Swans Commentary » swans.com July 12, 2010  



Golden Donors And Cultural Imperialism


by Joan Roelofs


Book Review



ed. This review was first published in the quarterly journal TELOS in its summer 1986 issue. The original title was: "Review of The Golden Donors by Waldemar Nielsen, and Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism ed. by Robert Arnove." The two reviewed books are:

Nielsen, Waldemar A.: The Golden Donors (EP Dutton: N.Y., 1985)

Arnove, Robert F. (ed): Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1980)

We thank both the author and TELOS for granting their permission to republish this article.


(Swans - July 12, 2010)   Nielsen, a former foundation officer and consultant, tells us that: "Some nonobsequious writing [on foundations] has begun to appear... (431)." Unfortunately, The Golden Donors is not of that genre. To be sure, this study of the thirty-six largest foundations is critical of many and hands out evaluations for each on the grounds of public policy activism (good) or conventionality (bad), and the behavior of trustees and staff. Nevertheless, the text is replete with the language of public relations -- full of "shining examples," "innovative, philosophical and provocative speeches," "invigorating research" and even "constructive" conservatism. We are told that since the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which corrected the worst of foundation abuses, "... general confidence in the value of foundations both in Congress and across the nation has not only been restored but has now probably reached its highest point in history" (17).

Some foundations may fall short of the ideal, but there is no question in Nielsen's mind of their true mission: "... [T]hese strange and wonderful social inventions have a unique freedom from the dependency of other institutions on markets or constituencies that cripple their capacity to take the long view and to bring a competent and disinterested approach to the search for solutions to complex problems. They are not magical answer-giving machines, but they are instruments by which the best available intelligence, experience and specialized knowledge can be brought to bear in the least distorting and inhibiting circumstances on such problems" (425). The social activism of the Ford, Carnegie and R.W. Johnson Foundations sets the standard for all others. Social engineers, they can, by being "above politics" find the correct solutions and use their network of connections to seek their adoption. As an example, in 1978 the city of Cleveland was threatened with bankruptcy. The Cleveland Foundation, "a vigorous, responsive and creative influence, ... [W]orking with local leaders both in and out of government, provided financing and guidance for a number of key actions to rehabilitate the city government and reestablish its solvency. A team of eighty-nine business leaders, the Operations Improvement Task Force, was created. They examined every city department during a three-month period and made hundreds of recommendations to improve efficiency, almost all of which were then implemented . ... An analysis of tax policies performed by the foundation became the basis of a successful campaign for voter approval of a necessary tax increase" (250).

Despite a political atmosphere unfavorable to liberal activism, Nielsen sees the Foundation mission being reinvigorated by the development of peak organizations in the foundation world, such as the Council on Foundations, Independent Sector and the Committee on Responsive Philanthropy (a donee group). These organizations are pervaded by the social engineering mentality, and the leading trade journal, Foundation News, attempts to corral all foundations to the activist point of view. Targeted especially are the burgeoning corporate foundations, which are increasingly turning away from local public relations-oriented charity work and joining with the liberal foundations in an attempt to save capitalism in general. One achievement of this coalition is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-violent Social Change in Atlanta, established with grants from Atlantic Richfield, Amoco, Ford Motor Company, Mobil, Monsanto, and Morgan Guaranty Trust Foundations, among others. (Nielsen does not discuss these corporate foundations, nor does he mention the "alternative" foundations such as Haymarket People's Fund, which support radical organizing.)

He gives no analysis of the power and danger of these conglomerates, representing billions to dispense at will, or of the general significance of the "third sector" (private non-profit) in American politics. We are told that there is now "serious and substantial research" on philanthropy, but all of the examples mentioned have the expected sponsorship. (The Golden Donors was supported by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.)

Nielsen is careful to portray the Ford Foundation as full of weaknesses. Because of financial mismanagement, Ford's portfolio was only $3.6 billion in 1984. This had a happy result: "There was a time when the vast difference in size between Ford and all the other large foundations generated concern that by its sheer mass it distorted public understanding of philanthropy and created unnecessary fears of 'thought control' by foundations. That problem at least has now largely been resolved by the foundation's financial performance" (71). Franklin Thomas, the current director of Ford, and his staff, are also picked on. We are encouraged to feel that Ford is a weak pitiful giant, beleaguered by left and right, disdained by Reaganism, and worthy of our charity as an underdog.

