Joel L. Fleishman’s acclaimed book on the role and impact of foundations in America, titled The Foundation: A Great American Secret—How Private Wealth Is Changing the World, was published in 2007. It shows why foundations matter, why we must continue to support them, and how they can provide a vital spur to the engine of the American economy. Professor Fleishman’s research for the book included interviews with approximately 100 foundation chief executives, program officers, and board chairs, as well as CEOs of selected operating charities. He asked each of them to nominate foundations’ grant successes and failures and to delineate the criteria on which their judgments of success and failure were based. He also examines the tumultuous economic events of the past several years and their effects on the civic sector.
While Fleishman is clearly in favor of foundations, he is not blind to their faults. He writes that foundations are “among our most powerful, least accountable, and significantly tax-benefited institutions.” He expends considerable energy evaluating the impact of foundations, delving into their structure and practices. He admits that the outcome of foundation grants may not be easily measurable; nonetheless, foundations have a responsibility to use resources wisely. This involves stepping up their leadership, giving strategically instead of expressively, and evaluating effectiveness.
As part of his research, Fleishman undertook the gargantuan task of compiling one hundred foundation case studies of impact, of which 12 particularly interesting cases are included in the book. Reading through these cases one cannot help but marvel at the role foundations play as institutions which shape culture locally and globally, both in the progress that comes from their endeavors and in the dense networks of influencers that work within their ranks. There is scarcely any aspect of modern American life that has been untouched by well-meaning philanthropic dollars – from the food we eat, the music and art we appreciate, the medical care we receive, and in what our children learn in school. That influence has now spread to most parts of the world as well.