Narcissism and Philanthropy: Ideas and Talent Denied
by Gerald Freund
Viking. 158 pp. $24.95

Philanthropy, Oscar Wilde once observed, is “the refuge of people who wish to annoy their fellow creatures.” To judge by his new book, the historian Gerald Freund would probably agree. Foundations today, in Freund’s view, are increasingly failing to “harness and inspire the best talent” in the arts, sciences, and humanities. Instead, they use the vast sums at their disposal to foist their own not always very good ideas on everyone else—hence the “narcissism” in the title of this book.

Freund is by no means the first person to level criticism at the philanthropic world. A large body of work finding fault with the motives and methods of foundations has accumulated since their earliest days, when John D. Rockefeller himself was accused of using charity to burnish his own, rather blemished, name. Since then, critics from Left, Right, and Center have regularly charged foundations with an array of practical and ideological sins, and some would-be grantees have even discovered that among the more effective tactics for winning a beneficence is to bite the hand they hope will feed them.

Freund’s critique, expressed in respectful tones, is not of the biting variety. What makes it noteworthy, however, is that for 40 years, he himself was fed by one philanthropy or another, not as a grantee but as an insider and an executive. In fact, Freund was present at the creation of one of the most widely discussed foundation initiatives in recent decades, the so-called “genius” awards program of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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In Narcissism and Philanthropy, Freund examines the degree to which foundations today are or are not fulfilling their ostensible goal of providing a source of “venture capital” to help society solve its most pressing problems. Comparing what such major donors as the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie foundations managed to accomplish in their halcyon years with what they do today, he reaches the not entirely surprising conclusion that they have “a long way to go.” Although he is less forthcoming with specific examples of deficiencies than he might be, especially considering how much he knows, Freund’s portrait of these institutions will be familiar to anyone who has tangled with them. Just about everywhere, rigid funding guidelines, shallow staff members, frequently changing priorities, cumbersome application and reporting procedures, and aversion to risk have become the norm. To add insult to injury, staff members and trustees frequently display a degree of arrogance that only prolonged exposure to riches of someone else’s making could have spawned.

Ranging over all this and more, Freund reserves his sharpest criticism for what he calls the “democratization” of contemporary philanthropy, by which he means the rise of affirmative-action-type considerations in the awarding of grants. Instead of seeking outstanding individuals, many foundations, he complains, have come to accept the notion that financial support should be distributed more equitably, so that members of racial and ethnic groups who might otherwise have been left out get their fair share. But “[f]oundation missions are betrayed,” laments Freund, “when they make a foolish virtue of egalitarianism and a useless myth of excellence.”

How then can grant-makers mend their ways? For one thing, according to Freund, donors, trustees, and staff should avoid advancing “political agendas” of their own. For another, trustees should rely more on professional staff in making decisions, and staff members, in turn, should view their role as actively “scouting” for grantees and fostering their work, rather than seeing themselves as bureaucrats opening and closing the door of the treasury when supplicants come a-knocking. A third suggestion is that experts be employed to evaluate requests and that funded projects be rigorously followed up, with the results, for better or worse, reported candidly to the public.

Perhaps most importantly, philanthropists, in Freund’s view, need to regain confidence in themselves as a cultural elite with a moral mission. In contrast to the “golden age” of American philanthropy, when foundations were run by worldly-wise men like Robert Maynard Hutchins and Warren Weaver, “foundation personnel . . . lack a moral reference point for recognizing exceptional individuals.” Only by reestablishing such a reference point, and accepting the responsibilities that inevitably come with the stewardship of great wealth, Freund suggests, can philanthropists again become more than mere annoyances to the body politic.

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By the standards of the foundation world, all this amounts to a far-reaching critique. Yet by the very evidence Freund provides, it is not far-reaching enough. For while today’s foundations clearly do suffer from a kind of political “narcissism,” they can hardly be said to lack a moral viewpoint, however superficial and self-referential it may be.

As is suggested by the widespread insistence on spreading grant money around in accordance with racial criteria and—as Freund occasionally acknowledges—the dictates of a rampant political correctness, the real problem afflicting those within the philanthropic universe is not their failure to behave as an elite. The problem is that that they reflect all too accurately the narrow and wrong-headed standards of the very elite from which they spring.

Freund proposes that philanthropists should concentrate on nurturing talented people within such broadly defined fields as writing or music. But talent does not exist in a vacuum. Any assessment of its merits relies upon a moral, political, and aesthetic judgment of the purposes to which talent is put. The MacArthur “genius” awards, pioneered in part by Freund himself, offer a lesson in the consequences of misunderstanding or ignoring this point. Designed to provide no-strings-attached funding over several years to people of exceptional talent in a wide variety of fields, the prizes, more often than not, have been awarded to a politically-correct assortment of grantees pursuing politically-correct—and often mediocre, when not downright chowderheaded—projects.

In short, Freund’s recipe for reform—rejiggering the relationship between staff and trustees, new proactive ways of scouting for talent, and so on—will hardly suffice to address the issue at hand. That issue, to repeat, is not merely the narcissism and quest for influence of those who run foundations, but the ends they seek and the methods they employ to attain them. Unless and until this changes, Oscar Wilde’s mot will continue to hold true.

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