Criticizing Private Foundations: Anti-Capitalist or Pro-Capitalist?

This essay was originally published by Angie Kim under the title “Is Criticizing Private Foundations Anti-Capitalist (I.E., Marxist) Or Pro-Capitalist?” on her blog Private Foundations Plus, where you can follow her ongoing research into private foundations and philanthropy.

Working on a dissertation that seeks to address empirically the notion of private foundation effectiveness, I’ve been struck by two things: the lack of critical inquiry on this topic and how criticism of foundations has been stifled. On the first point, of course, people pontificating and expressing their opinions have spilled lots of ink, but much of this is subjective and reflects ideology not facts. Certainly, personal expressions by those knowledgeable about the field can be useful, but without including a critical, discourse-dependent approach to inquiry, conversations about private foundations neither become increasingly sophisticated nor elevated beyond a shouting match. This lack of scholarship is a far cry from my other academic experience, which was in art history, which I can’t help but use as a comparative foil. In my graduate studies in art history, I was bombarded with criticism—discourse on identity, how we perceive, and the notion of power and otherness. As frustrating as it was to be reading semiotics than visiting a museum, I appreciated being able to move beyond appreciating art on the basis of personal aesthetic pleasure to understanding the construction of meaning that says a lot about who we are as a people.

In building my literature review of private foundations, there is very little critical study of its effectiveness. Hence, in the absence of empirical data, I’ve been mining references for different ways in which people have critically analyzed foundations, particularly around the notions of accountability and effectiveness. In that process, I found something interesting that has no room in my study, so I’ll talk about it here instead. There’s something odd and disturbing in how people treat those who criticize private foundations.

There seems to be two kinds of treatment of people who express any kind of criticism of private foundations. One kind of reaction is to accept their criticism and laud the person for being an important voice in the field. These folks are perceived as being an intellectual scholar or enlightened leader: They are warmly invited to circulate among foundation board trustees and to speak at foundation-only conferences. Joel Fleishman (2009) falls into this camp as do many foundation CEOs and presidents who express self-critical opinions, such as “we need to do more” and “this is not our money.” When I consider why these folks are so well received within the private foundation community, it’s because they are moderate in their ideas of what foundations should be doing. Instead of calling for increased regulation, such as increasing taxes on private foundations or increasing the payout floor beyond 5%, they ask foundations to self-regulate their giving to give more to the poor, consider sunsetting, and be less secretive and more transparent. The bottom line is that their recommendations stop short of increased governmental regulation and do not upset the general social order. Take, for example, Fleishman (2009). In the same book in which he suggested that foundations should pay out more and that more foundations should sunset, he is also quite firm on the point that foundations have the Constitutional “right to disburse [funds]” in any way they choose (pp. 15-16). This “autonomous” right to freedom of grantmaking is a position that has a large following, reflected in the membership of Philanthropy Roundtable. (I may return to this topic later, as there’s also interesting going-ons with those who believe that foundations should be considered as having tax immunity (freedom from government) than tax subsidy of helping re-distribute wealth [see, for example, Reid, 2013].)

This type of critic does not upset any apple carts and, in fact, makes the case for why those in power should stay in power: Elites still get to be elites, and their ability to self-initiate any improvements in charitable practice depends on them staying in power. This notion of philanthropic elites is an important notion well established by a body of research generated by a group of smart women whose names, coincidentally, all start with “o.” Odendahl (1990), Ostrander (1984), and Ostrower (1995) studied the elites and found that their participation on nonprofit boards and their charitable giving reified their elite status, placing them in a social circle of other elites and reinforcing class divisions between high and low.

The other type of response to critics of private foundations is to accuse them as being a Marxist enemy of capitalism and, hence, undemocratic. Take, for example, Fleishman’s criticism of Roelofs’s (2003) book “Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism.” Fleishman warned: “There is a small body of Marxist-oriented scholarship about foundations, much of it politically marginal and factually shaky” (cited in Van Til, 2008, p. 124). I’m both discouraged and ashamed that such a revered foundation scholar like Fleishman takes to dismissive name calling (come on, can’t we have an intellectual debate without accusing people of being a sickle-wielding communist?).

