Is There a Future for the Academic Study of the Philanthropic Foundation?

May 20, 2010

In my first post I mentioned that both Joan Spero and Stephen Heintz, speaking at the Foundation Center session in New York on Monday, had expressed disappointment in both press and academic coverage of private philanthropic foundations. I think they are right to be concerned, but the press situation is easier to understand. It has been true for some time that only a few reporters have ever been assigned to a philanthropy (much less a philanthropic foundation) beat, and few editors assign reporters to specific stories relating to the field. The New York Times has occasionally done better, and we are lucky to have Stephanie Strom on a philanthropy beat at the moment. But normally it takes a scandal or a speech by Senator Grassley to attract the attention of the press to what foundations do.
What about academic coverage of philanthropic foundations? The optimistic response would be to say that there have been quite a number of good books on foundations published in the past decade or so. Starting close to home, the most obvious example would be Joel Fleishman’s 2007 The Foundation: A Great American Secret—How Private Wealth Is Changing the World, which has the unique virtue of being a serious academic study by an experienced foundation manager. Going back a little more than a decade, probably the most helpful book has been a 1999 collection of essays edited by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Philanthropic Foundations: New Scholarship, New Possibilities. The volume contains work by most of the best scholars who have thought seriously about foundations, including Peter Dobkin Hall, David Hammack, Peter Frumkin, Alice O’Connor, Craig Jenkins, Barry Karl, Ruth Crocker, and Susan Ostrander. There has also been a recent series of biographies of philanthropists who created some of our most important foundations, including Julius Rosenwald, Mrs. Russell Sage, and Andrew Carnegie. This work constitutes a substantial body of scholarship, and it has enabled us to construct at least the history of the institution, which is more or less exactly one century old at this point in time: Russell Sage celebrated its centenary in 2007, the Carnegie Corporation celebrates it this year, and the Rockefeller Foundation reaches 100 years in 2013.
That’s part of the good news. There are now two respected learned societies (ARNOVA and ISTR) with scholarly journals (NVSQ and Voluntas).  There are several fine academic centers (of which Ed Skloot’s project at Duke is the newest) that specialize in aspects of the field, and a much larger body of work that concerns itself with the nonprofit (or “Third”) sector more broadly. So why are Spero and Heintz disappointed? I think the reason may be that on the whole the historians have done better by the foundation field than have the social scientists. Among the names I listed from the Lagemann volume, only Frumkin and Jenkins are really social scientists, and few of their colleagues have been interested in understanding either the internal dynamics of the foundation as a social institution or its role in the political economy of the United States (or other countries or the world). There are of course distinguished exceptions to this generalization (mostly sociologists such as Paul DiMaggio, Woody Powell, and Francie Ostrower), but on the whole there is not much social science analysis being done on foundations. I began to study the history of foundations in the mid-1970s when the Rockefeller Archive Center opened its doors, and I am only one of a large number of historians who have been drawn to the field by the increasing availability of historical records.
But social scientists need current data. They need access to foundation managers, records, and grantee data.  And of course these are precisely the data that foundations guard so jealously. In part, of course, both the foundations and their grantees deserve to have their privacy protected, and in some cases the law requires it. But if other foundation executives share the interest of Joan Spero and Stephen Heintz in learning more about their institutions, they will have to be more thoughtful and welcoming in permitting, even encouraging, social scientists to study their behavior. A new transparency of this sort would be a splendid way to usher in the second century of the American philanthropic foundation!

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