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Review :: Organizing
"Foundations and Public Policy" A Book Review
08 Nov 2004
A review of book which exposes the powerful role that U.S. Establishment Foundations play in U.S. mainstream and U.S. dissident left politics.
Foundation Power 101

Joan Roelofs
(State University of New York Press, 2003)

reviewed by bob f.

If the economics, sociology or political science courses you took in college did not devote much time to discussing the role foundations play in the world, then reading Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism by Joan Roelofs might be one way to quickly learn about foundation power. Roelofs, a professor of Political Science at Keene State College, notes that she "wrote the book primarily to reveal the power that has been largely obscured both in popular accounts of our society and in the more specialized political science literature."
Writing from a radical left, intellectually critical perspective, Roelofs asserts that "the liberal foundations try to hide their hands and do not encourage critical research" about themselves and "also become invisible by working through buffer organizations," such as the Social Science Research Council. She also argues that "foundations themselves are buffer institutions, serving the corporate interests of their origin, their trustees, and their investments."

Following an introductory chapter, Roelofs makes the case that foundations are extremely powerful social institutions. She begins by explaining what foundations are, how they have been viewed historically by their critics and their supporters, and how they dominate the "non-profit" world or "third sector" of the U.S. economy.

Robber barons like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller reinvented themselves as "philanthropists" in the early 20th-century, by establishing elite foundations such as the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Since then, critical studies of foundations (from both politically left and politically right perspectives) have received "less and less attention as the years go by," according to Roelofs. One reason, in her view, is because there "has been a well-organized public relations effort on philanthropy's behalf."

As an example of a previously popular critical study, Roelofs mentions Horace Coon's Money To Burn, which "emphasized the interlocking directorates and financial interests of foundation trustees" and "aimed especially well at the war industries represented on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace board." She also cites Ferdinand Lundberg's books such as The Rich and the Super-Rich and The Rockefeller Syndrome and Ben Whitaker's The Foundations--which was "inspired by the 1967 revelations that foundations were fronting for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) projects."

The changing legal status of foundations in U.S. society, especially in relation to their continued tax-exempt status, is also examined by Roelofs. In addition, a statistical portrait of the economic power of foundations and the rest of the U.S. "non-profit" world is provided. She observes, for instance, that "the planning and coordinating arms" of the non-profit U.S. economic sector or "independent sector"--the foundations--have assets of about $450 billion, with the largest private foundations being the Gates Foundation ($21 billion, the Lilly Endowment ($16 billion) and the Ford Foundation ($15 billion). She then describes the various ways that the "third sector"/non-profit world--which foundations fund--"largely function as a protective layer for capitalism."

One "protective technique of the nonprofit sector" that Roelofs mentions is "co-optation." She argues that "foundations and NGOs in the United States provide jobs for the sons and daughters of the elite who might otherwise be unemployed and disaffected, along with people of any class who are dissident and politically dangerous."

Individual chapters of Foundations and Public Policy demonstrate in more specific detail how the economic power of the liberal foundations is translated into the power to set the agenda in various fields. There's a chapter, entitled "Ideology and Information," which describes the hegemonic role of foundation ideology, propagated via think tanks, academic disciplines and the media." In this chapter, Roelofs provides some groundbreaking exposure of how the Rockefeller, Carnegie and Ford foundations shaped academic political science during the 20th-century and promoted concepts like "multiculturalism" and "civic renewal"--in a way that served "Cold War strategies". She also asserts that the liberal foundations encouraged the fragmentation of the 1960s global New Left by promoting "identity politics" and "helped transform radical movements into professional-led scholarly or bureaucratic organizations." She also briefly recalls in this chapter how dissident anti-war political scientists formed the "Caucus for New Political Science" within the American Political Science Association (APSA) in 1967. Besides opposing the APSA convention's lack of concern with the Vietnam War and mass protest movements, the Caucus for New Political Science raised the issue at this time of "foundations' influence on research topic choices and foundations' connections to political science more generally."

Another chapter, entitled "Reforming Governments," summarizes the role the liberal foundations played in the 20th-century in influencing the direction of local, national and international governmental reform and of educational reform. The push for Congress to pass in 1921 the Budget and Accounting Act, "which turned budget interests over to the president and a newly created Bureau of the Budget," for instance, was led by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Trustee Robert Brookings and Rockefeller Foundation men.

