Review: The Foundation–A Great American Secret; How Private Wealth is Changing the World

5 Star, Associations & Foundations
Amazon Page
Amazon Page
5.0 out of 5 stars ESSENTIAL Primer, the Good, the Bad, and the Recommended
October 18, 2007
This is a very helpful book, indeed, a unique book. Here are some of the notes I took. As one of 24 co-founders of a new 501c3, the Earth Intelligence Network, created to provide decision support to foundations, the United Nations, NGOs, and others seeking to address the ten high-level threats to Humanity, I could not have found a more relevant work.

A few notes:

* Foundations are the dynamo of social change, with three roles varying from foundation to foundation: as driver, as partner, or as catalyst.
* The author is very critical of the general state of mismanagement and in some cases, lack of clear ethical guidelines or stated values, and says the field must do better.
* In his view, and his case studies bear this out, foundations are an enormous force for good, but they are unregulated, unaccountable, and if they are to retain the tax breaks and the trust of the people, they must change their process, their governance, and their attitude–this will, in the author’s words, strengthen the social contract within which they are given so much leeway.
* He states that foundations *need* a decision-making process (music to my ears) and also a progress-checking system.
* He clearly communicates the willy-nilly state of many foundation programs, their lack of boundaries and focus, and hence their relative lack of impact. He states that many underperform, are insulated, and are arrogant.
* A positive quote (the book is generally positive and constructive) from page 3: “Foundations enable the creation of countless civil sector organizations–groups dealing with human rights, civil liberties, social policy experimentation, public advocacy, environmental protection, knowledge generation, human capital building, and service delivery, among other causes–and assist them in building national, regional, and local constituencies that move into the forefront of continuing social change. Elsewhere in the book he points out that in many areas, foundations preceeded and inspired later government programs.
* He is careful to point out that foundations have had limited success with education, health care, and poverty, and that in the face of global challenges (e.g. the ten high level threats to Humanity) the best they can do is educate the public and press government for action. I disagree. If foundations could collaborate with the United Nations UN) and leverage the Multinational Decision Support Center (MDSC) that we are trying to create in Tampa, Florida, they could among themselves agree to take on specific elements of a $230 billion a year program that Medard Gabel has been researching for ten years.
* He points out that US foundations take in 1.1 trillion a year in revenues, but only dole out $33.6 billion a year. In my view, given the enormous value of preventive action, I believe the foundations should be required to dole out 20% of their endowment in the first year of a concerted global program, and then so much as to keep the endowment steady, not hoarding and growing.
* While the “overarching objective” of foundations is large-scale social change, the author notes that they are peripheral players *unless they can organize and catalyze in the aggregate–precisely what the UN and the MDSC could help them do.
* He laments the current lack among most foundations of the “scientific method” that the Carnegies and Rockefellers first imposed, to wit: 1) get the facts; 2) identify problems precisely; 3) study options for action; 4) identify supporting and opposing stakeholders; and 5) plan for action. He blames the predominantly academic leadership of foundations today for the loss of “business” rigor and focus.
* The bottom line in this book appears with regularity in these pages: without goal setting and progress measuring, most foundation programs are simply arbitrary give-a-ways. He admires the Carnegie “Appraisal List” as a good starting point. He points out that neither inputs nor outputs matter; what matters is outcome.
* He lists all that ails foundations, a list that includes arrogance, discourtesy, inaccessibility, arbitrariness, failure to communicate, foundation Attention Deficit Disorder, lack of accountability, invisibility, scholarly void, and political vulnerability.
* The balance of the book consists of chapters that are extremely helpful, and here to whet the potential buyer’s interest, I will simply list five core aspects of the book.
* Strategies and practices include (with subheadings not shown here):
* Creating and disseminating knowledge
* Building human capital
* Public policy advocacy
* Changing public attitudes
* Changing the law
* Creating a blue ribbon commission
* Offering an award or prize
* Building a model through a pilot program
* Financing litigation
* Building institutions
* Building physical plant
* Catalyzing partnerships among foundation
* Catalyzing partnerships with the for-profit sector
* Ways of recognizing impact include:
* Major benefits to the public
* Expansion of knowledge
* Helping to launch a movement
* Catalyzing an urgent social change
* Taking an initiative to scale
* Characteristics of high-impact programs (with much detail for each):
* Focus
* Alignment
* Due diligence about the problem
* Due diligence about the solution
* Intelligent talent selection
* Due diligence about prospective grant-receiving organizations
* Entrepreneurial riskp-taking
* Optemistic thinking
* Independence
* Effective grantee selection and management
* Long-term thinking and commitment
* Maintaining focus and alignment over time

There is a chapter on how foundations fail, and certainly this entire book, and especially this chapter, need to be read by any foundation executive–or any prospective donor to any foundation.

This is a truly great and helpful book. I put it down thinking to myself, “my goodness, not only does the United Nations need an Assistant Secretary General for Decision Support, but so also do the foundations in the aggregate.” Worthy book!

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