258. "Foundation Reports: a Call for More Than Exhortation" Chronicle of Philanthropy, (December 13, 1994), p. 45.


Once every few years a major report prepared by or for a foundation lands on my desk. The report is typically richly executed. It has compelling pictures, well-designed layouts, a long list of luminaries who participated in drafting it, and a considerable list of well-known consultants is credited.

The report exhorts. It tells its readers, in strong and moving words, that our country is grossly neglecting one of more social groups (the homeless, our children, the poor). It establishes in no uncertain terms that it is a crying shame that the richest of nations allows such indignities to persist.

I always find that part of a report rather moving and compelling. But sometimes I also wonder about the implications that all of these people are in dire straits only because of the ills, if not the evils, of others. They seem not to have contributed to their condition in any way. The finger, as a rule, is pointed exclusively elsewhere.

Next, the typical report provides a long list of measures that various government agencies, corporations, educators, and many others should take to rectify the deplorable situation. The statements usually start with the morally commanding should. The President should address the nation and call for , Congress should pass laws that prohibit , corporations should pay for , and so on.

Such reports have all the strength of a vision and moral appeal – and many of the limitations. They provide cause for concern and they focus on a particularly shameful circumstance, although rarely on one that was not previously quite well known. They often generate press coverage, are cited in testimony before Congressional committees, and are used as points of reference.

What is missing? The answer is far from self-evident. It might be argued that most of the suggestions advanced in these reports have come up before, so that for them to go further they need to establish what forces blocked the implementation of similar recommendations made previously and come up with suggestions as to how those forces may be overcome.

As a rule, moral exhortation is not sufficient for overcoming the opposition of special-interest groups, the competition of other legitimate claims for the same – always limited – resources, and major ideological objections. But is it he foundations’ job to come up with such “political” analysis or should they just start the ball rolling and hope that others will kick it?

Foundation reports rarely put a price tag, not even a very rough estimate, on their recommendations. One reason seems to be that often the costs of implementing all the numerous recommendations of such reports could well exceed the total budget of government, if not the gross national product. The reports seem to assume that their audiences would embrace only part of what they favor, and therefore figuring out the cost of the total package is not called for.

The reports also do not typically set priorities for their recommendations. They do not suggest that if all steps cannot be undertaken at once, which ones should be attended to urgently and which might be deferred.

But is that the foundations’ job or should this be left to policy wonks, the federal Office of Management and Budget, boards of education, and so on?

Exceptions do occur. Take the report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York entitled “Starting Points: Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children.” It is second to none in its exhortation and list of shoulds, but it does point the direction in which policies may unfold and provides some figures that might be useful for people who wish to gain at least some feel for the size of resource commitments that would be needed.

The report is replete with examples of localities, non-profit groups, and agencies that have implemented parts of what is being suggested. It includes the results – and the costs of those projects. For instance, it reports that a 1986 project to recruit certified nurse-midwives for underserved areas of Georgia resulted in the lowering of infant mortality from 12 to 8.2 per thousand at a total cost of $1.4-million. Needless to say, such statements do not answer many subsequent questions concerning, for example, other factors that were at work at the same time or the transferability of the Georgia experience elsewhere. But they still give the report an additional touch of reality.

I am not arguing that all foundation reports have to be cut from one cloth, or that one format is superior, and certainly not that exhortations are without merit, force, or consequence. But it is time to agree that we now have a rather well-stocked library of shoulds. Foundations need to offer ideas about how to overcome the hurdles that stand in the way of solutions, come up with firm estimates of how much it will take to put ideas into practice, and suggest where all that money can be found.

Without concrete, real-world suggestions, foundation reports will become mainly records of noble sentiments. Our society is crying out for more.

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