The Foundation: A Great American Secret, Joel Fleishman

Recommended for those interested in philanthropy.

Joel Fleishman’s book contains discussion of the broad themes of philanthropy and foundations — the role the “civic sector” plays within the US, its interaction with government, and so on — as well as several specific case studies of projects taken on by foundations (this latter section is expanded upon in the case book). I enjoyed both parts of this discussion, especially the first. According to the 2005 statistics that Fleishman cites, individual donations made up around 2% of US GDP. Foundations made less of a contribution, but sit on top of an incredible pile of assets: there were 66,000 foundations in US in 2005, with $500bn in total endowments. The US really is unique in this respect: the nation that comes second in personal donations is the UK, and we donate 3x less than Americans.

Fleishman’s book is particularly interesting to read from an effective altruist perspective, as in many ways the book is a manifesto for effective philanthropy which predates the recent flurry of interest in this area. (The focus on effectiveness makes sense, given that Fleishman is an ex-board member of the Center for Effective Philanthropy). One key distinction that Fleishman makes use of is the difference between expressive giving and instrumental giving: the former is when you give to show your support for a cause, rather than having particular expectations of what the money will do (e.g. ‘giving back’ to your university); the latter is when you have a particular goal, and use money strategically to achieve it. Fleishman advocates for foundations to have a greater focus on instrumental giving, and spends most of the book discussing strategies that can be used by instrumental foundations.

There is a tendency for those interested in effective altruism to try and reinvent the wheel, and come up with all the answers from scratch. Given that the philanthropic sector is so enormous in the US, there’s a lot to learn from what people studying and working in foundations have come up with already. Of course, there are ideas that Fleishman doesn’t mention that effective altruists have rightly emphasised the importance of: Fleishman’s call to arms is for strategic giving once you have chosen a cause area to work on, and he places less focus on the importance of selecting the right cause area in the first place.

I took fairly extensive notes on this book, which I hope to write up into a blog post soon.

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