"Citizen 501(c)(3)" by Nicholas Lemann, in The Atlantic Monthly (Feb. 1997), 77 N. Washington St., Boston, Mass. 02114; "The Billions of Dollars That Made Things Worse" by Heather Mac Donald, in City Journal (Autumn 1996), 52 Vanderbilt Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017.
Philanthropic foundations have become increasingly important in American life—and increasingly political, argues Lemann, the Atlantic Monthly’s national correspondent. Since 1980, the assets of the 25 largest foundations have more than doubled in real terms—to $55 billion—and the grants given by the 25 most generous foundations have grown to more than $2 billion. In response to the rise of aggressively conservative foundations in recent years, Lemann contends, large foundations with "a distinctly liberal cast" have become "more political" themselves. For example, the Ford Foundation contributed $1.4 million last year to activities aimed at defending affirmative action from attack.
But Mac Donald, a contributing editor of City Journal and John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says that the Ford Foundation began promoting a liberal agenda in the 1960s, when (among other misguided projects) it sponsored a disastrous school decentralization experiment in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The experiment produced racial and ethnic turmoil, a citywide teachers’ strike that shut schools down for nearly two months, and a lasting legacy in New York of bitterness between blacks and Jews. But the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and other large foundations soon followed Ford’s example and adopted social-change agendas. Their efforts, Mac Donald maintains, have helped to create "not a more just but a more divided and contentious American society."
Believing that discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, class, and ethnicity is widespread in America, for example, Ford and other foundations, she says, have poured money into universities in efforts to promote "diversity," ethnic studies, and gender studies. Between 1972 and ’92, women’s studies alone received $36 million from Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mott, Mellon, and other foundations.
Though some conservative foundations have risen to prominence in recent years, Mac Donald says, they are vastly outnumbered, and outspent, by liberal foundations. In 1994, while the Olin Foundation, the leading funder of conservative scholarship on campus, gave a total of $13 million in grants, the Ford Foundation contributed $42 million in the fields of education and culture alone.
Despite their increased influence in American life, Lemann observes, foundations are largely spared the sort of scrutiny that government routinely gets from the news media and the voters. "That ought to change," he believes. Mac Donald would doubtless agree.