we think of foundations at all, we probably have warm fuzzy thoughts of nice nonprofit types making life a little better for everyone. These are the good guys that keep worthwhile shows coming on public TV and radio, help the symphony and the zoo, fund searches to cure particularly nefarious diseases, and assist victims of disasters, both natural and man-made.

Mark Dowie, the onetime Mother Jones magazine 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, "American Foundations: An Investigative History": (MIT Press), offers fascinating insights into these relatively new and increasingly powerful institutions -- and the people who run them.

"American Foundations" begins by recounting some of the triumphs and screw-ups 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 and created a national transferable pension system for teachers. But he gave almost no money to public primary or 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 that proved the rule: Early American philanthropy was very elitist in its self-proclaimed mission of fostering the increase and spread of knowledge.

Dowie also peeks behind the scenes of some of modern philanthropy's most spectacular triumphs and failures, projects such as the attempted eradication of malaria, the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s, and even California's current energy "crisis." The World Health Organization did greatly reduce malaria in some tropical countries for awhile, 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 of 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. He traverses an invigorating cross-section of American society as he explores various foundations in their key settings, both historic and modern: education, science, health, the environment, food, energy, art and human services.

Sometimes, Dowie 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 leaves us with plenty of questions about foundations, ranging from the philosophical to the practical. Can such private groups, financed by wildly successful capitalists, ever fundamentally transform the system that made their founders so wealthy in the first place? Would limiting the size or direct family control of foundations make them more progressive, effective or democratic? Or, would regulation chase away the relatively few wealthy people who genuinely want to build a better world with their money.

Plainly, "American Foundations" means to start a conversation among the people who work at, help finance, or are funded by any of the country's 50,000 foundations, which now boast $400 billion in real assets.

Their number and size will continue to explode as today's massively wealthy boomer generation begins to retire and starts to explore in whose good philanthropic hands to leave money for the future.

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