Roelofs’s work has as much of an important place on foundation executives’ book shelves as Fleishman’s works do, particularly among funders who want to redress social inequities and not inadvertently re-institute them. Roelofs (2007) perceived private foundations through a critical lens of power and social inequities (listen up all you social justice funders!). She contended that private foundations reinforce the existing social order “promoting consent and discouraging dissent against capitalist democracy” (p. 480). For example, intellectuals who are disenfranchised by the existing social order and want to promote change often find an outlet in being employed within the nonprofit sector, such as private foundations. (This pretty much describes every smart, value-forward program officer I know.) By being employed in an industry that depended on capitalism for its success, these folks are quieted by their involvement in these civil society entities, which exerts a cooling effect on the possibility of a revolution that fights against the established hegemony (Roelofs, 2007). (Hmm, maybe Egypt’s best way to stymie revolution is to proliferate its own civil society institutions!) Roelofs (2007) posited that the United States is without the kind of protest movements that marked the 1960s and 1970s because of philanthropic institutions that exert social control: “Radical activism was often transformed by foundation grants and technical assistance into fragmented and local organizations subject to elite control” (p. 485).

Does Roelofs sound like a revolutionary manifesto? Not to me, but that may be because I’ve felt personally the cooling effects of working for private foundations. Any program staff member who has worked for many years in a foundation (after the stars have fallen from their eyes) would likely find Roelofs’s message to be a no-duh, not a polemic. (Yes, working for foundations does provide wonderful opportunities to make change, but I’ll talk about those in another post.) There have been moments when low levels of wealth redistribution, which make no dent in addressing the gross inequalities and inequities in society, frustrated me. A concrete example of this is foundations’ efforts to pay out only the bare-minimum amount of 5% distribution of assets rather than give away more money to truly try and fulfill their missions. Hence, I welcome Roelofs’s contribution to the literature, which helps funders be more enlightened about and effective in attempting to redress inequities–an effort that is directly in line with creating a more democratic society.

In the last decade, there has been a renewed effort for ‘social justice philanthropy’ to try and solve inequities of resources, opportunities, and power. For those of you in that camp (and anyone else), you may be interested in learning more along the lines of what I’ve written about here. This line of thinking about how foundations reflect or fight the negative effects of capitalism is important because it helps illuminate how your foundation may be accidentally complicit in re-enacting injustices. The learning from these writings is the intellectual basis for how your foundation can ‘move the needle’ permanently in your funding, rather than ‘move the needle’ temporarily as so many foundations do. There is a still-too-small body of writing that critiques private philanthropy but for more, start with Robert Arnove’s writings in the 1980s. He pioneered thinking about ‘liberal’ foundations that tried to fight inequities but actually ended up re-enacting socio-economic systems in grantmaking that corroded democratic accountability in decision-making. See also the special May 2007 issue of the periodical “Critical Sociology” critiquing private foundations, which includes an article by Feldman (2007) who attests to Arnove and Roelofs’s contentions by describing how progressive journalists and nonprofits avoid scrutinizing private foundations inadvertently because of subservience to private foundation funding.

Works Cited

Feldman, B. (2007). Report from the field: Left media and left think tanks–Foundation-managed protest? Critical Sociology,33(3), 427–446. doi:10.1163/156916307X188979

Fleishman, J. L. (2009). The foundation: A great American secret; how private wealth is changing the world. New York, NY: Public Affairs. Retrieved from

Odendahl, T. (1990). Charity begins at home: Generosity and self-interest among the philanthropic elite. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers.

Ostrander, S. (1984). Women of the upper class. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Ostrower, F. (1995). Why the wealthy give: The culture of elite philanthropy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Reid, A. (2013). Renegotiating the charitable deduction. The Exempt Organization Tax Review71(1), 21–31. Retrieved from

Roelofs, J. (2003). Foundations and public policy: The mask of pluralism. State University of New York Press.

Roelofs, J. (2007). Foundations and collaboration. Critical Sociology33(3), 479–504. doi:10.1163/156916307X188997

Van Til, J. (2008). Searching for critical issues in philanthropy. Nonprofit Management and Leadership19(1), 123–128. doi:10.1002/nml.209

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