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Rob Reich’s piece on the value of private foundations in civil society left me both provoked and unfulfilled. It was like an interesting, analytic, and informative weather report: enlightening, but is there a damn thing we can or should do about it?
I say “two thumbs up” on the compelling arguments Reich poses to support the “oddity” known as the modern philanthropic foundation. Neither Reich’s pluralism argument nor his discovery argument is new, but both are artfully presented and neatly summarize the fundamental roles that institutional philanthropy must play in civil society.
From my standpoint running a large, statewide foundation committed to improving the health of underserved, low-income, marginalized communities, Reich’s two principal arguments certainly hit home. The communities we serve—struggling mightily against the challenges of poverty, violence, unemployment, and lethal absences of hope—can only move forward if their voices are heard and their ideas for problem solving have lift and take flight. Our work is less about charity and more about change.
But I’m not certain why Reich and others go to such lengths to justify or defend the institutional oddity of private foundations. Foundations are necessary tools of democracies powered by private markets. They are odd because democratic civil societies are, by their nature, “odd”—there is no rational justification for their sustainability and success. Reportedly, when Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Institutional philanthropy is required to make our odd governance structure work.
America’s 225-plus-year evolutionary experiment with a workable democracy remains just that, and institutional philanthropy remains one of the tools required to help make this odd governance structure work—the very same governance structure that Tocqueville marveled at in Democracy in America.
And Reich falls short in putting forward options or recommendations to address the critical question he poses. He tells us that “learning more about [foundations’] performance, and judging it against the standards of fostering pluralism and encouraging discovery, is . . . an urgent task,” but where exactly is the urgency, and what are the proposed tasks?
The most compelling market failures of our civil society—for which pluralism and discovery are relevant—are poverty and income inequality. These twin scourges threaten the vibrancy and dynamism of America’s middle class. If I were America’s czar for philanthropy, I would assertively push for bipartisan approaches, through Congress, to tax-incentivize a more meaningful and robust philanthropic effort against poverty. Whether the ideas to reduce poverty and strengthen the middle class emerge from the political right or left matters not. It is fundamentally clear that economic vitality is the mother’s milk of our republic, and we sure as hell need these ideas in order to maintain it.
Robert K. Ross is President & CEO of The California Endowment. He served as director of the Health and Human Services Agency for the County of San Diego from 1993 to 2000, and was Commissioner of Public Health for the City of Philadelphia from 1990 to 1993.
The modern foundation is an institutional oddity in a democracy. A democratic society is committed to the equality of citizens, but foundations are the voice of plutocracy.
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