[Marxism] Critic of ruling class philanthropy dies

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 4 13:36:05 MST 2005

NY Times, November 4, 2005
Waldemar Nielsen, Expert on Philanthropy, Dies at 88

Waldemar Nielsen, an influential and widely recognized expert on the 
workings of charitable foundations who wrote exhaustive, critical analyses 
of America's foremost philanthropies, their goals and their methods, died 
on Wednesday in New York, where he lived. He was 88.

The death was announced by his family.

His seminal work, "The Big Foundations" (Columbia University Press, 1972) 
parted the curtain on the secretive world of private fortunes and public 
largess. An encyclopedic work, it profiled, one by one, philanthropies with 
assets of $100 million or more - the "Big 33" of that era - topped by the 
Ford Foundation, which had $3.6 billion at the time the book was being 
compiled. The book, which included sketches of the founding philanthropists 
- Carnegie, Kellogg, Ford, Rockefeller, Mellon, DuPont and others - 
reflected as well on the American character and American business.

Mr. Nielsen examined, and often found wanting, the foundations' performance 
and the ways in which they responded to challenges to their tax-exempt 
status and demands for openness and diversification. He deemed them 
generally timid, inert and unimaginative but saw them, potentially, as a 
force for public good.

Reviewing the book for The New York Times, Thomas Lask wrote that Mr. 
Nielsen "has exposed for scrutiny the history, workings and rationale of 
institutions we have heard a lot of and know little about." The review went 
on to say that there was "very little" in Mr. Nielsen's presentation to 
warrant optimism about secretive, unaccountable institutions born as 
"playthings of the very rich" and past their social utility.

Mr. Nielsen updated the scene to the mid-1980's with "The Golden Donors" 
(E. P. Dutton, 1985), which expanded his history of philanthropy and 
introduced a new crop of foundations. He rated the new ones mediocre for 
the most part, with some exceptions, like those of Robert Wood Johnson, 
Mary Lasker and Brooke Astor.

Foundations, started with money the superrich would otherwise pay in taxes, 
the argument went, carried out tasks that were beyond the means or scope of 
government. Andrew Hacker, reviewing "The Golden Donors" in The Times, 
wrote that Mr. Nielsen found that "few foundations are delivering on that 

Mr. Hacker continued: "This should be a matter of public concern. After 
all, one reason taxpayers must pay more every April is that wealth made 
over to foundations not only avoids inheritance levies but becomes 
tax-exempt in its new incarnation."

In "The Golden Donors" Mr. Nielsen wrote that "in the great jungle of 
American democracy and capitalism there is no more strange or improbable 
creature than the private foundation. Private foundations are virtually a 
denial of basic premise: aristocratic institutions living on the privileges 
and indulgence of an egalitarian society; aggregations of private wealth, 
which, contrary to the proclaimed instincts of Economic Man, have been 
conveyed to public purposes. Like the giraffe, they could not possibly 
exist, but they do."

People familiar with the business of philanthropy agree that foundations 
bristled at Mr. Nielsen's candor, which thrust them uncomfortably into the 
spotlight, but that his stinging criticism ultimately brought changes.

Brian O'Connell, the founder of Independent Sector, an umbrella 
organization for large foundations and public charities, said, "He was 
often shunned because of his sharp observations and tongue, which pointed 
up the shortcomings" of foundation officials.

In "The Golden Donors," Mr. O'Connell said, "Wally took some of the biggest 
foundations to task for their cautiousness, their reluctance to take gambles."

Sarah L. Englehardt, president of the Foundation Center, which helps grant 
seekers, said that Mr. Nielsen "can be credited with the emerging 
self-consciousness of foundations" and that "the new generation of leaders 
of foundations have been very much influenced by his work."

Early in his career, Mr. Nielsen worked in government, disseminating 
information about the Marshall Plan to the American taxpayer and to its 
beneficiaries in Europe. He directed domestic and overseas programs at the 
Ford Foundation, becoming an expert on Africa, and, as the president of the 
African-American Institute in the 1960's, fostered cultural and educational 
exchanges with a continent still struggling to emerge from colonialism.

His first three books dealt with issues facing Africa. The third volume, 
"The Great Powers in Africa" (Praeger, 1969), published for the Council on 
Foreign Relations, gained the author wide recognition.

Backed by statistical tables, "The Great Powers and Africa" examined Africa 
at the end of the colonial era, when countries became a battleground for 
superpower politics. One chapter assessed the "white redoubt" in southern 
Africa as a "smoldering catastrophe." Reviewing American policy, Mr. 
Nielsen discounted direct military intervention as a solution but suggested 
aid to liberation movements in nearby states and the kind of economic 
strictures, in fact, that eventually helped end South Africa's apartheid 

Waldemar August Nielsen was born on March 27, 1917, in Greensburg, Pa., and 
graduated Phi Beta Kappa in economics and business administration from the 
University of Missouri in 1939. He was chosen as a Rhodes scholar, but the 
outbreak of war in Europe kept him from going to Oxford. He got an M.A. in 
political science at the University of Missouri in 1940 and quit a doctoral 
program to take an economist's job with the Department of Agriculture.

Once the United States entered the war, he saw action as a radar officer in 
the Pacific, receiving a bronze star. He was a special assistant to the 
secretary of commerce in Washington after the war and lived in Paris as 
deputy and later director of the State Department's European information 
program at Marshall Plan headquarters.

He joined the Ford Foundation in 1952 as deputy director of its behavioral 
sciences division, rose to executive assistant to the president and 
associate director international affairs, dealing with the foundation's 
programs overseas. He was elected president of the African-American 
Institute in New York, a foundation beneficiary, and oversaw programs that, 
among other things, broke educational bottlenecks by helping young Africans 
to an otherwise unaffordable secondary education in their own countries.

After leaving the African-American Institute in 1970, he started his own 
firm, Waldemar A. Nielsen Inc., a consultancy on corporate social policy, 
which he ran in New York until four years ago. Over the years, he was 
affiliated with the Aspen Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations. 
In 2000 a Nielsen chair in philanthropy was endowed in his honor at 
Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute.

Mr. Nielsen is survived by his wife of 62 years, Marcia Kaplan Nielsen; a 
daughter, Signe Nielsen of Manhattan; a sister, Rita Nielsen of Fort 
Lauderdale, Fla., and a granddaughter.

David Cay Johnston contributed reporting for this article.



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