Joel L. Fleishman’s The Foundation: A Great American Secret; How Private Wealth is Changing the World is a sturdy introduction to the strengths and weaknesses of what the author calls America’s “civic sector”—the nonprofit sector. He explains how the civic sector works in tandem with and lend dynamism to our other two sectors: the private (market) sector and public (government) sector.

At one point the author quotes the late John W. Gardner, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and founder of Common Cause and Independent Sector. It’s a cri de coeur:

Every American knows some piece of the independent sector. Foundations generally know a great deal about it. But very few people have glimpsed its extraordinary sweep and its possibilities. Let me draw out first the possibilities and mention some stern realities…

At its best, it is a sector in which we are allowed to pursue truth, even if we are going in the wrong direction; allowed to experiment, even if we are bound to fail; to map unknown territory, even if we get lost. It is a sector in which we are committed to alleviate misery and redress grievances, to give reign to the mind’s curiosity and the soul’s longing, to seek beauty and defend truth where we must, to honor the worthy and smite the rascals with everyone free to define worthiness and rascality, to find cures and to console the incurable, to deal with the ancient impulse to hate and fear the tribe in the next valley, to prepare for tomorrow’s crisis and preserve yesterday’s wisdom, and to pursue the questions others won’t pursue because they are too busy or too lazy or too fearful or too jaded. It is a sector for seed panting and path-finding, for lost causes and causes that yet may win, and—if I can borrow words from George Bernard Shaw—for the future and the past, for the posterity that has no vote and the tradition that never had any, for the great abstractions… for the eternal against the expedient, for the evolutionary appetite against the days of gluttony, for intellectual integrity, for humanity.

The nonprofit world does have its share of oafs and rascals. I have to say so. It has its share of unworthy institutions and, of course, it has its share of good people with whom you disagree fiercely. If you can’t find a nonprofit institution that you genuinely dislike, then something has gone wrong with our pluralism.