- Assets: $6,482,442 (2017)
- Grants Received: $6,241,462 (2017)
- Grants Awarded: $195,133 (2017)
- Combined assets of members exceed $74 billion
A 501(c)3 public charity founded in 1949, the Council on Foundations is a trade association for more than 2,000 grantmaking foundations and giving programs worldwide; these Council member organizations possess over $74 billion in combined assets and currently make about $18 billion worth of grants per year.
The Council on Foundations states that its organizational mission is to “[serve] the public good by promoting and enhancing responsible and effective philanthropy.” Toward this end, the Council provides legal services, networking opportunities, one-to-one technical assistance, research, publications, conferences and workshops for its members.
Council members fall into seven classifications:
a) Community foundations, which build their endowments through contributions from many donors within a given geographic region, and typically focus on local needs.
b) Corporate foundations, which are private foundations established by for-profit corporations but legally separate from the parent corporation.
c) Family foundations, in which the original donor or the donor’s family plays a significant role in governing the foundation.
d) Independent foundations, which are private foundations, usually endowed by one source such as an individual’s bequest.
e) Operating foundations, which are private foundations that use most of their income to provide charitable services or programs of their own, rather than making grants to outside organizations.
f) Public foundations, which are public charities that operate significant grantmaking programs.
g) International members, which exist in a wide variety of forms outside the United States.
Originally an apolitical trade association for its members, the Council on Foundations has metamorphosed into a vanguard organization seeking to carry the world of philanthropy toward a socially progressive future. This shift to the political left had its roots in the late 1960s. Wilmer Shields Rich, the Council’s Executive Director from 1957 through 1967, opposed politicization. But Rich was succeeded by David Freeman, a Ford and Rockefeller Foundation veteran. During his decade as President, the Council became a large national organization with 835 members and an influential voice in Washington.
In 1984, Freeman would recall his “feeling that the Council ought to turn away from” the philosophy of entrepreneurship and private enterprise that had characterized the careers and lives of most of the founding donors of its member organizations. During his tenure, Freeman (and the Council’s Chairman, former Princeton University president Robert Goheen) stressed the need for “private-public collaboration,” with “governments and foundations working alongside one another.”
For some, the idea of partnership had a radical twist. Thus Freeman told the Council’s annual conference in 1974, “We need to look at all the laws on the books and change them.” A Boston Globe reporter described the scene at this conference, which in retrospect proved to be a watershed event, as follows: “At a convention of the heads of foundations set up by the Fords, the Rockefellers, the Pews, the Carnegies, the Kresges, the Mellons and other ‘malefactors of great wealth’ for the purpose of giving away $2.5 billion to $3 billion of the profits of private enterprise every year, the message seems as much a departure as would be, say, a paean to capitalism by Chairman Mao.”
Throughout the 1970s, Foundation News, the Council’s bimonthly magazine, focused on the familial realm as well. Council members were told that “our marriage and family system is undergoing a major transition from the traditional pattern of the past — rigid, legal, hierarchical and based on the performance of closely defined roles — to the new companionship pattern — fluid, flexible and based on loving and creative interpersonal relationships.” Foundations were exhorted to “get couples everywhere involved in a massive, well-organized retraining program . . . the importance of which no serious and responsible citizen is likely to question.”
The Council’s President and CEO from 1982 to 1995 was James Joseph, an African American graduate of Yale Divinity School and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Mr. Joseph also served as Under Secretary of the Interior in the Carter administration from 1977-1981. A study published by the Capital Research Center spelled out the bottom line of Joseph’s influence: a reduction in overall foundation emphasis on traditional charities for the needy, and a dramatic increase in ideologically-loaded grants, with 80 percent of the politicized expenditure going to left and left-of-center groups promoting “progressive” social change.
Joseph realized that the public might become alarmed at the prospect of billions of dollars funneled into the support of radical political agendas, particularly if foundations openly united behind any single cause, or if foundation executives were too explicit about their agendas. Such problems could be avoided, he explained, if Council members were discreet in the way they packaged their schemes: “We must find ways to translate what we know into the policy options our public officials are debating; and we must do so without appearing to be either partisan or political.”
By the end of the 1980s, the means for advancing policies without appearing to be political were well-established: use Council on Philanthropy conferences, publications, and training to either change attitudes among key board members at foundations that remained conservative, or ease those board members out altogether. By 1991, the years of proselytizing and agitation had borne dramatic fruit. Foundation News reported that the Pew Trusts, worth $3.8 billion, had “eliminated almost all of their right-wing grant making” and “engaged an activist, socially liberal Executive Director.” This was 37-year-old Rebecca W. Rimel, a nurse-turned-administrator who had risen through Pew’s ranks to become a Vice President for programs. Although Rimel, after seizing power, pushed out most of the senior staff, Foundation News endorsed her coup.
Thanks in large measure to the persistent efforts of the Council on Foundations, today a majority of foundation officials — according to a Capital Research Center study — believe that the American private enterprise system is unfair to working people, that families and other traditional institutions cause alienation, and that a systemic restructuring of American society is necessary. These views are reflected in the fact that in recent years, grants of unprecedented proportions have been earmarked for such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the National Organization for Women‘s Legal Defense Fund. Large leftist philanthropies now make over twice as many grants to leftist organizations as their counterparts on the right make to conservatives.
The current President and CEO of the Council on Foundations is Steve Gunderson, who previously worked as the Senior Consultant and Managing Director of the Washington office of the Greystone Group, a Michigan-based management and communications consulting firm. Prior to that, he served eight terms in Congress (R-Wisconsin) from 1980-1996, and was one of America’s first openly gay congressmen.
This profile is adapted, in large part, from an article titled “Philanthropic Correctness,” written by Marvin Olasky, a Senior Fellow at the Capital Research Center.