Read a Book Review by Jud Fisher

“The Foundation: A Great American Secret”

By Joel L. Fleishman
Review by Jud Fisher

Trepidation is not necessarily the word I would use to describe my feelings when I began reading author Joel Fleishman’s book about foundations, but I certainly was prepared for a less than positive peek at one of the more misunderstood civic sector funding sources in the world. Several reviews on the book and some articles mentioning the author’s statements had me gun shy. Fleishman, however, lays bare the heart and soul of foundations not in a destructive way, but in a more analytical way that he believes will help foundations – and in turn society – benefit from greater self assessment and better policies and processes that generate higher impact grant results.

Fleishman begins with simple insight into foundations (a brief Foundations 101) and their relationships with grant recipients. He then moves into a brief characterization of the extraordinarily positive efforts that foundations have created in the world from their position as an institutional anchor of the civic sector. The civic sector itself is examined and highlighted: “The American civic sector, of which our many foundations are an integral part, is a wonder of the world and an unprecedented social phenomenon – not unlike America itself, which, with all its shortcomings, is arguably the most dynamic, inclusive, and democratic society the world has ever seen”. The explanation about the civic sector is very good and Fleishman’s added view on what the sector would be like without foundations at the end of Chapter 2 is a nice addition to the overall message.

In general, the first part of the book succinctly lays out the history of foundations, motivations for their existence, and the need for more understanding and utilization of strategy (and tactics) in foundations. Fleishman frames the area in the civic sector that foundations occupy: “The stress, therefore, is on the beneficial impact that charity has on its recipients and indeed on the social capital of the community as a whole, rather than on the donor’s “heavenly bank account” of spiritual credits”. Or, as Kenneth Prewitt described it: “The gift that matters is not to the individual beggar but to the situation represented by the beggar”. The perch that foundations inhabit in the civic sector is essentially as the overarching driving force of “greater good” with regard to charitable giving and societal entrepreneurship.

The second part of Foundation addresses the impact that foundations have had – and have the potential to have – on society. Fleishman states that it is a complicated picture when trying to directly assign responsibility for the impact foundations have on causes, issues and changes. He says that, “scientifically speaking, it is unsound to attribute to foundations credit for being the cause of any impact that has been achieved”. But he then goes on to make the case that the anecdotal evidence is extremely convincing: “Common sense must be the arbiter of an imperfect causality and counterfactuality”.

Several case studies are presented and profiled to show how the subject foundations most likely had significant impact on how their respective programs, etc. turned out. Fleishman highlights the outcomes and shows how foundations effectively influenced them. He does this in a way that is very even handed (to the point of interjecting negative and/or alternative views into his otherwise positive descriptions), such as how he presents the Rockefeller Foundation as the “vanguard” of the Green Revolution, not the sole entity in the effort. The nod in this example to Rockefeller being a leader, but still only a “composite” part, in the Revolution is indicative of the way Fleishman draws attention to the importance of foundations while instilling in the reader that they are also parts of a larger whole.

Fleishman hammers this theme home, even using one quote from Paul Ylvisaker twice in the book: “Philanthropy is America’s passing gear”. He seems to be saying that Americanized philanthropy is a human-condition device that leverages American society above others, and foundations are an important part of philanthropy. Foundations strengthen the fabric, but are still just part of the whole design.

The third part of the book addresses the negative issues of foundations. “Most other institutions in America…benefit from continuing challenges, criticism, and oversight provided by others to whom they are accountable”. Fleishman is very critical and his reasons are worthy of an in-depth look by foundations. After debunking the “politically marginal and factually shaky” information often churned out by fringe political individuals and organizations of either side, Fleishman gives a thorough and thoughtful overview of foundation shortcomings. Accountability and transparency are central issues, and Fleishman notes that these need to be balanced with privacy, not discarded by foundations who use the privacy excuse as a bastion against “intrusion”.

Foundation’s part three has a section specifically categorizing failures called “How Foundations Fail”, another examining perpetuity and finishes with proposals for better effectiveness. Throughout the last part of the book he weaves in suggestions for improvement in foundation operations. One example is the Porter-Kramer System; a four-step process that Fleishman notes is followed by some of the most effective foundations.


The book is very timely as foundations continue to be a major influence in philanthropy during a time of change. Fleishman’s intricate knowledge of foundations is apparent and he clinically levels with the reader on subjects of success, failure and potential solutions. The few in-depth books available on foundations are often soft peddled or overly biased against the organizations depending on the ideology of the authors. Foundation is a well-rounded effort that dares to tackle the problems within foundations by offering balanced solutions. Not many authors and journalists have been able to do this without exposing some sort of bias or agenda, but Fleishman does a respectful job of making the reader weigh all sides of the issues.