by Robert O. Bothwell
American foundations are still captured by "The Rationalist Trap." This was evident at the recent 25th anniversary reception of the MacArthur Foundation, as I listened to Jonathan Fanton, the Foundation 's President. Here is the trap: Since their origins in the early 1900s, America's big foundations have strongly embraced the doctrine that science can better society. Just as the physical sciences made major improvements in people's lives in medicine, health care, food production and storage, transportation and more, the social sciences offered the same life-altering promises. Although fault lines have appeared in this thinking, the doctrine still holds sway.
Mr. Fanton talked about how important it was for the MacArthur Foundation to fund research which can affect public policy. The bells rang in my head. I had just been to New York the week before, discussing with two major foundations the conservative public policy onslaught in the U.S. and what progressives can do about it. Also, I had conducted a telephone survey last fall of key people at 12 foundations nationally known for involvement in public policy. I was struck by how few foundations understood the underwhelming importance of research, data, rational presentation and discussion in making public policy in the U.S. today.
I checked this out with a friend who is president of a major environmental organization. He retorted that he and a colleague recently assessed that only 5% of policy decisions can be attributed to research, data and rational discussion -- that 95% are due to public education, advocacy and spending of much special interest money.
A "philanthropic revolution" took place in the early twentieth century, according to historian James Allen Smith, about how the big new foundations, such as Carnegie and Rockefeller, "aspired to use scientific methods to comprehend and to remedy social and economic problems....[They had] an almost religious faith in scientifically guided progress." The onset of the Great Depression and its terrible impact on people 's lives, Smith observed, helped erode foundations ' "faith in social science research" as the answer to society 's problems.
Indeed, today, rather than relying on social science research, there are some foundations with substantial commitments to advancing social and economic justice through rights-based legal and policy strategies. The Ford Foundation certainly exemplifies these foundations. There are also some foundations which provide substantial grant money for community organizing or national advocacy, based on real experiences in people 's lives requiring response and action, utilizing research honoring these experiences. Foundations in this category are the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the many members of the National Network of Grantmakers, a progressive spin-off of the establishment Council on Foundations.
Yet, most foundations interested in affecting public policy today still rely far too heavily on the rationalist approach: they fund much more research as the fulcrum for public policy change than they fund community and national advocacy. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Andrew W. Mellon foundations and now MacArthur Foundation all epitomize this rationalist approach. (These foundations each had assets of $1.7 - 4.6 billion in 1999.) To illustrate, all U.S. foundations granted over three times as much to colleges, universities, graduate schools and social science organizations in 2000 as to civil rights organizations, environmental agencies and animal/wildlife agencies. Or consider that all foundations granted over four times as much for research grants for all purposes compared to grants for civil rights, social action, environmental policy, advocacy and pollution control the same year. (These ratios, from Foundation Center reports, present only an imperfect picture, because more precise data are simply unavailable.)
The foundations in The Rationalist Trap are rarely those interested in a politically conservative policy agenda. No, the trapped foundations are mostly liberal foundations, that is, those who believe in government and civic/nonprofit intervention in helping the poorest and worst off in society gain better footholds. These liberal foundations seem to think they must be objective, look at all the facts, balance the pros and cons, encourage widespread public debate and bring all the affected parties to the table, before they ever get around to supporting any advocates who are poor and oppressed by the heavy weight of unregulated capitalism (such as the 42 million of the U.S. population who have no health benefits or insurance). But let us remember one thing that the social sciences definitely have taught us, even if not how to solve social problems: there is no such thing as true objectivity. One 's upbringing, religion, ethnicity, education, biases and myriad other factors all interfere with objectivity.
Unlike the liberal foundations, foundations with politically conservative policy orientations worry little about such objectivity in funding research. The only answers they seek are sound bites to promote reduced taxes and minimalist government. And they have been tremendously successful in the past generation in mainstreaming these concepts and converting them into practical politics. The liberal and center-of-the-road foundations must wake up to this disappearance of government 's capacity to affect the lives of those in need.
Reprinted with permission from Philanthropy in Europe magazine, editor Karina Holly,Karina@wanadoo.fr
Robert O. Bothwell Principal, VISIONS REALIZED. President Emeritus, First Director/President, Senior Fellow, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 1976-2002. Formerly staff at National Urban Coalition, Center for the Study of Public Policy, U.S. Conference of Mayors/National League of Cities, U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity and NASA. Author or publisher of over 30 reports on philanthropy, civil society, accountability, social justice and public policy. Led national movement creating "alternatives" to the United Way. Challenged foundations to reevaluate their grant making in light of conservative takeover of Congress/public policy. Initiated first public examinations of community foundations and their responsiveness to the disenfranchised, and of corporate grant making to racial/ethnic populations. Expanded disclosure of critical information by foundations and nonprofits to grant seekers and the public.