Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

March 5, 2007

Piercing philanthropy’s gilded veil

The mainstream media have praised Joel Fleishman’s new book on foundations, The Foundation: A Great American Secret: How Private Wealth is Changing the World.

Reviewers for The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, for example, were particularly impressed with the idea that a philanthropy insider like Fleishman – a professor and former fundraiser at Duke University, former president of the Atlantic Philanthropies and former chair of the Markle Foundation -- would criticize organized philanthropy.

Now, Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, author of Challenges to Nonprofits and Foundations: The Courage to Change and a thoughtful and highly-respected critic of philanthropy, has contributed a stinging critique of Fleishman’s book.

Writing in The Nonprofit Quarterly, Eisenberg suggests that, while conceding some minor blemishes and advising the application of a few dabs of makeup, Fleishman’s book fails to acknowledge or even see -- let alone diagnose or prescribe remedies for -- deep structural problems in the world of foundations and the way they operate.

Seen through the eyes of “a consummate insider who is close and indebted to establishment institutions, such as foundations and universities,” Eisenberg says, the world of philanthropy Fleishman’s book examines “is one of elite institutions, governed by the wealthiest and most highly paid professionals in our society.”

Embracing foundations and their track records, Eisenberg says, Fleishman “tends to dismiss some of their shortcomings.”

And the transparency and accountability Fleishman promotes, Eisenberg says, are procedural, not substantive.

“The reason for his approach is that he is satisfied with foundations as they are,” Eisenberg writes. “He sees no need for any transformation. It is fine that they are governed by an elite group of wealthy people and highly paid establishment professionals, regardless of their impact on democracy.”

Eisenberg also says that transparency and public accountability, which he calls “key to the growth, legitimacy and future effectiveness of philanthropy” in Fleishman’s book, “may be a precondition to change” but are not the determining factor.

“The desire and will to alter behavior, public pressure, and political action are the forces that bring about change,” Eisenberg says. “This is the weakness in [Fleishman’s] recipe for change.”

In Fleishman’s view, Eisenberg says, foundations are noble institutions that balance government, corporate power and nonprofits to make our democracy tick.

And Fleishman simply “dismisses those critics who have accused foundations of perpetuating privilege and wealth as simply being Marxist,” Eisenberg says.

Occupying a “rarefied” world, he says, the foundations Fleishman celebrates are “well intended institutions that do a lot of good but don’t get to the heart of many of our societal problems and dysfunctional systems.”

Fleishman’s “celebration of foundations downplays the important role that nonprofits have played in creating almost all the social and institutional changes in our history,” Eisenberg says.

“It ignores the poverty, class tensions, social and economic inequities, political corruption, and corporate excesses that shake the pillars of democracy.”

Eisenberg concludes that Fleishman’s world “is not yours or mine, so far removed from our fundamental concerns and needs, so irrelevant to much of our civil society.”

What do you think? Submit a comment.


  • At 12:19 AM, Blogger kanti said…

    Thanks Mr Eisenberg. Now please expose Bill Gates for his selfish charity and his publicity stunt for every charity.Why Bill gate is not empowering Indian Poor farmers by giving them free small tractors Oil engines and encourage organic farming condemning Monsantos dangerous genetically modified seeds.
    Kanti Bhatt
    Tel :2807 29 45
    Mumbai (INDIA)


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