Thursday, August 25, 2005

A Cynic's Guide to the Foundation World, Part One

Community Foundations
In 1914, Frederick Goff did for philanthropy what halitosis did for Listerine: he created the "The Community." While no one knows who exactly this Community is (The Community does not keep membership records), thanks to Goff, we all know that (1) we owe it a great deal; (2) we are supposed to "give back" to it; and (3) community foundations like Goff's Cleveland Foundation can help us do that. Despite such auspicious beginnings, however, today, community foundations are the ruling elite's answer to the redneck front lawn, little more than parking lots for inoperable giving vehicles. Cut a philanthropist's grass, and you'll find another donor-advised fund his wife didn't know existed.

Company-sponsored Foundations
American corporations sponsor foundations the same way you sponsored that adorable child you saw on TV. Ever wonder what Sally Struthers' camera crew was eating? (Mmm, hey, let's order some pizza. No, you can't have any. This is mine.) Think about that the next time you read a corporate foundation's annual report. Thirty-five cents does go a long way, but if you spent half as much on grants as you did on PR, you could go much further. Company-sponsored foundations, however, are hampered by the fact that corporations are created to maximize shareholder value; hence, they cannot in good conscience give away someone else's hard-earned money. Corporate foundations, thus, have a great deal to learn from family foundation program officers.

Operating Foundations
For the discriminating philanthropist who truly understands that nonprofits are too stupid to be trusted with your philanthropic dreams, operating foundations allow you to foist your conception of the common good on unsuspecting at-risk folks without the annoying middlepersons. If you're up for "Extreme Makeover: Social Engineering Edition," consider the operating foundation your Home Depot. Sure, it might be better to call a plumber after a toilet explodes, but, hey, you're doing just fine on your own. Thank you very much. It's only medical research that could save millions of lives or none at all, a think tank that can inform Congress or lead it astray, or a museum that can preserve our common human history for generations to come or let it disappear forever - honestly, how hard can it be?

Independent Foundations
If a foundation doesn't give back to The Community, provide excellent PR for a foundering corporation, or, well, operate, the foundation is considered "independent." This independence, however, is exceedingly tenuous. As long as the your investment manager takes good care of your wallet, regulation isn't overly burdensome, the IRS doesn't order an audit, and the state attorney-general takes his foot off your neck, you're independent. Since none of these conditions currently obtain, "independent foundation," like "civil society," is a contradiction in terms.

Family Foundations
Family foundations form the last bastion of the aristocracy in our civilization on the brink of collapse. It’s incredibly important, nay, vital to the continued prosperous existence of our polyarchic society that you hold your considerable wealth hostage to your dysfunctional family dynamic. This incredible power to change the world for the better must be mercilessly tied in perpetuity to your dated dogma, backward values, and mindless idiosyncrasies lest the underclass climb out of the muck in which we so painstakingly keep them.


Phil Anthropoid said...

Thanks for this post, Madmunk, and welcome back. The fire in your belly tells me you are in the late stages of Foundation Rage and might be beyond cure. My hypothesis about the foundation as an institution is that it encourages more people to give more and that the net effect of foundations is good. Donors who wouldn’t dream of leaving a pile of cash to the local Y are smitten with the idea of establishing a permanent source of capital for community needs. Many donors made their wealth by investing wisely, and the foundation follows that model. I also know that foundations have and often use their ability to challenge government, the business sector, and the fourth estate. This seems to me especially critical in these nefarious times. I have some qualms about corporate giving programs and foundations, but that’s a discussion for another time. I can’t tell from your post, Madmunk, whether you’d work to reform foundations or commit them all to the flames.

(This is your blog, Madmunk, but may I also say a few words to any donors who might be reading this? First, it’s your money, and I hope you’ll decide to do some good with it; second, because “the tears of the world are a constant quantity,” institutional forms of philanthropy have their dark sides, as Madmunk points out. To get another perspective on the issue, I recommend you visit this lovely site put together by the good people at the Minnesota Council on Foundations.)

Madmunk said...

Welcome Phil! It's good to be back and very good to see you return!

It seems Phil has me pegged. I'm a cynic, i.e., a failed romantic. I see tremendous potential in foundations. What some philanthropists have accomplished is incredible. Nonetheless, it's alternately annoying and infuriating to watch that potential squandered by addled thinking, poor communication, ulterior motives, big egos, over-regulation, petty politics, etc. Perhaps, I don't give good philanthropists enough credit - they will receive more attention here; perhaps, philanthropists rest too comfortably given the presumption that they're doing good.

I figured an interesting way of going about this would be to cast an incredibly cynical eye on the institutions that make up the landscape and describe them. If it doesn't correspond at all to your view of reality, great! So much the better! If there's a ring of truth to it, there's something to think about.

Maybe even laugh about. You know, I thought this was funny. Maybe I have absolutely no sense of humor. Always a possibility.

But would I commit them all foundations to the flames? No, certainly not - just their feet.