Mark Dowie's 'Foundations' -- charity for all?

May 13, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | By Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

"American Foundations: An Investigative History," by Mark Dowie. The MIT Press. 320 pages. $29.95.

As new, powerful foundations of the tech-wealthy drive the dialogue about some of the world's most intractable problems, "American Foundations: An Investigative History" sounds like timely reading for those interested in avoiding the charitable mistakes of the past. But the book doesn't entirely live up to its billing.

At its best, Mark Dowie's work exposes in telling detail how uninformed -- or worse, co-opted -- philanthropy can harm instead of help. At its worst, the book spreads itself uselessly thin on philosophical vapors that don't much advance the debate over who should control large-scale giving.

The "investigative" core of the book is found in chapters on the misadventures of multimillion-dollar giving projects designed to provide food and energy. Dowie demonstrates how the Rockefeller Foundation's 50-year "Green Revolution" project ended up destabilizing the agricultural economies it was designed to shore up, and how the Energy Foundation, a creation of several large grantmakers to promote energy sustainability, acted instead to increase the profits of power company shareholders at the expense of consumers.

But Dowie makes some of the very mistakes he accuses foundations of making. He flits from subject to subject, giving issues such as science and health-care philanthropy -- each of which could be a book in itself -- relatively short shrift. He spends too much time on the amorphous responsibilities of the philanthropic world to promote civil society and imagination, areas that are so difficult to pinpoint that it's not worth trying, especially when there's so much more specific ground to cover.

Moreover, his central thesis -- that foundations must become more accountable to the public by opening their decision-making to at least a partially democratic process -- arrives too late in the book, and with too little development.

Dowie is right that on a certain level, foundation money belongs to all of us, since it's money that otherwise would be taxed. As a reform of the current, private system, he proposes a "Philanthropic Antitrust Act" to break up large foundations into entities of no more than $1 billion. Each would have its own board of trustees, with no members in common other than a common founder.

Such a rule would splinter the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, into at least 22 separate foundations. But while that might diversify the grantmaking of the smaller foundations, wouldn't it significantly diminish their leverage, while increasing the bureaucracy of each?

Would Bill Gates be able to capture the world's interest in such neglected ills as childhood disease in the Third World and AIDS in Africa if his resources were so splintered? Would drug companies be paying the attention they're now paying to those problems? Government, for all its democracy, hasn't laid a glove on plagues like these. Maybe giving someone with Gates' brainpower a chance isn't such a bad idea.

Dowie doesn't adequately answer these questions. A better idea, which he advances in a paragraph, might be to require term limits for trustees, and to reserve a few seats on every board to be appointed by congressional representatives.

Again, though, Dowie doesn't really explore the ramifications of such a change. As in every area of large-scale philanthropy -- where giving money is never as easy or effective as we might think -- there are bound to be some.

Kate Shatzkin is a Sun reporter who has covered the working of nonprofit institutions. In her 12 years as a journalist, she also has written about courts, crime and social issues.

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