Billions for bumbling

Interview | Big foundations can waste big money, and author Martin Morse Wooster says givers both large and small could use a dose of humility

Issue: "Don't run, Newt," April 14, 2007

Tax-paying time brings lots of grumbling about Washington wastefulness, but Martin Morse Wooster reminds us in Great Philanthropic Mistakes (Hudson Institute, 2006) that big foundations have also regularly flopped. Charity bureaucracies can be as bad as governmental ones. Wooster, a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center, is also the author of The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of "Donor Intent" and Should Foundations Live Forever?

WORLD: The Ford Foundation in the early 1960s decided to fight poverty and crime by working to create jobs for inner-city youth. What did the foundation leave out of its analysis, and what was the result of the millions of dollars it spent?

WOOSTER: In the late 1950s, Ford program officer Paul Ylvisaker acted on the assumption that if it gave enough money, inner-city activists would create programs that would fight poverty in innovative ways. They were very vague about what they wanted, and for the first two years of the program very little was done because would-be grant recipients had to keep guessing about how they needed to get money from Ford.

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Ultimately, this Ford program (known as the "Gray Areas") collapsed. In Philadelphia, Ford-funded activists couldn't get organized; in New York, Ford money went directly to left-wing militants who used the money to conduct rent strikes and school boycotts. But these failures had lasting results: The Johnson Administration based such Great Society programs as Head Start and the Job Corps on failed Ford Foundation experiments.

WORLD: Ford and then the Carnegie Corporation were instrumental in creating National Educational Television and then "public television" in the 1950s and 1960s. Did it succeed in elevating national brainpower and tastes, or did it most often produce what one critic called "pompous boredom"?

WOOSTER: The Carnegie Corporation funded a 1967 report that was the blueprint for most of what public television has become today, including the establishment of the Public Broadcasting Service and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Even the name "public television" comes from this report; prior to then, these stations were known as "educational television." But the Carnegie Commission couldn't foresee that PBS would become so bureaucratic that it couldn't create innovative programs and had to buy its best shows from Britain, Canada, and Australia.

In 1977, the Carnegie Corporation funded a second commission, which called for tripling the amount of federal funds spent on public broadcasting because cable television would never produce "original American drama, documentaries," and "programming in science and the arts." The second Carnegie Commission's findings were ignored, and such cable channels as Discovery, C-SPAN, and Turner Classic Movies have made public broadcasting increasingly irrelevant.

WORLD: The Ford Foundation was gung-ho for international population control in the 1950s and 1960s. What did it push for and what did it accomplish?

WOOSTER: Between 1959 and 1983 the Ford Foundation spent $159 million on population control programs. Their first success was in successfully persuading the U.S. State Department and the Agency for International Development (USAID) to spend massive amounts of government money on birth control, which took place after 1965. (Governments didn't spend very much on birth control prior to that time because they feared attacks from Catholics.) Ford then worked closely with USAID in India in a massive birth-control campaign that included the distribution of millions of cheap condoms as well as 2 million Indian sterilizations performed in 1967 and 1968.

WORLD: The "community control" pushed by the Ford Foundation in New York City in the late 1960s to improve education sounds like a good idea. What happened in practice?

WOOSTER: Ford supported "community control" of schools by funding parent councils in inner-city New York City schools. One of these councils, in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, thought it could hire and fire teachers and principals. Its efforts to "fire" teachers led to three major teacher strikes. The strikes made New York teacher union head Albert Shaker a national figure-and one strongly opposed to school choice. The parent councils became community school boards, which became pockets of cronyism and corruption until abolished by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002.

WORLD: Walter Annenberg in 1993 gave $500 million to reform public schools. How was that money spent?

WOOSTER: Walter Annenberg's money could have been used to fund scholarships that would have helped tens of thousands of inner-city kids obtain a good education in a private school. Instead, the money went to nonprofits that made limited efforts at reform. These groups lost what little power and influence they had as soon as Annenberg's money ran out. There's no evidence that Annenberg's money had any effect on how public schools are run.


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