T he Philanthropy Roundtable’s origin goes back to the late 1980s, when a group of liberty-minded foundations split off from the Council on Foundations rather than sign on to a statement of principles and practices the council had adopted. What the council thought of as a more inclusive approach to grantmaking, the Roundtable’s founders considered an intrusion on donors’ independence.
Thus, when the Roundtable launched as a self-standing organization in 1991, donor intent was its defining theme, and it’s still a vital part of the organization’s work. Although today, donor intent is widely acknowledged as a central tenet of philanthropy, at the time it wasn’t much discussed. The Roundtable brought it to prominence.
The organization’s founding members were committed to preserving the principles that have made America an engine for upward mobility and human progress. Freedom was the key to that—economic freedom, personal freedom and philanthropic freedom.
The Roundtable set out to explore the various ways philanthropy might contribute to the preservation and advancement of those core principles. We organized meetings for donors around the country. But we needed a way to connect our members, to allow them to exchange ideas and share their knowledge. This was well before the days of Facebook, Twitter and even listservs. What we needed, we decided, was a newsletter—and Philanthropy was born. It became a quarterly publication and was mailed to the Roundtable’s membership—some 150 grantmakers that first year, plus prospective members and observers of the philanthropic scene.
The first issue rolled off the press in the winter of 1992. It was a 16-page, single-color circular printed on white stock that was decidedly elementary in design, even by the standards of the day. The logo was hideous. Its appearance, fortunately, was eclipsed by its content. The newsletter distinguished itself by offering a different perspective from the standard philanthropic fare. The first issue focused primarily on education reform, which would become one of the Roundtable’s abiding concerns. Subsequent issues that first year tackled health care, conservation, entrepreneurship, the value of self-sufficiency over dependence, the relationship between markets and morality, and, of course, donor intent. All would become recurring themes as the publication grew and matured.
Many of the initial articles were contributed by Roundtable members. Some were excellent writers, while others were not. But they all had interesting stories to share about the work they were funding and how they were finding ways to help people and communities flourish through voluntary association and free enterprise. There were also articles from leading figures like philanthropy guru Waldemar Nielsen, jurist Robert Bork, political scientist James Q. Wilson, newspaperman Paul Gigot and capitalist Steve Forbes.
While the Roundtable grew its community through regional and national meetings, only so much could be accomplished through in-person events. Travel was more of a luxury back then, and Zoom didn’t exist. The print publication was the way the Roundtable spread its message more widely. And spread it, it did.
Looking back, it’s amazing to think that what started as a homespun newsletter, grew to become the preeminent voice for a view of philanthropy that sees freedom and free enterprise as the key not only to the wealth creation that makes philanthropy possible, but to human flourishing for all. A print publication may no longer be the best way to connect people or communicate ideas. But Philanthropy’s message will live on.
Kim Dennis is president of the Searle Freedom Trust, a grantmaking foundation established by the late Daniel C. Searle to support public policy reform. She was the first executive director of the Philanthropy Roundtable and the first editor of Philanthropy magazine.