Foundations: a few good reasons

Joel Fleishman

Joel FleishmanAlmost everyone who thinks and writes about the role of foundations in America highlights foundation support for innovative solutions to society’s problems as the most important way foundations serve society. The examples of foundation facilitation of the discovery, piloting, demonstration and ultimate establishment of new ways of solving, or at least ameliorating, American society’s challenges are legion. Most people are familiar with the results even if few connect their origins to foundation ideas or financial support.

Many examples, such as the 9/11 national emergency response telephone number pioneered by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, are part and parcel of life for ordinary Americans. Others, including the establishment of America’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, and NPR, are familiar primarily to the elite public. Still others are known mainly by the people who directly benefited from them, like the Rockefeller Foundation’s Green Revolution, which engineered new dwarf wheat and other crop varieties. These increased grain production per hectare in Mexico, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan to such an extent that it converted all those countries from a condition of chronic grain shortages, accompanied by frequent famines and starvation, into reliable grain exporters. The Rockefeller Foundation scientist at the head of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1970, one of only two Nobel Prizes given for foundation achievements.

Of course, foundations are responsible for many other indispensable innovations that occur constantly, quietly, and to great effect. The largest portion of foundation support helps sustain public and not-for-profit higher education, which helps replenish and enrich America’s stock of human capital. Foundations also devote much of their resources to advancing and renewing America’s intellectual capital. They have facilitated the establishment of new scholarly disciplines such as molecular biology and computational neurobiology, seeded the professional schools of social welfare, enabled the quantification of business school curricula, pioneered the field of law and economics, and created, almost out of whole cloth in the short period of about 25 years, the intellectual and policy infrastructure of the modern conservative movement.

Remarkably, with the possible exception of the last, no significant proportion of the American public – 12 per cent at last count – has any inkling that foundations have had anything to do with these achievements. This ignorance on the part of the public leaves foundations vulnerable to attack by politicians, the press, and even the public.

Facilitation of continuing, peaceful social change

While these and many other foundation achievements speak for themselves more powerfully than I can, I think that foundations’ most valuable role in America has been in the steady, determined facilitation of continuing, peaceful social change. Think about the impact of four examples on America’s history over the past 50 years. A few years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring first jolted America’s consciousness about our environmental vulnerabilities, four graduates of Yale Law School approached the Ford Foundation for support in creating a new organization dedicated to the writing of America’s environmental laws and the bringing of lawsuits to enforce them.

Thus was born the Natural Resources Development Council. Think of Environmental Defense, too. Both these organizations now have about 700,000 members, both have played critical roles in changing America’s environmental and conservation landscape for the better, and neither of them, nor any other major environmental public interest law or policy organization, could have become self-sustaining without the early, generous and consistent support of the Ford Foundation and many other foundations, large and small.

Foundations did not pioneer US civil rights organizations in the same way. With the exception of a few smaller family foundations, including the Stern Family Fund and the Field Foundation, they were wary of supporting civil rights organizations when they were first getting started, but began engaging with them in the 1960s, first on voter registration in the South and then in other fields. In fact, it was the support of Ford and other foundations for African-American voter registration in the South that aroused the ire of Southern politicians and contributed to the anti-foundation sentiment that produced the 1969 Tax Reform Act, which included the first federal tax on foundations and other provisions regulating foundations.

None the less, by the 1970s many of the largest private foundations, including Ford, were supporting the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in its policy advocacy and litigation efforts towards enforcement of the federal and state civil rights legislation. Moreover, it was foundations that provided start-up and nurturing support for all the major ethnic rights organizations. Without the energetic but peaceful advocacy channels that those and other organizations supported by foundations provided, America might well have seen much slower, and perhaps more violent, progress towards civil rights and the integration of American society.

While the women’s legal rights movement had many sources going back to the Suffragettes and beyond, it began to make real progress only after organizations dedicated to its agenda were founded. Among the first was the Women’s Legal Rights Program, established in the early 1960s by the American Civil Liberties Union under the direction of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, emblematic of the movement’s success, is today an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court.

The story of the major international human rights organizations is almost identical. Human Rights Watch was founded by a group of foundations, including Ford, MacArthur and the Open Society Institute, in the late 1970s, as was Human Rights First, formerly the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights. Since their founding, these institutions have catalysed and nurtured into adolescence indigenous human rights organizations in virtually every region of the world, rallying support for them in developed countries and in the international press.

Helping bring about social justice and equality

These four examples illustrate the potential foundations have for helping bring about social justice and equality, perhaps the most difficult kind of social change, given the power of the forces that resist it. Foundations have had, over and over again, the courage to put immense resources behind the efforts of a wide variety of racial, ethnic, socio-economic, gender, sexual preference, consumer, environmental and other American groups, often very controversial, especially in their beginning.

While I am sure that many of the other roles foundations play contribute much to the dynamism and robustness of our society and economy, I believe that foundation support for the expansion of freedom and the achievement of social justice is the jewel in the crown of foundation achievement. If foundations did not provide such support, no other funders would do so in the amounts needed to breathe life into social change. Foundations constitute the only large pool of capital in the US that does not have fixed claims on it for any other purpose, and that can be easily tapped by fledgling grant-seeking organizations representing citizens disadvantaged in countless ways to help them gain access to America’s mainstream.

Joel Fleishman is Professor of Law and Public Policy and Director, Duke Foundation Research Program, Duke University. Email

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