Case Study of the General Education Board (GEB), 1903 to 1960

Aspen Institute



Case Study Sector


The General Education Board (GEB) was established in 1903 by John D. Rockefeller. Its broad charter was to sponsor and support aid to education in the United States “without distinction of race, sex or creed.” The influential figure in the creation and scope of the GEB was Frederick T. Gates, longtime philanthropic advisor to John D. Rockefeller. Although the formal charter and mandate were broad and at one time or another included assistance to educational programs in each and every state, the initial emphasis of the GEB was to work to improve education in the South.
Foremost among its early initiatives was to promote the establishment of public high schools in Southern states. It did so by means of direct grants and also by assembling teams of experts in planning and development so as to create within these states public and legislative support for extending public schooling to include high school as part of a permanent system funded by regular taxation. After 1920 the GEB extended its projects to numerous economic and social issues in the South which were supplements and complements to its original emphasis on public education. It included matters of health (e.g., the eradication of hook worm), regional diet and regional agriculture. Later, medicine—including international medical care and health systems—became integral to GEB priorities.
Initial and influential leadership for the GEB was provided by Wallace Buttrick. Under his leadership the GEB represented what was then called “scientific philanthropy,” an approach that institutionalized professionalism and planning in large scale gifts and projects. The case of the GEB is pertinent to the study of philanthropic endowment spend-downs for two reasons. First, in 1920 John D. Rockefeller loosened the GEB’s constraints on limited annual spending with the explicit intent of having its board and officers devote substantial endowment resources to significant problems immediately. Second, the GEB was guided by a planned phase-out and spend-down. In 1940 all projects except for selected ones dealing with the education of Blacks in the South were brought to closure. These remaining programs were scheduled to end in 1960, at which time the GEB would be dissolved. The GEB appropriated slightly more than $321 million for its sponsored projects from its founding in 1902 and its dissolution in 1960.
This case study is one of five presented in Time Is of the Essence: Foundations and the Policies of Limited Life and Endowment Spend-Down: the Julius Rosenwald Fund, 1917 to 1948; the General Education Board, 1903 to 1961; the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust; the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust; and the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation.



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