Historians have largely neglected the study of philanthropy. Remarkably, there is no general history of the Ford Foundation or the MacArthur Foundation. No one has written extensively on the history of the Pew Charitable Trusts or on the Pew family.
Such neglect is particularly surprising because the people who run philanthropic organizations and their accomplishments would seem a ripe topic for today’s historians. Feminists, for example, will find that plenty of strong, independent, and articulate women either ran foundations or benefited from them. Social historians will find that most of the major social movements of the 20th century—the welfare state, environmentalism, urban renewal, arts funding—were spurred by foundation grants.
So the papers collected in Philanthropic Foundations had the promise of filling an important void.
Editor Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a New York University historian who has authored histories of the Carnegie Corporation and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, describes the essays in this volume as conveying a “sense of the importance of foundation history.”
Unfortunately, most of the papers in Philanthropic Foundations do more to show the limitations of professional historians who have grappled with this topic. There are two excellent papers in the book, a few interesting ones, and many which are astonishingly bad.
Let’s begin with the good news. Peter Frumkin of Harvard’s Kennedy School does a fine job examining the consequences of the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which was the last major congressional effort to reform foundation law. There were positive results, he argues, such as the requirement that foundations publish annual reports. But the most lasting result of the Tax Reform Act, according to Frumkin, was to make foundations more bureaucratic.
Many foundation presidents, Frumkin argues, were advised by their legal departments to be cautious in rejecting grant applicants who might have solid grounds for lawsuits under the new law.
The result was that the 1970s was the decade in which foundations became much more heavily structured. Smaller foundations hired their first full-time program officers, and larger foundations hired more staff. Thus, the average amount a foundation spent on administration rose from 9.7 percent of grant outlays in 1969 to 16.3 percent by 1975, a level which has persisted since.
Most foundations appointed program officers and leading executives whose previous experience had been with other foundations, Frumkin noted, instead of with universities or government. On the positive side, these professionals were more likely to treat all grant applicants fairly instead of just giving money to their cronies.
But by limiting the pool of those making decisions on grants so narrowly, foundations were also limiting the grants to programs that were safe, conventional, and respectable instead of bold and daring.
Another important essay in this collection is Richard Magat’s, which examines why there is no Ford Foundation official history. Magat, who spent many years at Ford, explains that the foundation repeatedly commissioned histories—then suppressed them.
The first hidden history of the Ford Foundation, according to Magat, was written by William Greenleaf, a research assistant to Henry Ford’s official biographer, Allan Nevins. In 1955, Greenleaf was commissioned by the Ford Foundation to produce two studies—a history of the foundation’s first 20 years and an analysis of Henry Ford’s charitable practices. After Greenleaf produced both books, the Ford Foundation sat on the manuscripts for seven years, ultimately suppressing the history but allowing the Henry Ford manuscript to be published on the condition that the foundation’s role in funding the book not be disclosed. The resulting book, From These Beginnings, remains the primary source for anyone interested in Henry Ford’s substantial charitable giving.
A second attempt at an official Ford Foundation history was mounted by researchers Charles Morrissey and Ronald Grele, who conducted 73 oral histories of Ford Foundation executives between 1971-73. While some of these histories are available to scholars, others are sealed until 2025. Attempts to use them as a basis for a Ford Foundation history were abandoned. That apparently discouraged other historians, as no official Ford Foundation history has since been published.
Magat is right when he suggests that the William Greenleaf history of the Ford Foundation ought to be published (and there are now rumblings that the work may be made available to scholars). He is also correct that scholars ought to pay close attention to two Ford Foundation program officers of the 1960s: Paul Ylvisaker, an architect of the Great Society, and W. McNeil Lowry, a godfather of the National Endowment for the Arts.
So much for the good news. Unfortunately, the remaining papers in Philanthropic Foundations aren’t as interesting. Some scholars compile lots of data, but fail to offer any conclusions. Cleveland Foundation program officer William S. McKersie, for example, spends nearly 30 pages on how three Chicago-based foundations influenced that city’s school reform efforts in the 1980s. But he doesn’t explain what Chicago school reformers did or how the foundations he studied spent their money. Worse, two papers discussing the rise of “social movement philanthropy” not only do not define this term, but don’t explain how a “social movement philanthropy” differs from a conventionally liberal foundation.
Other papers suffer because of “Edmund Morris syndrome,” thinking themselves more important than their subjects. University of Delaware historian Guy Alchon’s paper on longtime Russell Sage Foundation executive Mary van Kleeck starts off well. Van Kleeck is a lively subject. In her lengthy career, she hit the ideological trifecta of socialism, spiritualism, and lesbianism (having “a life-long union with the charismatic Dutch labor reformer Mary ‘Mikie’ Fledderus”). But Alchon falters when he moves from his depiction of van Kleeck’s activities (such as inventing Central Casting to help organize Hollywood extras) to an insipid analysis of the problems of 20th-century culture.
The worst paper in this collection has to be Auburn University historian Ruth Crocker’s description of her biography of Russell Sage Foundation creator Margaret Olivia Sage. This would be an important project, as there’s no other biography of Sage, and she’s one of the more obscure of the great philanthropists. But if the book is written in the style of Crocker’s paper, any reviewer ought to ask for combat pay.
The following sentences are illustrative of the book’s style. Crocker explains she was drawn to Olivia Sage as a subject because “contextualizing her philanthropy within Progressive Era transformations in culture and society yields a more nuanced portrait of the female donor, one informed by new understandings of gender, gifts, and exchange.” In studying Sage, Crocker’s “first task was to problematize female benevolence, to remove it from the natural and transhistorical and to frame it as an ideological problem to be analyzed.”
As these awful sentences suggest, Crocker is like too many other historians writing about philanthropy or other topics, more concerned with scoring theoretical points than in explaining the past. But there are so many gaps in the history of philanthropy that original research rather than interpretation is needed.
This collection is typical of the entire genre of historical writing about philanthropy. It illustrates that historians of philanthropy will do a better job if they stick to two basic questions: What did foundations try to do, and did they succeed or fail? Scholars should get to work writing histories of the great foundations and biographies of the great philanthropists, and save analysis and philosophizing for future generations.
Martin Morse Wooster is a contributing editor to Philanthropy.