Nielsen does point out that during the Bundy Administration at Ford, numerous community organizations were created by the foundation. Many of these reported being controlled by their donor. In 1972, 77% of grants from all sources to organize citizen political action were bestowed by Ford. Thus does "pluralism" become an instrument of elite control. Presumably, those citizen organizations which were not so beknighted, (and were not violently repressed or disrupted by the FBI), were largely left, unfunded, to wither away.

Little is said about the international activities of Ford, or the other liberal foundations. The Trilateral Commission, Council on Foreign Relations and Overseas Development Council are not discussed as products of foundation sponsorship. The cooperation, as well as the "revolving door" for personnel, between the CIA and the liberal foundations is not mentioned. (1) Only one left-wing critique is cited, that of David Horowitz and David Kolodney. (2) Nielsen correctly quotes their statement, accusing the foundation network, including the policy-planning organizations, of shifting public opinion in the direction of the moderates and status quo. He then dismisses this by denying that foundations were conservative and reminding us how often they were branded as leftist during the McCarthy era (25).

Perhaps the greatest power of the large foundations is that of defining the intellectual universe and the place of foundations within it. They can ignore creatures from "outer space," hoping they will thereby shrivel up. Thus Nielsen nowhere mentions the most serious critical appraisal of the liberal foundations, the anthology edited by Robert Arnove. This book has been consigned to semi-obscurity, has not been reviewed anywhere for a general audience, and is unknown even to some in the academic world "seriously researching" the "third sector."

The thesis of the Arnove volume is: "... [F]oundations like Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford have a corrosive influence on a democratic society; they represent relatively unregulated and unaccountable concentrations of power and wealth which buy talent, promote causes, and in effect, establish an agenda of what merits society's attention. They serve as 'cooling-out' agencies, delaying and preventing more radical, structural change" (1). The foundations' belief that a technocratic elite can identify social problems and promote the appropriate social change is in itself considered imperialistic. In addition, the foundations are involved in imperialism in the more usual sense. One striking aspect of their activities is the extent to which similar techniques and goals underlie their "leadership training" and "rural development" programs in the Third World and in the inner cities of the United States. Foundation "people to people" programs overseas preceded and were often the models for later United States government operations (e.g., student exchanges, Peace Corps).

The essays, written mostly by scholars in sociology or education, are full of fascinating revelations. Their central concerns are public policy, especially educational and foreign, and the sociology of knowledge, a subject which has ominously gone out of style. (Perhaps it does not benefit from the largesse of foundations?)

The historical chapters, one by Barbara Howe and one by Sheila Slaughter and Edward Silva, show the crucial role of foundations in the development of capitalist hegemony during the early 20th century. The warnings against foundations by the Walsh Commission of 1915 evaporate in the transformed post-WWI atmosphere. How the name Rockefeller changes from a "devil" to "angel" connotation is in itself a sobering lesson.

Donald Fisher's contribution describes the major impact which the Rockefeller Foundation had on the London School of Economics; ironically, an institution founded for the purpose of training administrators of a future socialist society.

How the Ford Foundation defined and structured behavioralism in American political science is the subject of Peter Seybold's essay. Ford was seeking a doctrine that rooted social disorder in personal maladjustment rather than class conflict. Behavioralism would be the instrument by which they could tackle the agenda described in the Ford Foundation's 1949 Report: to legitimate democracy and abolish all threats to the system.

E. Richard Brown throws light on the seamy underside of Rockefeller medical philanthropy in China. Russell Marks shows how Carnegie-supported research into differences in intelligence is used to defend a stratified society of limited opportunity. The essays by Frank Darknell and David Weischadle show how Carnegie philanthropies have been at the origin of almost all major educational reforms in the United States. Generally, their emphasis has been on tracking, streaming and sorting students (as in the community college movement) "to consolidate and strengthen caste like tendencies within the corporate capitalist society itself" (387).

James D. Anderson writes of the role of philanthropy in black higher education. Dennis Buss reveals school finance reform, a project of the Ford Foundation, to be elitist in conception and result. Typical of Progressive and foundation-sponsored reforms, movements for standardization, centralization and modernization remove control from localities -- where the participation of ordinary citizens is sometimes possible -- and transfer it to distant elites.

