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Big Philanthropy’s New Role

An unhappy partnership with the public sector.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By JAMES PIERESON and NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY
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In an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the leaders of four of the Detroit-saving foundations wrote: “We do not think philanthropy can be a replacement for social capital or that any foundation has the resources or wisdom to successfully play the role of civic savior.” These are fine words, but after many decades of playing the role of “civic savior,” it is a little late in the day for philanthropic leaders to make this claim.

There may be some rough justice in the fact that these foundations have to step forward to help save Detroit. After all, many of them stood by or even encouraged Detroit’s civic leaders as their policies ran the city into the ground. 

It might in turn be satisfying to cheer as these foundations spend down their endowments to save the public from the effects of the policies they have supported. But it’s worth taking stock of how both foundations and government have been hurt by this brave new world of government-foundation interdependence. One would be hardpressed to show that this new relationship has improved the performance either of government or of private and supposedly independent philanthropy.

There is a lesson here: Those who think they can control big government are bound to learn sooner or later that, rather than pulling the strings, they are the ones who are the puppets—or, as the proverb has it, “He who rides the tiger will soon find himself inside.”

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation. Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of The Faculty Lounges .  .  . and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For. 

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