Just Money: A Critique of Contemporary American Philanthropy

Imagine a gathering of ten men and women who have had the unique experience of being at the helm a large philanthropic organization. Among them, they have 120 years of experience. Recently, they have left the world of philanthropy to pursue other professional endeavors, and this small distance allows them the freedom to speak candidly, acknowledging successes, disappointments, lessons learned, and hopes for the future. Just Money: A Critique of Contemporary American Philanthropy has assembled just such a group, a generation of philanthropic leaders who share their thoughts about meaningful giving in today's world. In doing so, they provide a rich pool of knowledge for the veteran or the newcomer to philanthropy.

In Just Money, ten former presidents, CEOs, and executive directors of large national, community, and corporate foundations share insights on everything from the art of philanthropy to the sector's blindspots to global giving. They are Michele Courton Brown, president of the FleetBoston Financial Foundation from 1999 to 2002; Dennis Collins, CEO of the James Irvine Foundation from 1986 to 2002; David Ford, president of Lucent Technologies Foundation from 1998 to 2002; Joel Fleishman, president of the Atlantic Philanthropic Service Company from 1993 to 2001; Peter Goldmark, president of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1988 to 1997; Anna Faith Jones, CEO of the Boston Foundation from 1985 to 2000; Scott McVay, executive director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation from 1976 to 1998; Steven Schroeder, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation from 1990 to 2002; Bruce Sievers, executive director of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund from 1983 to 2002; and Adele Simmons, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation from 1989 to 1999. The book is edited by H. Peter Karoff, founder of the Philanthropic Initiative; Karoff also wrote the introduction, opening chapter, and epilogue.

Filled with diverse voices, Just Money retains a remarkable cohesiveness. The writing is strong and engaging throughout, and the fact that these are former presidents, CEOs, and executive directors of foundations provides an opportunity for candor not always available to active foundation leaders. Steven Schroeder, former CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, points out that after observing many organizations, including his own, he believes that "foundations tend to overemphasize strategy at the expense of execution." He gives several reasons for this: internal reward structures, relative isolation from the front lines, and staff whose backgrounds are stronger in conceptualization than in operations.

Schroeder tells the story of a series of town meetings that RWJF sponsored under his watch in 1993 to inform the newly created Clinton Task Force on Health Care Reform, led by Hillary Rodham Clinton, on the public's views and expectations for healthcare reform. The meetings were well organized, attended, and covered in the press, but were viewed by some, including Republican leaders in Congress, as partisan because they lacked the presence of a prominent Republican. According to Schroeder, this perception was later asserted by "conspiracy theorists on the right" as evidence that the foundation was the driving force behind the healthcare plan that the Clinton task force put forth in 1994, which eventually failed. "In hindsight we realized we had not been sufficiently sensitive to potential political minefields," Schroeder says. "We should have insisted that the meetings feature politicians from both political parties. Because we did not, I jeopardized both RWJF's reputation and its effectiveness."

To paraphrase one of the essay titles, Just Money is, above all, about doing good well. The authors tackle their subject from two perspectives — by looking back on their own experiences and by gazing forward to make predictions or share hopes for the future. From his vantage point, Peter Goldmark observed, "There are moments in history when American philanthropy has been farsighted, entrepreneurial, daring, and powerfully attuned to the critical issues of a coming challenge. And there have been moments when American philanthropy has seemed trapped in a curious mix of defensiveness and caution. Perhaps consistent effectiveness and relevance are incompatible with the very nature of philanthropy, which must be speculative and venturesome."

For readers who don't know the difference between an NGO and an NPO, or how strategic philanthropy differs from venture philanthropy, there is a handy glossary at the end of the book.

For citations to additional materials on this topic refer to the Literature of the Nonprofit Sector Online, using the subject heading "Philanthropy-analysis".

Alice Garrard
Writer, Philanthropy News Digest
Foundation Center
New York, New York