The Foundation: A Great American Secret: How private wealth is changing the world – Joel L Fleishman

Once in a rare while a book comes along that captures its place and time. I believe that Joel Fleishman has given us such a book.

The time is of course now and the ‘place’ is the American grantmaking foundation at the dawn of the era of generalized ‘high impact philanthropy’. As his distillation of ‘what works’ in philanthropy records so clearly, there have been high impact philanthropic initiatives since the first appearance of foundations in America at the turn of the 20th century. What seems to be even more significant than the growth of US foundations (now over 68,000 with estimated assets of half a trillion dollars and making annual grants totalling $33.6 billion) is the step change in quality.

Fleishman expresses this in a statement that forms the defining premise of the book: ‘I believe that most institutions and individuals with charitable dollars to spend are eager to wring as much benefit for society as possible out of those dollars.’ This was certainly not true in 1900. It may not even be true for most individual givers today, but it heralds, in my view, an irreversible trend and is the correct premise from which to proceed.

The Foundation is thus both a comprehensive description of the state of the art and a standard setter for foundation performance. A companion casebook of 100 significant foundation initiatives, which may be downloaded free at gives a degree of scholarly depth – something that is all too rare in many books in this field – to a work that is essentially a guide to action. In fact, by the time I had read it and perused some of the cases, I could not help but think of it as a kind of complementary enterprise to the Ford Foundation’s excellent practitioner reference resource, GrantCraft. How can we build on this superb resource? Might American foundations contribute new cases? Might the cases be opened up to blog-like comments? Might a community of practice emerge from this?

I should make it clear that the book is not uncritical. Its powerful analytical framework posits a set of ‘golden paradoxes’ (see box) and sums up with a clear-eyed judgement that foundations have ‘significant documented impact accompanied by significant underperformance’.

In analysing these paradoxes with great care and thoughtfulness over some 300 pages, Fleishman, who is both a scholar of philanthropy and an experienced foundation leader, describes the institutional context of American philanthropy in a fresh and compelling way. He documents the rise of a diverse range of new ‘philanthropy brokers’ who are now key influencers in the development of American philanthropy. He provides a wealth of wisdom – a word much used but seldom deserved  – about effective ways of working, drawing on good practices now well in evidence in the work of foundations like Hewlett, Edna McConnell Clark, Robert Woods Johnson, Atlantic Philanthropies, Open Society Institute and many others. I will resist the extreme temptation to recount these and urge readers to seek them out themselves.

Likewise, I will refrain from retelling the author’s powerful case for greater foundation transparency with regard to decision-making. His concluding recommendations on the way forward for foundation accountability are at once bold and practical. Fleishman reminds us that foundations are uniquely positioned to be societal educators, while demonstrating how unconvincingly they currently wear this mantle. It would be fitting indeed if the book’s recommendations became a subject of debate in the (print and web) pages of this magazine.

Finally, with one exception, I am compelled by my overall admiration of this wonderful and important book to refrain from picking nits. Against a brief of this scope, there are bound to be areas that are missed and each reader will identify topics that they feel are treated only superficially. It is my view, however, that any such limitations to the book are marginal, and, again, provide an opportunity for wider discussion rather than revision.

There is one concern that I do wish to share. The book is overwhelmingly domestic. Only a handful of the 100 cases in the companion volume address international development, and these are less satisfactory than the others. The book does not explore the meaning of American foundations for the rest of the world, either as examples or through their direct action.

International giving is the fastest growing category of American philanthropy. I would love to see Joel Fleishman train his acute eye on American foundations in the world. How do his themes of efficiency and effectiveness play out differently in a global context? How should we think about legitimacy, transparency and accountability in a transnational setting where the public policy context is fundamentally different? A next volume perhaps? I certainly hope so!

David Bonbright is Chief Executive of Keystone. Email

The Foundation: A Great American Secret: How private wealth is changing the world
Joel L Fleishman Public Affairs $27.95/ £16.99
ISBN 1586484117

To order
Joel Fleishman’s ‘Golden Paradoxes’
Foundations must be free and autonomous in order to fulfil their mission of challenging, reforming, and renewing society. At the same time, in part because of the tax benefits they enjoy, they must be accountable to society.

There is the paradox of enormous wealth, originally generated by greed and energetic pursuit of self-interest, being donated to help the less fortunate through motives of pure altruism.

There is the paradox of great social and economic power concentrated in the hands of a few unelected and largely unregulated foundation leaders, who nonetheless feel insecure and threatened by the real or imagined suspicion and resentment of society at large.

There is the paradox of foundations’ striving to add value to society by working to enhance, strengthen and guide grant-receiving organizations, yet doing so in ways that do not intrude on those organizations’ autonomy.

There is the paradox of organizations that devote their efforts to changing society, yet rarely seek to measure, or even comprehend, the extent of the changes they actually produce.

Finally, there is the paradox of a number of wealthy organizations spending their wealth to serve the public interest even as the public remains largely ignorant of what they do.

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