Having sketched Mr. Gates’s role in organizing Mr. Rockefeller’s personal philanthropies and his particular importance to the founding of the modern University of Chicago and the Rockefeller Institute, we have time only to mention that he played a similar role in the establishment of the General Education Board and of the Rockefeller Foundation and that he was an active member of both boards until well into the 1920s. Fortunately, the excellent histories of these organizations prepared by Mr. Raymond Fosdick relieve us of further responsibility for going into narrative detail.
What I want to do now is to think a little about what kind of person Mr. Gates was, how his personality influenced the shape of major American philanthropies, and what lessons can be drawn from these activities to guide American foundations in the future.
Gates may be thought of as an archetype of the nineteenth-century liberal. As such, he represents the culmination of several trends in Western civilization, some of which set in as early as the sixteenth century with Francis Bacon’s insistence that scientific knowledge would provide the power to solve many if not most of our problems. There were many other men and women with Gates’s general outlook and capacities who also accomplished much good in the world. Gates occupies a special place in the history of American philanthropy because he was preeminently the right man, in the right place, at the right time.
He was the right man because he believed deeply and irrevocably in the perfectibility of man and especially in the advancement of knowledge as the best means for reaching perfection. The vigor and rigor of the old-time religion were in his bones. But the dogmas of original sin, arbitrary election, and salvation by faith had been metamorphosed. Original sin emerged as perfectibility if one only worked hard enough; election became the obligation of the elect to serve their fellow men; and salvation returned to an Arminian concern with works. Faith, though losing its place as the one and only road to salvation, did not disappear. It simply changed its focus to include man as well as God. Faith that man can make himself better by his own efforts—that indeed he was already on his way—gave the best of Gates’s generation a single-mindedness and a driving energy which have descended too few of their skeptical grandchildren.
Gates was indubitably in the right place: at the side of the richest man in the world—except perhaps for the Nizam of Hyderabad. Unlike the Nizam, however, but like Mr. Gates, Mr. Rockefeller had been brought up a Baptist. As such, he had always given a share of his income to good works and was prepared to listen to sermons on the evils of accumulated riches.
There was undoubtedly an element of luck in bringing Mr. Gates to this spot at just this time. But, as Pasteur would have put it, chance favored the prepared mind. Gates not only shared Mr. Rockefeller’s religion, he had been born only a few miles away from the latter’s boyhood home and had shared the same rigorous rural experiences. He had had a good deal more education than Mr. Rockefeller and had perhaps a broader vision of the future. Unlike many men of vision, however, Gates early demonstrated an extraordinary grasp of practical affairs. Mr. Rockefeller could be sure that, if Mr. Gates spent his money, every penny would go to do the Lord’s work.
Finally, it was the right time. Medieval and mercantilist restraints had been steadily lifted from the world of business and had everywhere given way to the philosophy of laissez-faire. If this allowed some men to become robber barons or, as the elder Roosevelt called them, malefactors of great wealth, it allowed other men, or other parts of the same men, to become equally great benefactors. Medieval and Victorian restraints were also being lifted from education and even from religion itself. Mr. Eliot’s elective system at Harvard was symbolic of the new freedom and his efforts, along with those of others like Gilman at Hopkins, to build graduate schools on the European model were equally prophetic of an expanding belief in knowledge as power.
In order to avoid misunderstanding, it should be emphasized that Gates was a liberal primarily in the sense that he believed in improving the condition of man, and that the best way to do it was to remove artificial restraints and give all people equal opportunities. Like most self-made men of his time, he was not a “liberal” as the word has come to be used since Mr. Roosevelt’s New Deal. He was skeptical of government regulation, unsympathetic to labor unions, and believed, as we have seen, in the innate superiority of the Anglo-Saxon people.
How did Mr. Gates use his unique position in time and space to condition the characteristic development of American philanthropy? It should not belittle his strategic vision or tactical skill to point out the quintessential significance of his influence on Mr. Rockefeller. In this he combined the roles of spiritual adviser and practical man of affairs with the sagacity of a secretary confessor to a Renaissance prince. On the one hand, he emphasized how bad it would be for Mr. Rockefeller and his children if he simply went on accumulating a massive personal fortune. “Your fortune is rolling up, rolling up like an avalanche,” he would thunder at Mr. Rockefeller. “You must keep up with it. You must distribute it faster than it grows. If you do not, it will crush you and your children, and your children’s children.” More importantly and more insistently, however, he stressed the positive side by developing enticing sketches of the good things which could be achieved by wise expenditure of funds.