Other chapters show how foundations exercise power in the arts/cultural world and illustrate the role of liberal foundations in shaping the programs of non-profit/third sector groups that respond to the failure of the U.S. corporate economy to eliminate poverty and economic inequality within U.S. society. Another chapter, entitled "Foundations and the Legal System" documents the specific ways liberal foundations, especially the Ford Foundation, promoted a legalistic, courtroom-oriented liberation strategy for historically oppressed groups to adopt, instead of a more mass struggle, street protest-oriented political approach.

The chapter of Foundations and Public Policy, which I think U.S. anti-war and anti-corporate activists will find most politically relevant and morally challenging, is entitled "Social Change Organizations." In this chapter, Roelofs describes "ways the foundations neutralize dissent and prevent alternatives from developing credibility, especially by channeling social change organizations away from criticism of the corporate economy and its global penetration." Roelofs argues that "philanthropy suggests yet another explanation for the decline of the 1960s' and 1970s' protest movements" because "radical activism often was transformed by grants and technical assistance from liberal foundations into fragmented and local organizations subject to elite control." In addition, "energies were channeled into safe, legalistic, bureaucratic and, occasionally, profit-making activities" by the liberal foundation grants.

Roelofs points out that when the Ford Foundation, with its billions of dollars in assets, "decides to throw its weight behind one cause rather than another, it is no small distortion of democracy," since "a foundation providing only 10 percent of a group's budget can nevertheless exert decisive control." The ACLU and the NAACP-LDEF are named specifically by Roelofs as among the social change organizations which began receiving 'crucial support from foundations" in the late 1960s. Roelofs also observes that, concurrently with "the decline of the New Left and the associated radical protest movements of the 1960s" (such as Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party), liberal foundations (like the Ford Foundation) began creating and funding more politically moderate organizations which "appeared to be of `grassroots' origin."

To support her argument that the U.S. power elite used foundation power to promote less politically radical leadership within insurgent 1960s communities, Roelofs also examines in detail the relationship between liberal foundations and civil rights organizations, poor people's organizations, neighborhood organizations, environmental groups and groups that sought to influence U.S. foreign policy (such as anti-war groups). Roelofs notes, for instance, that "by 1984, foundations contributed about one-third of the peace movement's income" and cites a February 1985 Monthly Review article, "Corporate Interests, Philanthropy and the Peace Movement," which asserted that in bankrolling U.S. anti-war groups, "foundations distinguished between `acceptable and unacceptable activism."

In her chapter on social change organizations and the liberal foundations that are "bent on reforms that will contain and channel social change," Roelofs also includes a section in which she discusses in some detail alternative, leftist, "social change foundations" (such as the now-defunct Garland Fund and the Haymarket Fund). These alternative leftist foundations have (historically or presently) attempted to promote radical change by developing a form of philanthropy that served different class interests than those generally served by the U.S. Establishment's mainstream liberal foundations.

Before offering her conclusions and questions for further research in the final chapter of Foundations and Public Policy, Roelofs also includes a chapter that examines how, historically and currently, foundation power is exercised outside the United States. In this chapter, she describes the international activities of George Soros' foundations, as well as the international activities of the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations. She also examines the connection between the NGOs and the liberal foundations in Latin America, South Africa and Eastern Europe, questioning whether authentic democratization has actually been promoted by the network of NGOs which the liberal foundations now fund around the globe. She cites, for instance, left sociologist James Petras' 1999 Journal of Contemporary Asia article, entitled "NGOs: In The Service of Imperialism," in which Petras claimed that NGOs "raid popular communities and direct energy toward self-help projects instead of social transformations and…introduce[ed] a class collaborationist rhetoric packaged as `new identity discourses' that would discredit and isolate revolutionary activists" in Latin America. In Roelofs view, "the NGOs also co-opt leaders and movements for change."

As a much-needed textbook on foundation power for U.S. anti-war/anti corporate activists and left economists, Foundations and Public Policy is likely to become a 21st-century classic in the field of U.S. power structure research. Besides being influenced by C. Wright Mills The Power Elite and G. William Domhoff's Who Rules America?, Roelofs also indicates that she was inspired by Robert Arnove's anthology, Philanthroopy and Cultural Imperialism.

Some non-profit group fund-raisers may argue that they have no alternative but to seek liberal foundation grants in order for their groups to continue working on behalf of the oppressed and exploited. Other non-profit group fund-raisers may argue that as long as liberal foundation grant money is used for a noble purpose and is not allowed to dictate the non-profit groups political agenda, there's nothing morally or politically compromising about seeking such grants. But anti-war/anti-corporate activists and intellectuals who read Foundations and Public Policy may end up feeling a little more politically and morally ambivalent about writing up next year's grant proposal for the Ford Foundation's program managers.

This work is in the public domain