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7 (Bad) Habits of (In)effective Foundations

William A. Schambra

SUMMARY: As a result of the professionalization of philanthropy during the 20th century and its reliance on social science to diagnose and address social problems, foundations are now subject to several fundamental errors in their operations, argues William Schambra. The first is the problem of technocracy. Because social problems are construed as technical problems, the possibilities for addressing them are limited to technical, procedural solutions. As a result, foundations are more willing to fund short-term projects than long-term general support costs, which are actually more adaptable to changing circumstances and more likely to allow for innovation.

The size and intricacy of foundations has also led to an inefficient obsession with evaluation, and with involving all stakeholders in decision-making. In this insulated environment, foundations strive to win each others approval rather than to challenge the status quo. Ultimately, the professionalized, scientific thinking of foundations has created an aversion to advocacy among them and a distrust of democracy. In areas where innovation and swift adaptation are most needed, like school reform, traditional foundations have shown themselves to be the most ineffective investors in reform. In contrast, foundations that have eschewed the social science ethic for seemingly messier community and individual choice approaches have been the most effective at starting up charter schools and funding voucher programs.

Letters to the editor in response to this piece appeared in the subsequent two issues of the Chronicle, February 23 (by Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson and Joel Berg of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger) and March 9 (Gara LaMarche of the Open Society Institute). 

The Chronicle of Philanthropy mastheadFOR ALL THEIR bold talk, foundations today are making a remarkably limited impact on public policy. That is because they are locked into some bad habits that render their grant making less effective than it might otherwise be.

Those habits flow from one significant, erroneous assumption about how public policy is transformed. Foundations assume that positive change can only come from within the system, not from without. That’s no accident, since modern American philanthropy played a key role in developing and cultivating the large, complex, and sophisticated social and political institutions and professions that make up the system.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York led the way at the beginning of the 20th century through grants designed to modernize, rationalize, and professionalize the fields of law, medicine, and higher education. The early Rockefeller Foundation invested heavily in the new social sciences, which promised to help us understand and manage human behavior on a mass scale, while the Russell Sage Foundation focused on creating a new social-welfare profession, to rationalize how charity was dispensed to the needy.

Equipped with powerful new developments in the natural and social sciences, the modernized professions aimed to understand and master complicated contemporary forces like industrialization and urbanization, and to harness them to the service of an objective, rational, collective public interest.

Public policy was no longer the province of messy partisan disputes among unenlightened citizens. It had been reconceived as a series of discrete technical problems to be analyzed and solved by trained technocrats.

Over time, and with the support of the major foundations, a powerful, centralized federal government rose, and promised to be the encompassing rational coordinator and generous financier of a vast new array of expertise-driven social services. Today philanthropy itself is becoming ever more professionalized, with the development of academic fields like nonprofit and philanthropy studies, the boom in university centers providing training and research, and the growth in size and power of professional associations.

Deeply and historically committed to the modern systems of expertise and experts, it is no surprise that foundations today typically view the solution to any problem as applying more of the same. Even foundation and nonprofit “advocacy“  which might suggest pressure exerted against the system  is simply code for efforts to preserve it. Almost always, advocacy means protecting the money and prerogatives of publicly supported social services against mean-spirited electorates or public officials.

The inability of foundations to escape the gravitational pull of the system leads directly to the seven bad habits of ineffective foundations. They are:

Technocratic tendencies. Once public policy is reconceived as a series of tidy, manageable technical problems amenable to applied expertise, there is little chance of venturing too far outside the lines of the status quo in a search for solutions. Proposals for reform will focus on “capacity building“  on upgrading existing technology and retraining existing technocrats  not on challenging the authority of the technocracy itself.

As Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus noted in their controversial essay, “The Death of Environmentalism,” that movement’s political vision is severely constricted because it “became defined around using science to define the problem as ‘environmental’ and crafting technical policy programs as solutions.” The result has been that grant makers continue to plow money into the same narrow projects, without hope for substantial change.

Project propensity. Like any scientific problem, apparently public policy can be broken down into a series of finite projects, which nonprofit groups can define and foundations can support according to a precise work plan. That’s why foundations give so much money for projects, rather than general operations.

Foundations are more likely to bring about significant change when they offer general-support grants, however, since that kind of money allows front-line nonprofit groups to react, innovate, maneuver, and exploit unanticipated opportunities. Such change is less likely to occur when an organization must plod dutifully through the confined, limited steps it promised to follow in a project proposal.

Short-term shackles. Central to the promise of technocracy is the notion that progress should be quickly and clearly discernable over the short term. If a project falls short, the foundation quickly loses interest in it, and moves on to the next social experiment. Significant change, however, is highly unlikely to occur over the short term, particularly within the three-to-five-year framework set for most projects. Indeed, it can involve decades of steady, determined pressure, with almost as many steps backward as forward.

