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AMERICAN FOUNDATIONS: An Investigative History.

AMERICAN FOUNDATIONS: An Investigative History by Mark Dowie MIT Press, $29.95

AMONG FOUNDATION EXECUTIVES, there is an old saying that once hired you have had your last bad meal and your last honest compliment. Mark Dowie's latest book, American Foundations: An Investigative History, brings the promise of a thoughtful, provocative analysis of the privileged world of private foundations from the point of view of grantseeking nonprofits. Since the only justification for private foundations is the existence of grantseekers, it is an engaging premise.

Dowie begins solidly with a sweeping overview of the foundation world, including its strengths (pioneering medical and agricultural research) and its weaknesses (flitting from issue to issue with all the commitment to anything meaningful of a pack of billionaire playboys).

That is as good as it gets. Despite a list of acknowledgments that indicates that he spoke with informed insiders, Dowie never cracks the world of philanthropy. Instead, he quickly falls into the arms of his leftist ideology, promoting his idea of what foundations should do. He doesn't trust readers to come to their conclusions based on marshalling the facts. And he apparently never talked to people who play key roles in some of the case histories he presents.

Dowie gives us a chapter on the Energy Foundation, which he describes as "the largest of a new breed of grantmaker known as a passthrough foundation." Yet he never explores the significance of passthrough foundations or examines any other examples. And we never find out just why the Energy Foundation seems to have veered away from initial promises to change the world through conservation and renewable energy and became an enforcer of the status quo. Dowie spoke to Hal Harvey, the foundation's executive director, but we never hear Harvey's side of the story.

Dowie asserts that we have never had an "investigative history" of foundations. This is one of the many signs that this is not Dowie's best work. Over the years, there have been two fine books exposing the insular, self-important world of philanthropy written by Waldemar Nielsen, whom Dowie quotes approvingly. Nielsen's The Big Foundations and The Golden Donors are classics of flint-eyed reporting on the shenanigans that occur around too many large pools of nearly unaccountable money. And critics of philanthropy, from the very-knowledgeable-but-out-of-touch organizers on the left to the in-touch-but-know-nothing organizers on the right, have all appraised the world of private foundations with a jaundiced eye.

Of course, there have also been a number of good examinations of the extraordinary success of the rich rightists who have openly pursued an agenda of grants to change the political, economic, social, and cultural landscape of America to their liking. Dowie covers this ground too, expressing revulsion at the members of the Philanthropic Roundtable and their ideological confreres in grantmaking who have imbued Washington with a dozen institutes (Heritage, Cato, Competitive Enterprise, among others) that range from skilled marketers of provocative ideas to shills for the American oligarchs.

The important book Dowie could have written is to be found in a box on page 225 under the heading "Risk." In 112 words he identifies the theme that, had he built his book around, would have driven the "philanthrocrats" absolutely crazy.

"Foundation executives love to prattle on about the risks they take in their work," Dowie observes. "When program officers speak of risk, what they generally mean is the small risk of personal embarrassment in the event a project they fund fails." Here Dowie captures the lie behind the now-standard pledges by newly appointed presidents of grant-making foundations that theirs will be an era of "venture philanthropy." In two decades of writing about foundations (and marriage to the president of a community foundation) I have yet to meet one of these philanthropoids who published a list of failed grants.

Dowie recognizes the absurdity of this fear of failure. "So they picked a loser," he writes. "Who cares? There are no shareholders to complain. No bonds in default. No bank to foreclose. Yet, despite the risk-free nature of their work, philanthrocrats love to compare themselves to venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, who in fact take tremendous risks with their own and other people's money." Here is the real truth about the rampant intellectual fraud at so many of the big foundations.

And yet the reasons for this false bravado, this timidity in a world full of opportunity to make a difference, are also revealed by Dowie, however inadvertently.

The author, it seems, reviles those who really did seek to change the world and succeeded. Dowie damns them for the unintended consequences of their success, which he argues they had the duty to resolve. The Rockefellers spent decades lavishing money on the risky idea that science could improve crop yields and produce more grains to feed a growing world population. It worked. Indeed, as Dowie acknowledges, it is hailed as a triumph of private philanthropy. And yet Dowie criticizes the Rockefellers and others because more and better food has also meant a shift toward industrial farming, changing the economies of countries that depended on subsistence farmers and benefiting those with the capital to invest in farm machinery, intensive irrigation, herbicides, and to buy seeds instead of sowing some held back from their own crops. Instead of recognizing that every solution creates its own new problems, Dowie attacks those funding the Green Revolution for not solving this problem, as well.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And if you do gain, you get damned for that, too.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, a Pulitzer Prize winner this year, covers tax policy for The New York Times.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Johnston, David Cay
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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