Text of letter to Alexander Heard as published in Foundation News, March/April 1977.
For some time now I have been giving thought to my role with the foundation. As you know, I have served as a trustee since 1943, which means that I have been involved, one way or another, in virtually every step of development from its rather informal beginnings to its present highly structured state.
The foundation has been a source of pride for me in many ways; it also, on occasion, has been a cause of frustration and sometimes plain irritation.
Admittedly, the level of my interest has been varied from time to time over the years, depending on my own circumstances at particular periods or my own sense of what was important at a given moment. As the son and grandson of the two founders, I have a uniquely special reason to want the foundation to be an effective institution. My brother, Benson, who was a trustee for so long, as well as my mother, and members of my family, shared this feeling with me. We always have felt a closeness to the foundation. We took pleasure in its triumphs and, when there were problems, we shared in those, too. (There were some years when it seemed to us that the problems, and the attendant unpleasant publicity, were never-ending. Time more or less took care of that.) All in all, I have strongly positive feelings about my own and the family’s long standing relationship with the foundation.
In reflecting on my recent participation as a trustee, however, I realize that I have not been approaching the task with quite the same enthusiasm as I once did. My interest in many of the things the foundation is doing has waned considerably. I find it increasingly difficult to make a substantive contribution either to the policy-setting process or to the deliberations that result in giving directional thrust to the organization.
I don’t ascribe this sense of disengagement to any temporary set of conditions, either on my part or on the part of the foundation. After 33 years, I have come to the point where I have pretty much done all there is to do as a trustee and have said all there is to say. I think it is time for me to step aside and, accordingly, I wish to resign from the board effective immediately.
In leaving the board, I have a few thoughts that I would like to pass along to you. The first of these is that, to a great extent, effectiveness in a large institution comes from an understanding and appreciation of its goals and actions by the constituency it serves. In the case of the foundation, the constituency is society at large; I suggest to you that society’s view of the foundation is quite blurred these days. The diffuse array of enterprises upon which the foundation has embarked in recent years is almost a guarantee that few people anywhere will share a common perception of what the foundation is all about, how it sees its mission and how it serves society. I think this weakens the foundation’s capacity to be effective in terms commensurate with its potential.
Another consideration that I believe requires more attention is the need to scale down activities to a level that reflects diminished resources. It seems to me that with half of the income, we still are addressing as many different problem areas as we did 10 or 15 years ago. I suspect that we are tackling some of these rather thinly and thus not too effectively.
The foundation always has prided itself on its emphasis on funding the experimental kind of effort—the new way that might lead to a significant breakthrough. Yet we stick with some programs for years and years—Office of the Arts being a prime example. Are we an ongoing funding agency or are we courageous backers of innovation in the huge field of human problems?
The foundation exists and thrives on the fruits of our economic system. The dividends of competitive enterprise make it all possible. A significant portion of all abundance created by U.S. business enables the foundation and like institutions to carry on their work. In effect, the foundation is a creature of capitalism—a statement that, I’m sure, would be shocking to many professional staff in the field of philanthropy. It is hard to discern recognition of this fact in anything the foundation does. It is even more difficult to find an understanding of this in many of the institutions, particularly the universities, that are the beneficiaries of the foundation’s grant programs.
I’m not playing the role of the hard-headed tycoon who thinks all philanthropoids are socialists and all university professors are communists. I’m just suggesting to the trustees and the staff that the system that makes the foundation possible very probably is worth preserving. Perhaps it is time for the trustees and staff to examine the question of our obligations to our economic system and to consider how the foundation, as one of the system’s most prominent offspring, might act most wisely to strengthen and improve its progenitor.
One final note: It may be the fate of any large institution over time to turn more and more inward in its thinking processes and gradually to foreclose itself from outside influences. I detect this to some degree in the foundation, particularly among staff people. It’s a danger sign. The “not invented here” attitude robs an organization of the benefits of new thinking and should be fought at every turn. All wisdom does not repose at 320 East 43rd Street nor may it be found solely at The American Road, Dearborn, Mich., 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or any other power center in the world. We have a lot to learn from many sources. We shouldn’t tolerate a fortress mentality.
So much for my parting thoughts.
The 33 years of my association with the foundation have given me a great respect for the organization’s potential for good. The foundation already has a magnificent record of achievement. I am confident that it is capable of still more significant contributions to the world in the years ahead.
My greatest satisfaction in all the years of my connection with the foundation has been my association with the trustees. The strength of the institution is a true reflection of the calibre of those who have served on this board. I have great admiration and a sense of deep appreciation for the members who gave themselves so generously in the past, as well as those who are now serving. The future of the foundation is in capable hands.
Although my formal role with the foundation now comes to an end, my interest in its progress will continue for a long time to come. If I can ever at any time be of any help, I am at the service of the trustees.