FOUNDATIONS embody the noble dream that has lifted the hearts of American liberals -- of the nation as a vast laboratory for the reasoned programs of the elite. Charities, churches and synagogues might feed and house the hungry and the homeless. The task of foundations is different: to launch programs that carry public policy in new and uncharted directions, to benefit the whole of society.
In the decades following the Second World War, foundations used their position at the intersection of the elite worlds of government, politics, academia and the press to remake America in their own progressive image. Foundations funded the expansion of our system of public libraries, Jonas Salk's discovery of the polio vaccine, the writing of Gunnar Myrdal's "An American Dilemma," the Public Broadcasting Corporation, the "Gray Areas" project that led to Model Cities, and the Michigan study that yielded Head Start.
With years of experience and contacts throughout interlocking worlds of the elite, John Gardner of Carnegie and McGeorge Bundy of Ford conveyed their ideas to academics, editors, members of Congress and presidents, and, in many cases, saw them enacted into law.
What is the most striking about American foundations today is the absence of ambitious undertakings from the thousands of projects, pilots, reports and commissions they annually sponsor. Asked to name a foundation-sponsored project of the last 25 years that has had a significant impact on American society, James Joseph, president of the Council on Foundations, shakes his head. "There are many good programs," he says, "but as for the kind of program you describe, a Head Start or a PBS, I can't think of one."
Multiculturalism is one reason that foundations no longer set America's social-policy agenda. To wander the halls of the Council on Foundations' recent conference in San Francisco is to see the cartoon pages of William Bennett and Dinesh D'Souza brought spectacularly to life.
Conference sessions ranged from "Philanthropic Courage: Promoting an Agenda of Genuine Inclusion" to "The Colors of Desire: A Multimedia, Multicultural Performance." Videos and other media projects included: "Look Who's Laughing (Six Comedians with Physical Disabilities Talk About Their Lives)" and "Meeting Ancestors (An Indian Tribe in the Amazon Shares a Camcorder with a More Remote Tribe)."
Where the Ford Foundation of the 1950s and '60s spent its money to promote writing and scholarship at major universities and on symphony orchestras and ballet companies in dozens of American cities, Ford today spends on arts projects designed to "promote tolerance and social understanding" and ensure "access and equity." If Newt Gingrich truly believes, as he has stated, that private philanthropies should supplant government in providing for the public good and promoting lasting art, he is in for something of a surprise.
One obvious antidote to the lighter-than-air atmosphere that often permeates foundation work is the strict evaluation of programs by outside researchers and academics. Head Start, the last foundation-sponsored project to have resulted in a major public-policy initiative, was exhaustively evaluated by researchers, whose conclusions were accepted by politicians and the public.
Academic recipients of foundation largess were forced to put the pilots and models they devised into falsifiable forms that could be attacked -- or accepted -- by their peers. This provided some reassurance that the solutions they advocated might work, that they represented something more than the wishful thinking of those within foundation walls.
In the past 25 years, however, a startling shift away from research has occurred. Of 240 grants made by the Carnegie Corporation in 1989, totaling $37 million, most fell into one of two categories: funding and disseminating a host of high-flown reports by Carnegie-sponsored commissions; and funding advocacy groups including the Organizing Institute, the International Peace Academy, the ACLU Foundation, the National Council of La Raza, the Fund for Peace and the Children's Defense Fund. It is a multi-billion-dollar tax exemption for the political agenda of liberal elites.
Those who share the broader social concerns of the foundations might wonder as well whether doling out hundreds of millions of dollars to ideologically driven advocates -- who lack the time, the training or the inclination to evaluate what they do -- is the best prescription for future innovations in public policy.
This article first appeared in longer form in The New Republic.