Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Burden of Bad Ideas

I picked this book up because of its title. Now, the book's subtitle is "how modern intellectuals misshape our society." It's made up of articles written in the late 1990s by Heather MacDonald--and it reads like an Ann Coulter screed. So, if that makes you shriek in horror, this is fair warning.

However, I do want to cover one chapter in particular which is called "The Billions of Dollars that Made Things Worse." In it, she chronicles the history of the foundation movement, with particular emphasis on Carnegie's approach which held that the person who amasses excess wealth should use the same acumen in furthering societal good that he/she showed in earning it. Bill Gates seems to be informed by this approach in his quest to eliminate malaria in Africa and on other health projects in the developing world. That practice is referred to as "scientific philanthropy."

The contention is made that current foundations, starting around the middle of last century and under professionalized management, began to lose sight of these goals, and they became a layer of fat cats. They then began to pay more attention to activism and reframing discussions more than solving problems faced by real individuals. MacDonald and Eggers would agree on many points. In my experience with the foundation world, and through my reading of journals and participation in local nonprofit organizations, I tend to agree with this assessment. Many foundations IMHO are not tuned in with good management processes and fund sinkholes that ought never be funded in the first place. They tend to not reward innovation, and that's why organizational turnover and organizational failure rates are so high. What a waste of money.

Eggers thinks that the United Way is a big part of the solution to the problem, and perhaps that is a step in the right direction. The on-again-off-again integrity of that organization is certainly an impediment to its success. But how about if the big-money funders worked more closely with one another and thought up better standards and imposed accountability on these little beggar organizations?

Anyway, my thoughts for the day...

By Heather MacDonald
ISBN# 1566633370