Edward Berman's chapters on educational colonialism in Africa and Arnove's on the transfer of knowledge abroad show the development of "... an international community of scholars the philanthropic foundations (Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie) have been instrumental in shaping. ... [I]ndividuals become increasingly attached to viewing themselves in certain ways and conducting research which accords with Ford views of appropriate scholarship" (31 8).

Mary Anna Colwell writes of the connections between foundations, the corporate world, policy-planning organizations (e.g., Council on Foreign Relations, Brookings, Hoover, Overseas Development Council, Trilateral Commission) and "citizen" organizations (e.g., ACLU, Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, NAACP, Southern Regional Council). Her research raises many questions about the nature of American "pluralism" and the role of the non-profit sector in our society.

In 1915, the Walsh Commission (Congressional Commission on Industrial Relations) predicted that foundations might have a monumental influence on public policy. At that time, there was no national policy in many areas of education and welfare, and state resources and efforts were often meager. Foundation resources could and did fill the void -- in nationalization of the legal system, development of the social work profession and ethic, reform of criminal justice, integration of minorities, standardization in education, and promulgation of the gospel of capitalism abroad, among many other endeavors.

Who could complain about such benevolence? The problems are several. First of all, reforms are never neutral, but benefit some interests at the expense of others. Big business was generally the beneficiary of foundation programs, at the expense of small business, labor, rural interests, etc. Secondly, one solution precludes others. The emphasis on guided individual adjustment, as in social casework, pre-empts collective and citizen-directed responses to social conflict. (I am not thinking only of revolution. Communal experiments in 19th Century America were not a refuge for maladjusted "drop-outs," but deliberately designed in response to social stresses emanating from wage labor, alcoholism, needs of the elderly, etc.). Third, no matter how benevolent reforms imposed from above by an elite weaken democracy by mesmerizing citizens. Channels of citizen policies become irrelevant; major issues are decided in networks of elites via pilot projects or litigation techniques. Nevertheless, a considerable harvest of foundation-sponsored reform has now been incorporated into public policy.

Obviously, much useful work has been done through foundation efforts and much suffering alleviated. However, the price has been the transformation of democracy so that only the forms and rhetoric remain (for the sake of pacification and legitimation). Citizen-initiated policy making is seen by the foundation ideology to be motivated largely by ignorance, prejudice, and psychological maladjustment. Only foundation initiative can resolve national problems; they must not "... be abandoned to special interest groups, government, and 'solution' by the horse trading of politics" (Nielsen, 428). Never are the problems (e.g., in nuclear power plant safety) attributed to capitalism or to elite domination of policy making.

What brings the issue home most sharply is the realization of how thoroughly academic thought has been imperialized. First of all, textbooks of political science, supposedly about the study of power, rarely mention foundations. If you check the indexes of current works you will probably find more mentions of Betty Ford than the Ford Foundation. Invisibility and weakness alternate with selective puffery to convey the image foundations desire. Secondly, the foundation doctrine of democratic elitism is almost universally accepted, enforced through co-optation, pre-emption, ridicule and ignoring (non-funding) the dissenters.

The Carnegie creation of TIAA (Arnove, 366) began a long and steadfast alliance between big business and the academic world. Today professors enjoy both anointment as platonic guardians and the rather unplatonic comforts of affluence (and the non-ivied professoriat generally aspires to that status). "Adjustment" has proceeded smoothly; today's world of private higher education is one that has largely been created by the foundations and it sets the standard for all others. Unfortunately, the rogue elephants like the Arnove volume get buried in the mounds of foundation bull.


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About the Author

Joan Roelofs is Professor Emerita of Political Science, Keene State College, New Hampshire. She is the translator of Victor Considerant's Principles of Socialism (Maisonneuve Press, 2006), and author of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003) and Greening Cities (Apex-Bootstrap Press, 1996). On her site is the outline of an adult education course on "The Military-Industrial Complex," with images, citations, and links. Contact: joan.roelofs@myfairpoint.net.   (back)


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1.  For a discussion of this aspect, see Ben Whitaker, The Foundations (London: Methuen, 1974).  (back)

2.  "The Foundations [Charity Begins at Home]," Ramparts, April 1969.  (back)


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Published July 12, 2010