Next in importance perhaps was Rockefeller’s rival philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, writing in 1889, the year before Mr. Gates came to New York, “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” Finally, there was the son, John D. Rockefeller, Junior, gentler, more sensitive, but just as dedicated, and, in his own way, just as able as the two older men he worked with; but he was only a teenager when the great work began in 1890, and his major influence came later.
There is no doubt that, in the beginning, the major figures were Mr. Rockefeller, Senior, and Mr. Gates, whom Mr. Rockefeller described twenty-five years later as “the guiding genius in all our giving.” Let us pause then for a view of these two men through the eyes of a sensitive and highly literate man who worked closely with them both, Mr. Raymond Fosdick:
“Mr. Gates was a vivid, outspoken, self-revealing personality who brought an immense gusto to his work; Mr. Rockefeller was quiet, cool, taciturn about his thoughts and purposes, almost stoic in his repression. Mr. Gates had an eloquence which could be passionate when he was aroused; Mr. Rockefeller, when he spoke at all, spoke in a slow measured fashion, lucidity and penetratingly, but without raising his voice and without gestures. Mr. Gates was overwhelming and sometimes overbearing in argument; Mr. Rockefeller was a man of infinite patience who never showed irritation or spoke chidingly about anybody. Mr. Gates summed up his impression of Mr. Rockefeller in this sentence: ‘If he was very nice and precise in his choice of words, he was also nice and accurate in his choice of silences.”
What were the major principles that guided their work together? None of these principles, perhaps, originated wholly with either one of them, but most were at least given more eloquent expression or some new angle which carried the mark of originality.
First on the list we may place the principle of what Gates called wholesale versus retail giving. As we have seen, this grew directly out of his first assignment, to review all Mr. Rockefeller’s philanthropies and put them on a more orderly basis. Succeeding generations of staff officers of the Rockefeller philanthropies were instructed in the sins of “scatteration,” and we shall say more about this later.
The second great principle derives from the first. It was never formulated in quite such pithy and picturesque terms, but the point was just as clear—the importance of concentrating funds to achieve a few clearly defined objectives. Often such an objective turned out to be a new institution. Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Gates, as nineteenth-century liberals, were conservative in the sense that they recognized the need for institutions to bring together and nourish the best of men’s hopes and abilities, and to protect them against the dangers of the whims, follies, and criminal willfulness of individual men.
Even though Mr. Rockefeller’s over institutionalization of the oil industry was ultimately judged a crime meriting the largest fine assessed up to that time (and for a long time thereafter) by a federal court, there is much evidence that he thought of himself as primarily engaged in giving order to a welter of individual entrepreneurs cutting each other’s throats at the cost of proper development of the industry and the physical safety of the consumer. Gates, on his part, had been equally disturbed by the large number of inadequately financed Baptist academies and colleges competing with each other for funds and students. We have already noticed that his very first task as a philanthropic consultant was to advise Mr. Pillsbury how to use his money most effectively in putting the local Baptist academy on its feet. Not long after, he was engaged in the far larger and more important task of turning a feeble little sectarian college into the University of Chicago.
Later, the General Education Board was to devote most of its funds to developing educational institutions in the South (sometimes this program seemed dangerously close to scatteration); and to raising a group of carefully chosen medical schools to national, and ultimately international, status. The celebrated program of the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the eradication of the debilitating hookworm from the rural South may have produced its most lasting benefits by forcing the development of public health departments in states which had nothing of the kind as late as 1910. Even the county-agent system and what is now known in agricultural circles as cooperative extension owe much of their origin to the General Education Board’s effort to establish a sound agricultural economy in the South.
