How Philanthropy Shapes American Life A Clearheaded Look at What Nonprofit Organizations Can and Ought to Do

Article excerpt

Inside American Philanthropy

By Waldemar A. Nielsen

Univ. of Oklahoma Press 292 pp., $26.95 Narcissism and Philanthropy By Peter Freund Viking 158 pp., $24.95 In some quarters, recent Republican attacks on government have been accompanied by a call for turning over governmental functions to private philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. It's an illusory call, as attested to by those in the nonprofit sector who are already stretched extremely thin. Far from being "crowded out" by government, they would be crushed by the burden of taking over governmental responsibilities. In fact, major aspects of government attacked by congressional Republican leadership - from public education to public television and the National Institutes of Health - have their origins (at least in part) in nonprofit foundations, as one can discover by reading "Inside American Philanthropy," by Waldemar Nielsen, one of two new books that examine the promise and pitfalls of philanthropy. It's a topic well worth our attention, not because philanthropy can take over major governmental functions (it can't), but because it has its own vital, evolving role to play, complementing both the government and the private sector. Nielsen's focus is on donors who establish philanthropic foundations and how those foundations succeed, or fail, or muddle through somewhere between. He is remarkably frank about the problems that foundations encounter, especially family foundations, which tend to exacerbate family tensions. In part this is because he's an optimist who takes the long view, one who knows what can be accomplished when foundations succeed, and one who believes success can be improved upon by learning from past mistakes. "Inside American Philanthropy" maintains a strong narrative coherence, even as it examines a wide range of contrasts and contradictions, beginning with the contrast between the concrete, material, public nature of philanthropic gifts and the highly personal, idiosyncratic nature of the philanthropic act. The book establishes itself through a historical survey, from the age of John D. Rockefeller Sr., Andrew Carnegie, and Julius Rosenwald to the uncertain present, counterpoising established international philanthropist George Soros with the philanthropically indifferent Warren Buffet. It then examines particular themes using the same method of comparing and contrasting notable examples. Nielsen tells of Rosenwald, driving genius behind Sears, Roebuck & Co. who funded hundreds of schools in the South to implement Booker T. Washington's "conservative" vision of racial self-improvement. He brought public education, not just to blacks, but to the South as a whole, and was inevitably seen by some as a "radical" disrupter of the Southern way of life. He tells of John Olin, the father of many contemporary conservative foundations, which, unlike their liberal counterparts, focus on systematic development of ideological infrastructure, from conservative campus newspapers to university chairs endowed with a conservative mandate, to conferences, magazines, television programs, and more recently whole networks. And he tells of the women in philanthropy, such as Margaret Sage and Kate Macy Ladd, who used 19th-century fortunes to promote progressive social change and lay the groundwork for 20th-century government-run social programs. …


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