Measurement mania. From the first dollars that the Rockefeller Foundation put into the Brookings Institution, foundations believed they were slowly constructing a uniform statistical system that would permit us to weigh and measure the dimensions of, and our progress against, our public problems.


That optimism has faded, and today more than 100 systems of assessing results vie for adoption by foundations and nonprofit organizations.

The rise and fall of so many approaches makes impossible a comprehensive, systematic comparison of results over time. Yet that is, after all, the whole point of measurement. Beyond hollow promises, though, the real problem with the mania to measure is that it compels a focus on limited and easily calibrated problems, rather than on those that are more complicated but less measurable.

The cult of collaboration. Overhauling any public system from within is difficult because each one has so many “stakeholders.” That situation helped generate philanthropy’s cult of collaboration, which requires all the stakeholders to be brought to the table for negotiation of a mutually agreeable solution. Indeed, the development of “public-private partnerships” and “community consortiums” has become almost an end in itself for many foundations.

Nothing could more effectively guarantee the failure of significant change than making it contingent on the sign-off of all the parties strongly invested in the status quo. To be sure, the stakeholders have become rather adept at staging the kabuki rituals of collaboration, at least as long as the money is available. But as soon as it’s gone, the system no longer even pretends to have changed.

Plaque passion. Philanthropic technocrats are persuaded that their high-minded objectivity and rationality give them an uncluttered view of the public interest. This self-understanding is reinforced by the growing display of plaques and awards on the tastefully papered walls of headquarters, proclaiming them “humanitarian of the year.”

Since the largest and most prestigious awards come from the leading institutions of the status quo, a passion for plaques severely limits the amount of change for which a foundation is likely to agitate. To generate serious change, more often than not it is necessary to provoke serious opposition. There are few awards for that.

Distrust of democracy. Foundations often profess reluctance to engage seriously in promoting political change because they are uncertain how far the law permits them to go. Nonsense.

The law regarding advocacy is clear, simple, and generous. A deeper reason for reticence is a distrust of democracy  a preference for the neat, orderly policy making of professional experts over the uncontrollable political melee that breaks out when frustrated citizens rise up against remote, unresponsive elites.

Better not to trigger that sort of unrest by raising questions about the basic fairness or effectiveness of our large systems. But failing to enlist popular majorities on behalf of change is to leave idle the force outside the system most likely to compel significant change within.

The ineffectiveness of foundations is nowhere more apparent than in the realm of elementary and secondary education. The system itself is unmistakably, fundamentally broken, especially for poor children who live in big cities.

Yet the imagination of most grant makers in education cannot move beyond that system’s horizon. Their dollars go toward training and recruiting more and better teachers and principals, alternately centralizing and decentralizing school governance, alternately enlarging and shrinking the size of schools, and investing in the latest teaching fads.

Their confidence in the efficacy of expert-designed, technocratic fixes is unshaken; they scatter dollars among limited, superficial, short-term projects; and they do nothing without first enlisting support from a collaborative partnership of the full range of powerful interests whose chief goal is to preserve the status quo.

Small wonder that these foundations have so little to show for their money.

By contrast, other grant makers  foremost among them the late John Walton, son of the founder of Wal-Mart  have backed charter schools and tuition-assistance programs for private and parochial schools.


The promise of this approach is that it puts the power of choosing schools back in the hands of parents, thereby bringing to bear an enormous and hitherto untapped source of political pressure for change. As Joe Williams, an education journalist, argues in his book, Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education, “Philanthropists must understand that it is possible to reform the inside of school systems by poking and prodding from the outside and by supporting the parent-consumers who have the best chance of demanding better results for their children.”

Grant makers who push the idea of parental choice have broken free of the confines of technocratic tinkering.

They support activists with general operating support for extended periods, realizing that progress is not easily calibrated, coming as it does by fits and starts over the long haul. They realize that seeking collaboration among the system’s stakeholders is a prescription for stalemate.

Most important, parental choice is rooted in a trust of democracy. It trusts parents to select the schools best for their children, even though they choose a bewilderingly diverse array of educational settings, in defiance of one-size-fits-all experts.

The battle to establish and preserve school choice, furthermore, revitalizes the politics of school districts, stimulating a serious, often contentious debate over education reform in which finally the voice of parents is heard.

The politics of parental choice, in short, begins to re-establish the messy, unpredictable, genuinely democratic politics of an earlier era, which the stable, orderly rule of experts was designed to replace.


But given the centrality of American foundations in the effort to install the rule of professionals, and given their own growing professionalization, it is easy to see why so few foundations can break themselves of the seven bad habits that render them ineffective.

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