What Gates undoubtedly regarded as the brightest star in his constellation of institutional enterprises was the Rockefeller Institute. In this he enshrined his faith in perfecting man by making him physically sound. There is no better way of demonstrating this and incidentally of revealing the great recession of hope that separates us from our nineteenth-century ancestors than by quoting from the remarks he made at the tenth anniversary of the Institute. They begin with an intensely personal glimpse of Gates talking with a man generally revered as the leading educator of his day:
“One day I chanced to be walking down Broadway with President Eliot. We were talking about the Rockefeller Institute and I ventured to confess to him that to me the Institute was the most interesting thing in the world. ‘Nothing,’ said I, ‘is to me so exciting, so fascinating as the work the Institute is doing.’
“Dr. Eliot stopped short in the street and turned to me and said, with emphasis and emotion, 7 myself feel precisely so. The Rockefeller Institute is to me the most interesting thing in this world.’ Why is it so?
“It is so for one thing, if one stops to think about it for a moment, because the values of research are universal values. The nations have their racial antagonisms and their peculiar ideals and their distinctive literatures. Authors, the greatest of them, can speak in a single language only and are little heard in other tongues. Statesmen and generals are confined in their influence to single nations; the empires of kings are limited. But here is an institution, or in this medical research is a work, the value of which touches the life of every man that lives. Think of that!
“I said it is as universal in its scope as the love of God, and I now add it is as beneficent in its purpose. It goes to the fountains of life itself. It deals with what is innermost in every man. For what is health? Health is happiness; mere health itself is happiness.
“And on the other hand…disease…with its attendant evils is undoubtedly the main single source of human misery…In the Rockefeller Institute we have a great organization, nobly housed, suitably equipped, splendidly endowed, inspired with the most intelligent zeal and the noblest enthusiasm to prevent and to destroy the chief source
of human disqualification and misery.
“For what is human progress? Ultimately it is this, just this, and nothing else—an ever-closer approach to the facts, the laws, the forces of nature, considered of course in its largest meaning. Nothing else is progress and nothing else will prove to be permanent among men.
“I hesitate to speak of another thing that makes this Institute highly interesting to me. Do not smile if I say that I often think of the Institute as a sort of Theological Seminary. But if there be over us all the Sum of All, and the Sum Conscious—a Conscious, Intelligent Being, and that Being has any favorites on this little planet, I must believe that those favorites are made up of that ever-enlarging group of men and women who are most intimately and in very truth studying Him and His ways with men. That is the work of the Institute. In these sacred rooms He is whispering His secrets. To these men He is opening up the mysterious depths of His Being…
“As medical research goes on, therefore, it will find out and promulgate, as an unforeseen by-product of its work, new moral laws and new social laws—new definitions of what is right and wrong in our relations with each other. Medical research will educate the human conscience in new directions and point out new duties. It will make us sensitive to new moral distinctions. It will teach nobler conceptions of our social relations and of the God who is over us all.”
This passage, and there is a good deal more of it, not only illustrates Gates’s belief in the importance of institutions but testifies to the depth of his belief in certain much broader philosophical convictions.
The third great principle was the importance of finding the best men available and then leaving them free to do the job in their own way. This applied at every level; the members of the various boards, the staff members, and the recipients of grants were all chosen with meticulous care and then given their heads. Here, again, Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Gates were in agreement. Mr. Rockefeller owed much of his business success to his skill in selecting the men who managed the various parts of his domain. Just as he was prepared to delegate to Gates the development of the Mesabi iron range, so they both joined in finding such men as Simon Flexner to direct the Rockefeller Institute, the very different but equally effective Wallace Buttrick to run the General Education Board, and the remarkable Wickliffe Rose to start the Rockefeller Foundation.
These choices were not simply happy accidents. Although luck must have played some part in a record so uniformly successful, Gates and Rockefeller knew what they were doing and were quite conscious of the importance of the principle they were following. As early as 1891, Gates wrote excitedly to Dr. Harper, who was then picking his celebrated faculty at Chicago: “I had a great talk with Mr. R., and he wished me to say to you positively that the best men had.” It may seem odd to emphasize such an obvious principle as the one that states that only the best men do the best job. I do so because of the even odder fact that so few donors of major foundations have followed the path so clearly marked out for them by the founding fathers. Whereas the Rockefeller boards have always included a broad selection of enlightened businessmen, leading lawyers, physicians, clergymen, and scholars, and their full-time staffs have stood comparison with the higher levels of academia, the rosters of many other foundations resemble an invitation list to a small family wedding—blood relatives, plus a few old friends and business associates.
