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Philanthropic Foundations: New Scholarship, New Possibilities

Author(s):Lagemann, Ellen Condliffe
Reviewer(s):Goldin, Milton

Published by H-Business and EH.Net (August 199 9)

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, editor. Philanthropic Foundations: New

Scholarship, New Possibilities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press,

1999. xviii + 420 pp. Bibliography, index. $35.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-253-33500-0.

Reviewed by Milton Goldin, Nation al Coalition of Independent Scholars


“…why can’t we be a nice foundation like Rockefeller?”

- Henry Ford II on the Ford Foundation [1]

In her introduction to the seventeen essays in this book, Ellen Condliffe

Lagemann writes, “. . . foundations themselves have discouraged scholarly

writing. Having been the subject of hostile Congressional investigations on at

least four occasions, they have been extremely skittish about opening their

files to outside scholars,” p.

ix. Which is true, but not the only reason why 42,000-plus foundations in

America that currently have assets of some $326 billion are frequently less

than forthcoming sharing information. Other reasons include Internal Revenue

Service agents seeking evidence of

donor malfeasance, donors searching for information whether other donors gained

some special IRS advantage, program officers at foundations attempting to learn

how policies developed elsewhere, and nonprofits canvassing for grant

information not published

in annual reports.

While considering the complexities of this situation, the relatively unbiased

observer will be struck at once by the pervasive reluctance in every camp to

admit that other camps might have some right on their side. Yet, beginning with

John D. Rockefeller’s failure to receive a Congressional charter for the

Rockefeller foundation (about which,

surprisingly, nothing is said in this book, although it was the opening

engagement in hostilities between Congress and foundations), solid cases

for various positions have been made by such eloquent spokespersons as Wright

Patman, McGeorge Bundy, Julius Rosenwald, and John D.

Rockefeller, Jr. And, despite harsh comments in some of the essays, it should

be emphasized that not all foundation critics in Congress have uncontrollable

desires to ferret out information on leftist donors or conservative donors,

depending on the particular member’s political affiliation.

The scholars writing in this volume concentrate mainly on how and why social

problems and foundation programs have affected each other, not on how

foundations relate to political developments. There are no discussions, for

example, on how it was that the Ford Foundation became a conduit for CIA

financing of student groups in Central Europe during the Cold War, in the four

essays that deal with the Ford Foundation:

Alice O’Connor’s, “The Ford Foundation and Philanthropic Activism in the

1960s”; Gregory K. Raynor’s, “The Ford Foundation’s War on Poverty:

Private Philanthropy and Race Relations in New York City, 1948-1968″;

Rosa Proietto’s “The Ford Foundation and Women’s Studies in American Higher

Education: Seeds of Change”; and Richard Magat’s, “In Search of the Ford


The Ford Foundation, which receives almost a quarter of the book’s pages, is

especially important in the overall picture because from its creation in 1936

until August 1999, when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation exceeded it in

assets, it reigned as the wealthiest foundation in history. Immediately that


Ford Foundation was created,

however, a chronic problem emerged whose existence partially eluded even that

sharp-eyed analyst Dwight Macdonald, who would describe the entity as a “large

body of money completely surrounded by people who want some.”[2]

After Henry Ford’s son Edsel died, the youthful grandson Henry Ford II moved

quickly to prevent the family’s losing control of the Ford Motor Company.

Financed with Ford non-voting stock (a development Congress happened to

notice), the foundation had no definite purpose in Henry II’s mind other than

fiscal salvation for himself and his relatives.

Meanwhile, seeking a primary focus, the foundation would swing from education

to the social sciences to international affairs to the arts to social action,

and its

trustees would sell off the non-voting stock.

This turned out to affect Henry II’s power as chairman of the board; by the

mid-1970s, although the conservative Henry II remained chairman, the liberal

McGeorge Bundy was firmly entrenched as president, and

John J.

McCloy, a long-time ally of the liberal Republican Rockefeller family,

effectively managed its board. In 1976, Henry II resigned.

Little of this story is told in the book. Explaining why the Ford Foundation

has never published a formal history, Magat quotes Susan Berresford, the

current president, who offers up the view that

“foundations are not of great interest in the public eye.” She adds,

“Their work is understood through the work of their grantees,” (p. 312).

Barry Dean Karl disputes that view in his well-reasoned, “Going for Broke.”

Karl argues that what finally stimulated philanthropic studies centers on

university campuses was not a pressing need for new understandings of

foundations, but the Filer Commission, a Rockefeller-sponsored project that

was itself a consequence of the Tax Reform Act of 1969 and populist Wright

Patman’s mid-1960s attack on foundations. Karl writes that “historians were

replaced by economists in an effort to show that private investment in public

policy was more efficient, more effective, and certainly less expensive than

public investment,” p. 289. Furthermore, the conventional wisdom was wrong that

there was “enough resemblance among institutions called foundations to make

generalizations possible. Those generalizations will be helpful for

understanding how foundations work, but only to the extent that these

[sic] general notions bear a close relation to the real world in which

foundations operate,” p. 290.

Later we learn from William S. McKersie (“Local Philanthropy Matters:

Pressing issues for Research and Practice”) that as “governance devolution and

fiscal austerity” become dominant public policy trends,

localities may be unable to turn either to Washington or to national

foundations for help. They will have to look to their own resources to finance

welfare and other programs. In essence, today’s “real world”

dismantling of the welfare state could (at least, in theory) return the nation

to a time when communities had to care for their own poor, as they did

before the Great Depression and the New Deal.

Problems inherent in a massive shift of this type could be formidable.

McKersie tells us that aside from financial and manpower limitations,

many local foundations do not have the resources to collect or manage data

and/or to use data from national foundations to analyze local situations. Which

is why he makes the reasonable point that “local philanthropy matters must

become the focus of more rigorous research and commentary,” p. 330. He cites as

an example of the ideal Chicago’s Joyce Foundation, one of the 100 largest in

the United States, which operates off its endowment with no need to raise

funds, has no ties to deceased benefactors other than through the family’s

former law firm, and is a godsend to the


The final essay, Lucy Bernholz’s “The Future of Foundation History,”

includes the encouraging promise that although historians are trained to look

backward, she will use both her training as an historian and her experience as

a program officer at a community foundation to look forward. She reports, “One

foundation executive recently said to me, ‘The scholars who write about

foundations don’t have a clue about what we do.’ My sense is that this

statement is true in reverse as well, and that bo th

sides contribute to the misunderstandings,” p. 359.

This is an understatement, given the essays in this useful book.

[1] This quotation has appeared in other versions. I discovered this one in a

newspaper clipping, with no attribution, in the Ford Foundation Archives, Ford

Motor Company, Series II, Box 15, Folder 186, “Complaints about Ford Foundation


[2] Dwight Macdonald, The Ford Foundation: The Men and the Millions

(New York: Reynal, 1956), p. 3.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII