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May 18, 2010

Yesterday I went to a very interesting panel at the Foundation Center on “The Global Role of U.S. Foundations.” The session was built around a paper with the same title (ISBN 978-1-59542-312-2—not yet available on the web), just published by the Center. The author and presenter was Joan Spero, who recently retired as the founding president of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Spero’s board gave her a post-presidential sabbatical during which she was based at the Foundation Center so that she could undertake a research project on global philanthropy. (I consulted with Joan before she began, and read a late draft of her paper.) I urge you to read this paper if you are interested at all in global philanthropy.
Spero begins with a brief survey of the long history of international philanthropy—for the Rockefellers and many of the other early philanthropists invested in international projects, usually in public health (which is still the dominant area of foundation investment abroad). But she underlines the sea change in philanthropy that has resulted from the tremendous creation of wealth in the United States over the past twenty years. Her published report has some fine charts (based on the excellent data provided by the Foundation Center) showing the increase in the number of foundations and the wealth they control, as well as the substantial increase in their commitment to what she calls “global” philanthropy. It is indeed striking that 24.4% of all U.S. foundation grant dollars were invested abroad in 2008. Spero argues, convincingly, that this surge of international interest represents an important post-Cold War reorientation for the American philanthropic community. Philanthropic investment has dominantly been in the developing world (as defined by the Center), with somewhat lesser interest in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia/Pacific region. The primary areas of philanthropic investment have been overwhelmingly in health, international development, and the environment.
Spero is generally sanguine about U.S. global philanthropy, though she notes several serious areas of concern: How can we assess the impact of these investments? How can foundations responsibly exit programs they have funded so massively? How can such ambitious philanthropic programs be sustained? And how such should programs be understood in relation to governmental foreign assistance (are we undergoing a privatization of foreign aid?)? Spero also noted the serious question of how such programs can (should) be held accountable. Despite these concerns, Spero sees significant progress in health, democracy building, and the promotion of peace and security. Her own foundation was of course heavily involved in global philanthropy, and Spero is doubtless representative of the best of America’s philanthropic leaders, who are fairly confident that they have been doing the right things abroad.
The commentators yesterday were two accomplished and experienced foundation executives, Stephen Heintz of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Bradford Smith, the president of the Foundation Center. Heintz made the point that American foundations should not be ethnocentric—what’s good for the world is going to be good for American (rather than the other way around). He agreed with Spero that U.S. foundations are doing really creative work abroad. But he gave his own version of the history of foundation involvement abroad, and stressed the difficulty for foundations in relating to official American policies abroad. He used China as an example of how challenging it is for foundations to do the right thing without actually challenging state policies in another country, even when those policies (the repression of human rights, for instance) are contrary to the values of the foundation. He also addressed the accountability problem, stressing the need for transparency (better websites), representative boards, and the like. Brad Smith underscored the relatively small size of foundation investment relative to that of the government, and pointed to the role of non-U.S. foundations. He worried whether U.S. foundations might appear part of American “soft power,” and questioned the degree of collaboration across American global foundations. He asked whether foundations were taking sufficient risk, and doing enough to support indigenous philanthropy.
I thought that all the speakers were excellent. The panel raised many questions that have seldom been adequately addressed by the foundation community. The speakers noted the paucity of press coverage and academic commentary on global philanthropy. Smith, in particularly, worried that foundations have not been adept at communications—making the case for what they do best. The discussion following the presentations was also lively (though I could not stay to the end)—and I want to return to this tomorrow, to express some concerns about foundation performance that occurred to me during the session.