Foundation Failures

Ideas and Issues Personal Writings

New York     Private foundations have billions and billions of dollars worth of assets. Individual and corporate wealth is given shelter and tax exemptions because of the public benefit of their operations to health, education or some part of the common and public good. That’s the law and the quid pro quo for offset in taxes.

It was funny therefore to read an article in the Times about foundations facing up to failures. These were not “run of the mill” mistakes but big whopping, hairy things that sucked up 10, 20, or 60 million smackeroos! This was not a cost overrun at the local taproom near the swank offices, but a real hosing. Accountability for grants is a good thing though, so I began the article thinking, “Ok, now we’re talking!”

But a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the piece. There was almost a sense of self-satisfaction and smugness about failure. There was a theory from one commentator that this “new” sense of accountability had to do with the new type of donor from high-tech who might be used to this sense of analysis. Poppycock! What a suck up! Get my boots on now, pardner! Like the rich from any other sector or any other time did not care how their dollars were spent, yeah right!

These were people who seemed to feel like they were revolutionaries for admitting that they pissed away gazillions of dollars. My blood was boiling as I read the things, especially because so many of them involved ill-fated efforts to rebuild communities where low- and moderate-income families lived, and the hubris still seemed to drip from the piece even as they admitted errors. It made me wonder what really might be in these reports and how really transparent and accountable these folks really might be.

It seemed easy to bet that the people admitting the mistakes might not be the people who had made them. This might be a classic set of cases of someone down the line being glad to point the finger at someone who had gone before, perhaps so that they could get the investments committed to make different mistakes, but something that was indeed their own. Would the process be different? The product? The measurements? Or anything?

Reading this article it just seemed that foundations had finally figure out even how to make the worst of their stuff smell sweet. Jobs should have been lost and heads should have rolled, but it wasn’t clear if that was part of this swell spin.

Meanwhile the obligation to build the public good seems quaint and unremarked, and perhaps that should be the standard of measurement more than whether or not the donor is still young enough to kick their ass.