The fourth principle, “hands off after you’ve made the grant,” has proven even more difficult to follow, and we will have more to say about this matter later. At this point we must only record that no one else appears to have come close to the self-denying ordinance taken by Mr. Rockefeller himself. In 1909, after twenty years of giving, he put his point of view in words that might have sounded slightly ironic from any but this totally serious man:
“I have not had the hardihood . . . even to suggest how people, so much more experienced and wise in those things than I, should work out the details even of those plans with which I have had the honor to be associated.”
What’s more, he really meant it. He refused election to the boards of the Rockefeller Institute, the General Education Board, and the Sanitary Commission, and, though formally listed for a few years as a member of the Rockefeller Foundation board, he never attended a meeting.
Gates’s position was of course quite different, and he was a very active member of all the boards. He certainly knew about the “hands-off’ principle, and his insistence on wholesale versus retail philanthropy and the importance of institution building through large endowments, and his efforts to see that the credit for the progress achieved with General Education Board funds in the South went to the local operatives, all demonstrate his observance of it. On the other hand, as a board member, he frequently expressed dismay and irritation when the full-time staff appeared to stray from what he felt was the right path. Indeed, he ultimately resigned from the General Education Board because of a sense of outrage over the increasing independence of its staff.
The fifth principle sounds simple and obvious enough— “Thorough study should precede the launching of a new philanthropic program”—but Gates exemplified it in a form which would be difficult to duplicate today. Even the ablest and most vigorous foundation officer would find it difficult to write to every potential grantee in a given field as Gates himself did in the case of the Baptist educational institutions and recommended to the General Education and China Medical Boards. The best of his successors do, however, manage to become familiar with at least the major figures, concepts, and institutions in their chosen fields.
Finally, and most controversially, Gates felt that private philanthropy should not be extended to public institutions, and he broke with the General Education Board in a bitter letter (or memo) when A. Flexner insisted on including the University of Iowa in the program of endowments for establishing full-time teaching in medicine.
The foregoing list is of course far from exhaustive, and the same principles may be formulated in a number of different ways.  As formulated here, it does, however, seem to include the major propositions developed by Mr. Gates to guide the Rockefeller philanthropies.
What can be said about these principles in the light of experience since Mr. Gates’s time? How well do they serve to guide us into our uncertain future?
But first a brief word about how the environment of philanthropy has changed since the beginning of this century. In the first place, the number of foundations has grown enormously from an inconspicuous handful in 1900 to 25,000 in 1968. Capital funds have gone from a few million to over $20 billion. But the objects of organized philanthropy have multiplied even faster. The total U.S. expenditure on higher education and academic research is estimated at $16.8 billion in 1968, with less than 3 percent coming from foundations. In the early years of the century the Carnegie Corporation’s $6 million a year represented approximately 7 percent of the total income of all institutions of higher learning. For a brief period before World War I, only two foundations, the Carnegie Corporation and the General Education Board, may have been providing a sum equal to 20 percent of the total expenditure for all higher education. As late as 1930 President Keppel of the Carnegie Corporation estimated the total endowments of universities and foundations as approximately equal, at $I billion. Subsequent changes in relative financial position, largely because of the great increase in state and federal expenditures, have made it impossible for any single foundation or all of them taken together to exert the kind of leverage characterized in the early days of the Rockefeller and Carnegie boards. The same changes affect the question of institution building, and the related business of wholesale versus retail giving.
Gates’s original distinction, as we have seen, grew out of his first experience with what he called “the stalking of Mr. R. by petitioners.’’ In some of his later writings and pronouncements, he seems to have extended his opposition to include small grants of any type; and another apostle of the same view, Abraham Flexner, wrote a bitter little book towards the end of his career in which he berated their successors for abandoning the grand manner in favor of a series of relatively small grants for specified research projects.
