The subject of the piece, Trevor Neilson, who runs something called the Global Philanthropy Group, defends his celebrity clientele by saying that the celebrities bring more to philanthropy than simply their bank accounts. "If you're a wealthy anonymous hedge-fund guy, the most important thing you have to change an issues is your checkbook. But if you give me the option between a billionaire who's only able to write checks and somebody who can mobilize hundreds of millions of people, I'll take the hundreds of millions of people." And Neilson, who used to work for the Gates Foundation, has had the choice, one presumes. Still, there is no doubt that Neilson makes a considerable amount from his clients. And unlike the anonymous hedge-fund guy, there is definitely something in it for the celebrities.
But the people on the other end of the spectrum are the full-time philanthropists, the ones who practice what they call "strategic philanthropy," are hardly getting off scott-free either. In a piece in last week's Chronicle of Higher Education, they also came off as short-sighted, ignorant and perhaps even selfish. In a piece called "Beware Big Donors," Stanley Katz takes people like Bill Gates, the Waltons and Eli Broad to task for their efforts to reform education through philanthropy. Noting that these donors represent "America's reinvention of the One Percent," Katz says that these new "megafoundations" are "behaving in novel ways, departing from the more reflective, more patient and generally less aggressive behaviors of the classic 20th century foundations."
He cites, for instance, the Rockefeller Foundation's funding of Gunnar Myrdal's study "An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy," an exhaustive research project that was meant to diagnose the reasons for black oppression in the first half of the twentieth century. Katz would like us to return to a time when foundations were more concerned with discovering the root causes of social problems. He would like to see them do more to fund research at universities, not just programs to expand access to higher education. He is annoyed that they are more focused on the process of higher education than the substance. But who can blame megadonors for thinking that a lot of what passes for research at universities is not having much impact beyond the ivory tower (or within it for that matter).
Katz complains that foundations today have become too impatient, focusing on "benchmarks" to measure effectiveness. This is more than a little unfair. To begin with, the major foundations operating in the 20th century became very much focused on "impatient" projects. The Ford Foundation's support of projects that would eventually form the template for the Great Society were hardly just a lot of ponderous research. Second, these megafoundations certainly do spend money on research to figure out what works.
But yes, Katz is right. Foundations that deal in K-12 education are impatient. And, in my opinion, rightly so. There is an argument, a good one, that foundations have a unique role to play in civil society, that unlike government or business, philanthropy can afford to think about the long term. Foundations don't need to see results during one fiscal year or one election cycle. On the other hand, the problems plaguing K-12 education have been doing so for decades now. If foundations like Gates and Broad and Walton are aggressive and impatient, if they want to see real results in this area, it is because they know that for decades foundations have been dumping money down the hole of public education and have little to show for it. Any reasonable person staring down that hole for too long will also become impatient. And even a little aggressive.