Inside American Philanthropy
By Waldemar A. Nielsen
Univ. of Oklahoma Press
292 pp., $26.95
Narcissism and Philanthropy
By Peter Freund
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
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. …