American Foundations: An Investigative History by Mark Dowie.
Investigative journalist Dowie--author, most recently, of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (1996)--turns his attention to organized philanthropy, a world at once highly visible and widely misunderstood. Dowie draws on academic literature, foundation archives, and more than 200 interviews with foundation officers, critics, and grant recipients in assessing the recent history of foundations and projecting the changes they face. In the face of crisis, Dowie suggests, organized philanthropy has been "slow to see problems coming, slow to respond, and quick to justify every decision." Dowie applies a public perspective, analyzing how effectively foundations have contributed to public education, science, health care, the environment, the arts and humanities, and civil society. Government devolution is likely to make foundations even more powerful in the twenty-first century; Dowie urges that they need to adopt democratic reforms (like citizen trustees, grantee advisory boards, and strong social agendas) to justify their increased influence. The author's proposals may seem utopian, but his studies of specific foundations and their programs are fascinating. Mary Carroll
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In American Foundations, Mark Dowie argues that organized philanthropy is on the verge
of an evolutionary shift that will transform America's nearly 5,000 foundations from covert
arbiters of knowledge and culture to overt mediators of public policy and aggressive
creators of new orthodoxy. He questions the wisdom of placing so much power at the
disposal of nondemocratic institutions.
As American wealth expands, old foundations such as Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Pew,
and MacArthur have grown exponentially, while newer trusts such as Mott, Johnson,
Packard, Kellogg, Hughes, Annenberg, Hewlitt, Duke, and Gates have surpassed them.
Foundation assets now total close to $400 billion. Though this is a tiny sum compared to
corporate and government treasuries, and foundation grants still total less than 10
percent of contributions made by individuals, foundations have power and influence far
beyond their wealth. Their influence derives from the conditional nature of their grant
making, their power from its leverage.
Unlike previous historians of philanthropy who have focused primarily on the grant maker,
Dowie examines foundations from the public's perspective. He focuses on eight key areas
in which foundations operate: education, science, health, environment, food, energy, art,
and human services. He also looks at their imagination, or lack thereof, and at the
strained relationship between American foundations and American democracy.
Dowie believes that foundations deserve to exist and that they can assume an
increasingly vital role in American society, but only if they transform themselves from
private to essentially public institutions. The reforms he proposes to make foundations
more responsive to pressing social problems and more accountable to the public will
almost certainly start an important national debate.
About the Author
Mark Dowie is the author of five other books. He is the recipient of sixteen journalism
awards, including three National Magazine Awards.