Rumsfeld's Rules for Philanthropy

Rumsfeld's Rules for Philanthropy

Jul 13, 2021 Leslie Lenkowsky

Donald Rumsfeld, who passed away on June 29 at the age of 88, was well-known for his accomplishments in government and business. But less familiar are his accomplishments in philanthropy. Yet, in that arena, as in the other two, his leadership offers valuable lessons for grantmakers today and in the future.

With his wife Joyce, Rumsfeld started the Rumsfeld Foundation in 2007 after leaving his second tour as Secretary of Defense. Previously, they had a family foundation to support a variety of causes.  They set its goal as fostering “leadership, public service and free political and economic systems at home and abroad.” Giving back was, as Joyce put it, “almost automatic; we had had so many opportunities in our lives, and as we were moving into the next chapter, we thought ‘How can we offer opportunities to others?’” The organization has long been engaged with the Philanthropy Roundtable.

The Rumsfeld Foundation has three main programs. One involves grants to organizations that assist military service members, veterans and their families in areas such as employment, rehabilitation and family support. A second provides year-long fellowships to American graduate students who aspire to careers in public service. The third offers fellowships to young professionals from countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus, which enable them to meet together and with regional leaders, as well as spend time in the United States. After providing nearly $4 million in grants, a fourth program, which sought to expand microfinance around the world, was discontinued in 2015 as the foundation decided to focus more on its other efforts.

Although its endowment is small, the Rumsfeld Foundation’s impact has been large. In under 15 years of grantmaking, it has chosen 178 graduate students for fellowships, three-quarters of whom are now in public policy or public service careers, including at federal agencies like the Departments of State and Defense, as well as nonprofit groups, such as the Alexander Hamilton Society, which sponsors campus programs for students interested in foreign policy and national security. The Central Asian program has supported 230 fellows, who are already moving into leadership positions in their own countries and working with one another to develop solutions to the region’s many challenges. More than $6 million, plus the profits from Rumsfeld’s memoir “Known and Unknown,” and an app he helped develop, based on a challenging form of solitaire devised by Winston Churchill, have gone to military service-related organizations, such as Spirit of America and Our Military Kids.

In his career, Rumsfeld was known for drawing pithy lessons from his varied, high-level experiences, which he eventually published in another book “Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life.” Although they do not include aphorisms dealing specifically with philanthropy, the work of the Rumsfeld Foundation suggests these might be fitting additions:

Focus on what you know: As Secretary of Defense after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Rumsfeld witnessed not only the burdens and sacrifices borne by American soldiers and their families, but also the leadership vacuum in Afghanistan and surrounding countries that stood in the way of stable governments and prosperous economies. From the early part of his career, when he led the Office of Economic Opportunity in the Nixon Administration and recruited a former University of Wisconsin student named Dick Cheney, until the end, he was renowned for attracting young people into public service and cultivating them. 

Rely on people you trust: The Rumsfeld Foundation’s board consists of several close associates who are committed to carrying his vision into the future. Likewise, the top staff member has a long association with the Rumsfeld family. To nominate students for its graduate fellowship, the foundation relies on a network of nearly two dozen scholars from top universities (including this writer), many of whom worked with the former Secretary of Defense in the past.

Invest in people: “The secret to successful leadership and management is not really a secret,” according to Rumsfeld’s book of rules, “it’s picking the right people.” He applied that lesson to his philanthropy as well. Apart from grants to groups assisting soldiers, veterans and their families, the bulk of the foundation’s funding goes for fellowships and related expenses, such as conferences.

Be patient: Perhaps what is most remarkable about the Rumsfeld Foundation is its constancy of purpose. Unlike grantmakers who change direction regularly, it has steadily pursued mostly the same course since it began. To be sure, Donald Rumsfeld could—and did—ask hard questions about its activity and made corrections, as necessary. But he also recognized that lasting results develop only over time, not in three- or five-year funding windows.

To both friends and foes, Donald Rumsfeld was one of the most influential leaders in government and business of the past half-century. However, his work as a philanthropist has also left an important mark, showing how much a donor can accomplish with a clear vision, sound strategy, good people and persistence.

Leslie Lenkowsky is professor emeritus at the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy.