Swans Commentary » swans.com July 12, 2010  



Foundations and Cultural Imperialism
An Interview with Mary Anna Colwell


by Michael Barker





(Swans - July 12, 2010)   Mary Anna Colwell obtained her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. Her doctoral dissertation was titled "Philanthropic Foundations and Public Policy: The Political Role of Foundations" (1980), and this study was published in 1993 by Garland Publishing under the same title. In 1980 Colwell contributed a chapter headed "The Foundation Connection: Links among Foundations and Recipient Organization" to Robert Arnove's edited book Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980). Since completing her Ph.D., Colwell has held teaching positions at the University of California Berkeley, the University of California Davis, and the University of San Francisco. She has also worked for various foundations and presently acts as volunteer advisor for Data Center -- a social justice non-profit organization. The following interview was undertaken by e-mail in May/June 2010.

Michael Barker: Your work on philanthropy was based on your Ph.D. dissertation completed at the University of California, Berkley in 1980: how did your examination committee react to your thesis?

Mary Anna Colwell: It was difficult to put together a committee. One of the major political sociologists in the department would only be on the committee if I was working on something similar to the muckraking attacks on the Rockefeller Foundation in Ramparts magazine some years before. The head of the department was so shocked by this that he agreed to be on the committee although not at all interested in the topic, which was true of most of the department. The other two members agreed to be on the committee only because of personal relationships. (1) I chose to do both the 100% sample and the random sample to be as unbiased as possible in this research.

MB: Why did you choose to undertake your doctoral studies (to be able to do credible sociological research), and how did you become interested in studying philanthropy?

MAC: I worked in the foundation world and found my participant-observer status a good basis for research. (2)

MB: Could you please tell me a little about any people and/or groups who helped you propagate the ideas presented in your work? (Here I am thinking of your contribution to Robert Arnove's book Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism, and your book Private Foundations and Public Policy.)

MAC: I did not attempt to "propagate the ideas" in my work. Arnove and Roelofs both came to me as a result of the book/dissertation.

MB: As a result of publishing your work did you come across any opposition from the academic and/or philanthropic community? Could you please explain how you dealt with such resistance?

MAC: No specific opposition or resistance that I was aware of. Most of the foundations and donors with whom I worked in subsequent years, and the academics I knew, thought it was good work. An exception is that the first academic press I approached would not consider it for publication and my suspicion was that the person with whom I spoke had very close ties with some local foundations and found the overall approach offensive. I did not make other attempts for publication and Garland Press came to me with the offer to publish.

MB: How do you now feel about your earlier work on foundations? Do you have any regrets, and if so what do you think you might have changed if you were given the chance?

MAC: I regret that I did not explore further the suggestion, given to me by one of the foundation execs I interviewed, for regionally supported foundations (described in the last book chapter, I think). It would have been interesting to talk more with community foundation leaders about this possibility and whether it would change the very skewed geographic distribution of grants.

MB: How would you define the concept of power? What images and/or metaphors does it evoke for you?

MAC: This is the subject of many a book, article, and philosophical discourse. With respect to foundations, power is the ability to support (or not support) individuals and organizations with specific missions -- of all kinds, and/or the ability to select a mission and then find the individuals and organizations who will perform the work, service, advocacy et al. Re: public policy foundations, a tiny part of the overall foundation world, power is the ability to establish programs and projects as "demonstrations" which are then promoted to government entities (municipal, state, federal) for future support with tax revenues. Foundation money can help influence many governmental activities in a wide range of areas -- through legal defense funds, think tanks, voter registration drives, community organizations, providing relevant experience to talented individuals who then run for office or are appointed to government agencies and so on. Nonprofit organizations that do public policy work can be substantially influenced by major foundation donors in some cases. In my opinion one could find examples of each of these methods of influence supported by foundations of all kinds -- so-called conservative, liberal, and neutral foundations. A possible exception is voter registration and community organization work, which seems not to be supported by conservative foundations. A major difference is the relative amount of money available for policy work from one foundation to another. This cannot be measured by looking at assets and total grants because some of the smaller foundations focus almost all of their money on policy work and many others allot only a fraction of total grants in this way. Which is one of the points I tried to make clear in my book.

MB: Why do you think that written criticisms of liberal foundations are so few and far between?

MAC: In part because there is such a paucity of work on foundations to start with and there are relatively few liberal foundations. The major writers who have been supported by foundation funds, from foundations like Russell Sage, have not chosen to bite the hand that fed them but do include criticisms of many of the larger foundations that some would consider "liberal" (Ford, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Carnegie for example). In the past, severe critiques from the right and left have been agenda driven and, in some cases, quite inadequate as scholarship. The Chronicle of Philanthropy regularly publishes critical opinion columns on foundations from both liberal and conservative observers (Pablo Eisenberg and Leslie Lenkowsky for two examples.) Also in the past, (because I am not following their work now) the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy has taken the view that all foundations should reform their practices, be more interested in public policy, etc. And last, but maybe not least, academics who seek outside funding for critical research on foundations rarely are successful in obtaining it. I am aware of critical work that has not been published because of withdrawal of support or refusal to allow publication (a condition of the grants). Also by both conservative and liberal foundations.

MB: Following on from the last question, I was wondering what you thought about Professor Joan Roelofs's criticisms of liberal philanthropy?

MAC: I found her work interesting and provocative. As I remember it, I did not agree with all the conclusions she drew from her data -- but that is a somewhat vague memory. I have not read it for years. As I recall, she thought there was an effort to keep work like hers from being supported or published but that I am not sure about that either.


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  In her book Colwell writes: "My dissertation committee was Franz Schurmann, Neil Smelser, and Janice Perlman of the University of California, Berkeley." In addition, she adds that: "Sociologists G. William Domhoff, John McCarthy, Mayer Zald, and Michael Schwartz encouraged me to seek wider publication of my findings on private foundations. Dr. Schwartz deserves my special thanks for a close reading of my dissertation and the detailed comments he made about how it should be revised to produce a book." (pp.xiii-xvi)  (back)

2.  In her book Colwell notes that in spring 1973, after the death of a major donor, she was asked by the family of the donor to head a small family foundation to help their adult children spend the assets and close the foundation. She worked for the LARAS foundation for the next four and a half years becoming "immersed in the foundation world." (p.xv) She writes that she "was encouraged by the trustees to become involved in the local foundation association, the national Council on Foundations, and other developing networks among like-minded funders as they emerged over the next several years. Since the foundation was closing we gave away about $1 million each year which made our grants program equal to that of many large foundations and gave me access to that segment of the foundation world." (p.xvi) "At the same time as I worked for the foundation I completed studies for the Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley." "I continued to work for individual donors and small foundations from 1976 to 1981 and attended local and national meetings of foundation associations. I was a trustee of several grant-making public charities and of a small private foundation during this period also. From 1981 to 1984 I was a foundation and corporate fund raiser for a big environmental organization which enlarged my understanding of how funders and recipient groups interact. From 1984 to 1989 I was an organizational and fund raising consultant to a wide range of nonprofit organizations and taught in a graduate program at the University of San Francisco for managers of nonprofit organizations." (p.xvi)  (back)


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Published July 12, 2010