Is There Still a Place for the Reflective Foundation?

May 21, 2010

I’d like to conclude my stint as an “Intrepid Philanthropist” by asking a question I have been putting for several years: Whatever became of the “learned foundation”? The term refers to a small number of the earliest large private philanthropic foundations that had a sweeping concern for human improvement and a very generous timeframe. The Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of the 1920s are classic examples of what I have in mind. Foundations of this sort had broad mandates and very long fuses. They accepted the definition of philanthropy originated by John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie—to explore the underlying causes of human distress in order to develop strategies to eradicate them. Their primary philanthropic investment was in research, usually university based, and their objectives were mostly open-ended. They were pretty tolerant of failure, since they were aware that few ambitious quests would be completely successful. I suppose that they implicitly bought into the idea of progress, for they had considerable confidence that their efforts would in the end bear fruit—they would improve the universal lot of humankind. They were thus committed to the notion that systematic reflection would create the most promising path to the future. I am of course exaggerating for effect. There were a range of different approaches for the earliest large foundations—Russell Sage and the Rosenwald Fund, for instance, were a good deal more pragmatic and focused. But I think it is fair to say the Rockefeller and Carnegie established the ur-type in the years before the Great Depression.
I do not want to attempt in this post a short history of the philanthropic foundation in the twentieth century, but I do want to fast-forward to what I take to be the dominant attitude of the large foundations today and in the recent past. I would characterize the present as the era of the active, immediatist, and pragmatic foundations. Those of you who manage foundations would probably choose slightly different descriptors, such as “strategic” and “effective.” There is a plethora of reasons why today’s large foundations think of their roles quite differently than their predecessors did, but one crucial reason for the difference is the dramatic change in the environment in which contemporary foundations operate. The early Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations were huge private forces in an era of small and limited government and profound national ethnocentricism. Today, on the other hand, the state is by far the largest investor in research, government is in the policy-planning business to stay, and we live in a dramatically globalized world that is confronting what appear to be insuperable problems. Even the largest foundations have bought into the notion that if they are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem. It is now generally accepted that foundations have to define their missions narrowly and precisely, and invest their funds in close correspondence to specified goals. They demand measurable performance in the short to mid term. They pride themselves on being businesslike, and thus have adopted business models.
I think it is clear that there have been significant beneficial results from the new turn in foundation self-understanding. I think it is also clear that the traditional foundations I have praised failed frequently to produce significant social good. Paul Brest, president of the Hewlett Foundation, once asked me in public whether I would prefer foundations to be ineffective. It was a fair question and of course the answer was that I would not. But I remain stubbornly of the view that there are some questions worth asking that cannot easily be answered, and some tasks worth undertaking that cannot be achieved any time soon. In a world as chaotic and threatened as ours, I believe that what we need most is institutions like philanthropic foundations (and the universities they used to be so much more closely allied with) that remain committed to reflection, research, and the long term. I don’t think effectiveness can fully be measured quarterly or even annually. But perhaps that is why I am a scholar, and not a foundation manager.

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Oct 05

Rip Rapson
President and CEO
The Kresge Foundation