Actually, success may be achieved in both modes, but one needs to define one’s terms rather more precisely and to look more carefully at the different modes to see exactly what it is that makes for respect in one case and contempt in another. For example, the fellowship program conducted by Mr. Henry Allen Moe and his successors at the Guggenheim Foundation has won the respect of practically everybody. Nevertheless, it is retail business by any possible definition. Indeed, Gates might well have invented the term scatteration to characterize a program of small grants of scarcely a year’s duration each to individuals representing everything from molecular biology to modern dance. What saves the program is its single-minded devotion to two other principles—the importance of individuals in the creative process, and a meticulous attention to quality.
Contrast the foregoing with another program which could be regarded as wholesale in the sense that it spent in one awful blast about seventy times as much money as the Guggenheim spends in a whole year. Approximately $100 million flowed to the approved hospitals in the United States, according to a formula that gave the same amount to one of the most highly specialized clinical research units in New York City as to a small cottage hospital in rural New England. The lack both of clear overall purpose and of any discrimination in distribution combined to make this episode the most magnificent model of scatteration in the history of modern philanthropy.
Wholesale philanthropy in the sense originally proposed by Gates has turned out to occupy a relatively small place in most foundation activity and is probably declining. For example, the Rockefeller Foundation and a limited number of other foundations for a time made block grants to the National Research Council, which in turn undertook the retail business of distributing the funds in the form of individual fellowships or small-to-moderate research grants, the latter especially in the field of reproductive physiology. Several foundations over the years have contributed in the same way and for somewhat similar purposes to the Social Science Research Council and certain other professional associations. In spite of the outstanding success of at least some of these programs, the trend seems to be against them. The reasons are complex. The easiest to identify perhaps is the obvious fact that certain programs like the NRC fellowships became redundant when the government entered the field with much larger funds. Also important is the general reluctance of foundation officers and staff to become locked into the support of subcontractors, however good they may be. Somehow, it doesn’t seem quite consistent with the image of foundations as fountains of innovation to go on doling out funds year after year to the same retailers. Finally, in an era of sharply rising administrative costs, there is doubt about the propriety of saddling the distribution of philanthropic funds with two stages of overhead charges.
The modern version of the wholesale-versus-retail, or concentration-versus-scatteration, principle has a somewhat different emphasis. Almost all students of foundations agree that it is desirable to focus their grants, however small each may be in itself, on a relatively small number of well-defined objectives. The latter constitute the foundation’s “program.” Ideally, a foundation should hold its course towards an objective until it is actually reached, or at least shows real promise of being reached with other resources. One classical sort of such an objective is a new institution. We have already seen how Gates and Mr. Rockefeller committed themselves to build the University of Chicago and the Rockefeller Institute. In each instance, after the progressive allocation of upwards of $35 million and a growth period of twenty years, the institutions in question were recognized as competitors for best in class. The General Education Board chose a somewhat broader institutional objective when it set out in 1913 to establish the full-time principle of medical teaching in an adequate sample of U.S. schools. Fifteen years and $6I million later it had pretty well achieved its objective in some twenty-five of the nation’s approximately seventy-five schools, but it continued to consolidate the gains with a slowly tapering set of grants totaling an additional $30 million over the next thirty years. This is institution building on a grand scale and with an admirable degree of both forethought and persistence. It is unlikely that any effort so broad and at the same time so intense can ever be mounted with private funds again. Modern examples of equal importance, if fewer in number, may be found in the effort of the Ford and Rockefeller foundations to build four or five specialized agricultural institutes in the underdeveloped areas of the world. One of these, the International Rice Research Institute at Los Banos, has already after a short fifteen years demonstrated a success fully comparable to that of its distinguished medical predecessors.
The principle of concentration of resources works equally well towards objectives other than institution building. The most obvious examples are the several efforts mounted to control or “eradicate” certain clearly defined disease entities. The first was the effort by the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission to eradicate hookworm from the American South and later, by the Rockefeller Foundation, from the whole world. The last successful one was the campaign against polio planned and to a large extent executed by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. None of these, of course, completely eradicated its chosen disease, but control became so complete as to justify closing down the foundation effort.
Choosing foundation campaigns of this type requires a good sense of timing, and a nice balancing of needs with leads. In all the successful cases, enough basic information was already available to enable an intelligent start to be made, but almost always further basic discoveries and even a lucky break were necessary for complete success. These instances, together with the recent success of the effort to introduce modern agricultural methods into underdeveloped countries, suggest that foundations are especially well fitted to fill the gap which often exists between acquiring basic knowledge and applying it to social welfare.
Generally speaking, however, any foundation which undertakes to reach a specific objective of this kind must be prepared to hang on for many years, to shift strategies and tactics, and to spend a good deal more money than the original estimates. In 1915 the conquest of yellow fever was confidently expected in a relatively few years simply by a general application of the anti-mosquito techniques that had proved so successful in Cuba and the Canal Zone. It turned out in fact to depend on the development of a vaccine, which in turn depended on the development of a wholly new set of techniques for growing viruses in mice and finally in tissue culture. It was not until the early 1940s that the effort could be allowed to taper off and ultimately be phased out. The schedule for poliomyelitis was not very different.
The requirement for patience, resourcefulness, and tenacity is in no way peculiar to medicine and public health. The Rockefeller program in agriculture began with an effort to improve corn production in Mexico in 1943. In the late sixties it gained international recognition with the introduction of highly productive strains of wheat into the Punjab and Indus Valley. But there is still much to do in adjusting these new methods to the needs of a largely peasant society. Much of the work can now be shifted to other shoulders, but there can be no thought that the foundation can take its hand from the plow, confident that the job has been done even after thirty years of unremitting effort.
The principle of concentration is not confined to institution building, nor to operating programs in public health and agriculture. Many, if not most, foundations attempt to confine their so-called project grants to particular program areas. One strikingly successful example is the thirty-year program conducted by Mr. Warren Weaver and his colleagues for the application of physics and chemistry to biology. It may be regarded as having reached a definable “end point” in the coming of age of molecular biology. Somewhat similar in its coherence of method and intelligence of administration was the program in support of the performing arts at the Ford Foundation under the direction of W. McNeil Lowry, although in this case, of course, one could not expect the same kind of clearly definable end. Perhaps, though, the current preeminence and creativity of American ballet may be regarded as a similar kind of justification.
The need to concentrate large resources in order to obtain some clearly defined objective after a long period of time conflicts with another principle of foundation action—innovation. The founding fathers knew they were doing something new and talked very little about it, so I have not included it in my list of Gates principles. Latter- day defenders of foundations are much more vocal about their role as investors of intellectual venture capital and no critique of modern foundation practice can avoid commenting on it.
True enough, a few of the major foundations can list a number of venturesome investments over the years. Carnegie’s support of Gunnar Myrdal’s observation of the American dilemma, Rockefeller’s support of the Kinsey studies, Ford’s recent forays into the ghetto. The total is, however, very small in relation to total foundation expenditures. Indeed, the impressions of some participant observers, as well as the only available quantitative study, agree that foundation grants tend overall to be less venturesome and innovative than some of the funds provided by other sources. Nevertheless, the myth remains, and it is frequently cited by foundation officers in search of explanations or excuses for refusing support to otherwise worthy proposals. Indeed, there is substantial anecdotal evidence that hard-pressed university officials spend much of their time devising innovative wrappings with which to tempt foundations into supporting quite conventional packages.
There are, in fact, limits to the number of genuine innovations any foundation can undertake. Thus, it has become customary to finance innovations on a temporary basis in the hope of getting out as soon as possible so as to finance an even newer innovation somewhere else. The system worked deceptively well during the great expansion that followed World War II. The several full-time departments of psychiatry set up during the thirties with the help and encouragement of the Rockefeller Foundation, for example, were funded many times over by the National Institute of Mental Health during the lush growth of the late forties and fifties. Similarly, several area-studies groups originally financed by the Rockefeller, Ford, or Carnegie foundations later received major help from AID or the Department of Defense.
The sudden slowing of government funds in the late sixties, however, left most universities with their innovations showing, some of them exposed rather painfully. Indeed, I can remember the surprise of a vice provost at discovering along about 1968 that faculty salaries supported in his institution by temporary foundation funds totaled $2 million per year. No wonder that some such officials developed a previously unfelt sympathy for St. Paul and his impatience with the Athenians for spending “their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.” Since much of this modern search for “some new thing” occurs in universities, it includes tinkering with the form, but only rarely with the substance, of education. Much of this appears to be directed at reducing the individual effort hitherto thought necessary for intellectual cultivation. Thus, many millions of dollars have been spent on audio-visual aids, programmed learning, or shortening the time spent on getting the Ph.D. fiat. Unfortunately, no commensurate effort has been made to determine what the innovations accomplish in terms of changes in the exposed individuals. In such cases we seem to be dealing with innovation simply for innovation’s sake.
This somewhat sour appraisal of much that passes for innovation is not to say that I disagree with the general thesis that it should be a primary role of foundations to encourage the development of new knowledge and the finding of new solutions to old problems. Indeed, a larger share of foundation funds might well be devoted to the support of social change. It must, however, always be borne in mind that genuine changes in social institutions are far from easy to make and ordinarily require very substantial help over long periods of time. One genuine innovation is worth, and may well cost, some hundreds of the “new things” that so preoccupy the latter-day Athenians in some foundations.
In setting forth our third principle—the importance of selecting good people and leaving them alone—we have already noted that the emphasis on outstanding ability characteristic of the early foundations has not always been followed by their successors. Too often boards of trustees represent families and friends of the donor, and the staff officers are culled from business associates who haven’t quite made it elsewhere.
More of an effort is made to observe the principle in the selection of grantees, and almost all foundation officers will repeat the ancient litany that the quality of the principal investigator is paramount. Although no quantitative studies have been done, some observers have the impression that recent years have seen some compromise with principle in this area. In part, this is traceable to increasing concern with the practical aspects of certain kinds of social problems. It is a sad though certain fact, for example, that the economic, social, and administrative problems involved in the distribution of medical care have not attracted the same number of outstandingly creative people as has the study of the structure and function of deoxyribonucleic acid. A foundation interested in the first kind of problem must perforce settle for less brilliant personnel.
As concern for practical problems and doubts about the capability of grantees have grown, it has become harder and harder for foundation officers to keep their cotton-picking fingers out of their grantees’ activities. Actually, a long line of commentators from Hans Zinsser to McGeorge Bundy have shown that private foundations were never so austerely restrained in this respect as they like to believe. Indeed, contrary to the conventional wisdom, there was a time when government officials seemed better than private ones at observing the self- denying ordinance.
Now, what my old professor of obstetrics would have called meddlesome interference seems to be growing in both private and government agencies. In some, notably the RANN program of NSF, it is the rule, rather than the exception. The reasons for this change in atmosphere are complex, but it probably reflects in part the heightened anxiety which afflicts so much of our public and private lives. Foundation officers have even more reasons than most people have for worrying about themselves. Often, they are recruited before they have established scholarly reputations of their own. They are thus frequently conscious of negotiating with persons of notably greater distinction than themselves. Furthermore, they are usually one to several steps away from where the action is. As a result, they find it difficult to be sure of what their contribution to a successful project may have been. On the other hand, failures are easy to identify. A poor choice of project is there for all to see and even for a congressional committee to investigate. These personal doubts and fears may all too easily be projected outwards into doubt and fear of the grantee, and thus activate the cotton-picking fingers already referred to.
There is no question that the series of congressional investigations which began with the Cox committee in 1952 and continues today through the interest of Mr. Patman has raised the normal anxieties of foundation officers to pathological heights. Certainly, there have been many abuses of the foundation privilege, and Congress had every right to take a look. Indeed, the legislation which finally emerged as the direct result of the most recent Patman inquiries served for the most part only to force on the delinquent and inadequate foundations, standards of behavior and accountability which had long been routine for the reputable and well established.
The indirect effects, however, have been much more serious since they bore particularly heavily on just those organizations which by all other measures were doing the best job—especially perhaps on those most energetic in fulfilling the stated foundation mission of encouraging desirable social change. Change and subversion are not always easy to distinguish.
Two decades of congressional investigation began with allegations of widespread foundation support for communist infiltrators. With only a few minor exceptions these allegations were early shown to be without foundation. Nevertheless, and in spite of an official expression of surprise that the number was so few, several foundations felt it necessary for several years after to compare all proposed grantees with the attorney general’s lists of alleged subversive organizations and individuals. The effect on staff morale, their pride in their organization, and spirit of adventure is difficult to calculate, but to this participant observer it was severe.
Similarly, distasteful is the current oversensitivity to the admittedly crucially important matter of public accountability. Nobody argues about the absolute necessity for revealing the facts of foundation transactions to an interested public, but some foundations are interpreting this as requiring the frequent publication of slick-paper, multiply illustrated booklets, more appropriate to the coffee table than the desks of serious observers. More recently, throwaways in folio form and of even less critical content have appeared. Gates deals with these matters in Chapter XLV1I of the autobiography, entitled “Mr. Rockefeller’s Benefactions—Their Spirit,” and what a different spirit it is. I wish there were time to quote it in full. It begins with the following:
“One day, a year or two after I had become associated with Mr. Rockefeller’s benevolence, and had observed the thinly veiled ingratitude of human nature, I ventured to say to him something like this: Mr. Rockefeller, if any man’s happiness in doing good depends on human gratitude or praise, or public recognition, if his satisfaction is sought or expected from any source whatever, except the knowledge of good intended and the silent approval of conscience, that man’s sun will go down at the end amid the clouds of a disappointed and embittered life.’ His only reply, uttered with deliberation and unwonted emphasis, was, ‘DON’T I KNOW THAT?’’’
Mr. Gates then goes on to quote the most telling Scriptures. “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men.” “Let your light so shine [not make it shine] before men that they may see your good works and glorify [not you, but] your Father which is in Heaven.” And he includes a long letter written to “a magazine writer of excellent credentials” who wished to interview him about the Rockefeller philanthropies. “It was,” Gates said, “circulated among all the officers of Mr. Rockefeller’s various foundations for their guidance.” The guidance continued into the forties, when I first joined the unusual circle, but disappeared rapidly after the Cox and Reese investigations and the rise of the not-so-hidden persuaders. The letter is much too long for full quotation here; much of it deals with Mr. Rockefeller’s personal position and his quiet satisfaction in knowing he was doing the right thing, whether or not it was publicly recognized. For our purposes, it is important only to note that Gates clearly distinguishes between publishing “the facts” (of the various philanthropic expenditures), of which he thoroughly approves, and “laudatory statements or interviews with members of Mr. Rockefeller’s official family,” of which he equally thoroughly disapproves.
He then goes on to cite instances in which the end of philanthropy is better achieved if the source is unknown. For example, the agricultural work of the General Education Board in the South was attributed to the Commissioner of Agriculture. “The 1600 high schools. . . brought into being by Mr. Rockefeller’s educational organization” were credited to local authorities, and the hookworm work, to the state health boards. “To have put Mr. Rockefeller’s name forward would have deprived the work of the stimulus of local enthusiasm.”
The most controversial of the Gates principles, that private giving should be confined to private institutions, was not observed even in his own time, and survives today only in very attenuated form. For one thing, the distinction between public and private is not really so clear as he thought it was. Several so-called public institutions have substantial private endowments. Contrariwise, many so-called private institutions depend heavily on public funds—not only federal, but state and municipal as well. Distinctions on the basis of quality make even less sense. Most rankings put Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley in the same rarefied upper bracket, and there are few consistent qualitative differences between the two groups as we go down the list.
In spite of these and other considerations which seem to argue for equal treatment, other events of the last few years suggest that a return to the strict Gates position might be defended. All state systems are by necessity committed to the real or imagined need to provide higher education to perhaps half the entire population. In order to keep costs within the willingness of the taxpayer to pay, central control is increasingly placed over faculty salaries, tenure policy, teacher—student ratios, library expenditures, and so forth. As states become more and more preoccupied with equality and uniformity, pluralism and excellence may increasingly become the responsibility of the private sector.
 Raymond B. Fosdick, The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952), p. 2.
Fosdick, The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation, p. 11.
See, for example, chap. XXIII in Fosdick, The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation.