American Foundations

American Foundations

An Investigative History

By Mark Dowie





In American Foundations, Mark Dowie argues that organized philanthropy is on the verge of an evolutionary shift that will transform America's nearly 50,000 foundations from covert arbiters of knowledge and culture to overt mediators of public policy and aggressive creators of new orthodoxy. He questions the wisdom of placing so much power at the disposal of nondemocratic institutions.

As American wealth expands, old foundations such as Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Pew, and MacArthur have grown exponentially, while newer trusts such as Mott, Johnson, Packard, Kellogg, Hughes, Annenberg, Hewlett, Duke, and Gates have surpassed them. Foundation assets now total close to $400 billion. Though this is a tiny sum compared to corporate and government treasuries, and foundation grants still total less than 10 percent of contributions made by individuals, foundations have power and influence far beyond their wealth. Their influence derives from the conditional nature of their grant making, their power from its leverage.

Unlike previous historians of philanthropy who have focused primarily on the grant maker, Dowie examines foundations from the public's perspective. He focuses on eight key areas in which foundations operate: education, science, health, environment, food, energy, art, and human services. He also looks at their imagination, or lack thereof, and at the strained relationship between American foundations and American democracy.

Dowie believes that foundations deserve to exist and that they can assume an increasingly vital role in American society, but only if they transform themselves from private to essentially public institutions. The reforms he proposes to make foundations more responsive to pressing social problems and more accountable to the public will almost certainly start an important national debate.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262041898 360 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


$30.00 T ISBN: 9780262541411 360 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • As usual for the award-winning Dowie, this book is right on time.

    Jim Dulzo

    Metrotimes (Detroit)

  • His studies of specific foundations and their programs are fascinating.

    Mary Carroll


  • This book is a thorough review of the world of American philanthropy.

    Colin Greer

    Whole Earth


  • In American Foundations, Mark Dowie cogently describes, examines, and critiques the functions, roles, and structures of foundations in America, their idiosyncrasies in both failures and successes. He offers a short history of the field and launches into balanced appraisals of foundations' contributions to education, science, health, the environment, food production, energy, the arts, civil society, imagination, democracy, and investments. He argues that foundations have had considerable influence in the past and are increasingly important today as the government cuts back. All in all, an excellent book.

    Teresa Odendahl

    Executive Director, National Network of Grantmakers

  • Wave-making author Mark Dowie brings the nearly half-trillion-dollar foundation world under his anti-'drag anchor' microscope, analyzing foundations' past achievements and failures and the critically taking the institutions to task for directing their grants so often away from 'root causes.' Dowie shakes up the complacency, myopia, and insulation of these giant foundations by naming names and places. He keeps readers flipping the pages with eager anticipation as to how these institutions can address abuses of power and wealth. Dowie is a scholar and a muckraker, which makes this book a standout event.

    Ralph Nader

    Consumer Advocate

  • Mark Dowie, America's foremost investigative reporter, skewers the 'philanthocracy'—liberal as well as conservative—with masterful precision and care. If you have money, or you would just like to have money, consider this book assigned reading.

    Barbara Ehrenreich

    author of Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America

  • American Foundations is a major and remarkable work. Dowie's specific judgments will be widely debated. His fiercely independent assessment of organized philanthropy is a wholesome challenge to the soporific and captive trade literature.

    Michael Lerner

    President, Jenifer Altman Foundation

  • This is an important work. Mark Dowie is offering a critique of philanthropy that is long overdue. This book I hope will spark debate within philanthropy and outside as well, and perhaps empower those whose feelings are reflected here to speak out without fear. Foundation staffs and boards should read it. It will be on the reading lists of the plethora of fundraising schools that are springing up all over the country. It should also be used in classes on civil society and contemporary America.

    Stephen Viederman

    former President, Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation