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Winter 1997
 
City Journal Winter 1997.
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A Solid Foundation?

To the editor:
With neither careful analysis of the past nor fairness and balance, Heather Mac Donald ("The Billions of Dollars That Made Things Worse," Autumn 1996) argues that large foundations like Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie have strayed from the aims of their donors and, rather than help society, support efforts that harm it. Ms. Mac Donald's conclusions are highly partisan and simply wrong.

First of all, donors such as Andrew Carnegie had a broad vision of social change. They had what today would be called an "agenda." Carnegie's was, in part, to support a more active role for America in creating international peace; thus he created the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Julius Rosenwald, another significant early philanthropist, wanted to help poor black men and women obtain the education that white communities provided for themselves and denied to minorities. From their earliest actions, these "practical visionaries," as Ms. Mac Donald calls them, were activists in their time. They seem to differ from today's philanthropists only because their agendas are now accepted as the norm.

The Ford Foundation's current activities are consistent with the aims of founders Henry and Edsel Ford as stated in the founding charter. That document charges the foundation to improve human welfare throughout the world. It leaves to the trustees responsibility for determining how to do that over successive generations.

We are proud of the leadership and inspiration that McGeorge Bundy, whom Ms. Mac Donald attacks, provided to the Ford Foundation and its staff, as well as to many other philanthropic organizations. He supported efforts to address discrimination and unfairness against minorities and women, and led the foundation to a more active engagement in promoting international peace and human rights. He supported critical work on population control, family planning, and contraceptive development. Many of these efforts and others are widely recognized as having made a positive difference. Yet Ms. Mac Donald chooses to dwell on the scars of the school-decentralization controversies in New York.

The Ford Foundation is a very large and complex organization. We recognize that City Journal may not applaud all our activities, but would it not be fair to let your readers know about our efforts to help poor communities in the U.S. and abroad, to improve job-training programs, and to highlight innovation in local, state, and national government? Such activities command a major portion of our investments.

Most of the 37,000 foundations in the U.S. carry out their work in the spirit of American pragmatism. Free from both the partisan political pressures that drive government and the financial pressures of business, the Ford Foundation, like so many other large foundations, seeks to explore new ideas, to build enduring institutions, and to help create the knowledge that will effectively address the problems of our nation and the world.

Susan V. Berresford
President
The Ford Foundation
New York, N.Y.

To the editor:
As a writer on foundations and philanthropy, and as a regular reader of your publication, I want to extend my compliments on the article by Heather Mac Donald.

To declare my biases, I would describe myself as an avowed liberal and a strong believer in the importance and value of our unique American tradition of private philanthropy. But I think it is of the highest importance that foundations and the little world of philanthropy have the benefit of serious, reasoned evaluation and criticism. They get very little of it, however, from their beneficiaries and from the even greater number of those who aspire to become beneficiaries. To make matters worse, such criticism as they do receive is most often from rejected grant seekers, whom foundations understandably find it easy to disregard.

What they most seriously lack—and need—is the stimulus of serious, well-informed criticism from the Right, Left, and Center. Ms. Mac Donald's piece is exactly that, from a conservative—or neo-conservative—perspective. She has done her research, she has stated her premises, and she has clearly formulated her conclusions. Because foundations are rarely exposed to this kind of candor from their clientele, it is especially welcome.

Personally, I find that an ideological bias shows through at a good many points, and I feel that her sweeping conclusion that foundations do more harm than good is grossly mistaken. Nevertheless, because this kind of serious analysis and criticism of the unique American philanthropic tradition is so rare, I think your journal has done a great service to public debate by publishing it. My hope is that individuals involved in philanthropy throughout the country—donors, trustees, and professionals—will debate seriously the case she makes.

Waldemar A. Nielsen
Director
The Aspen Institute
New York, N.Y.

To the editor:
Heather Mac Donald's carefully prepared article was a refreshing beam of daylight on an otherwise unreported phenomenon among foundations. The explicit and implicit threat of losing precious funding for their often hard-pressed institutions intimidates into silence those in the field who could comment with authority. Thus, without public comment or examination, the perversion and distortion of many public institutions and programs continue and appear, to this observer, to be constantly increasing.

I have served as a management and development consultant to not-for-profit institutions for 14 years, following 16 years in the management of organizations in the arts and social services. I have spent much time attempting to defend worthwhile principles and goals from meddlesome and distorting foundation guidelines-more often than not, in vain. Even fine programs that have brought together the mutual interests of outstanding institutions and the ever-changing fashions among the leading foundations sometimes fall on hard times, when the foundation "flavor of the month" changes.

Ms. Mac Donald has accurately reported on an abuse of power in our system of voluntary support for worthwhile causes. Foundation officers have clearly crossed the line from custodians of a public trust to ever-present parties to the policy direction of the institutions they fund. Yet they hold themselves apart from organizational governance and accountability. Did the tax code mean for these financial terrorists to pull such potent strings?

Herbert Weissenstein
New York, N.Y.

To the editor:
While Heather Mac Donald's analysis of foundations was quite interesting, she errs when she says that the Rockefeller Foundation was created because John D. Rockefeller "could not make donations fast enough." As I show in The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of Donor Intent, Rockefeller's problem was that he delegated too much power to his subordinate, Frederick Gates, who then allied with John D. Rockefeller Jr., at first to create a large bureaucratic foundation and then to sever the elder Rockefeller from the philanthropy he created. When the younger Rockefeller gave up his power over the Rockefeller Foundation, the divorce between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Rockefeller fortune was complete.

The lesson John D. Rockefeller teaches future creators of wealth is to be wary of professional managers who think they know better than the donor how to use it. People who are smart enough to create fortunes are smart enough to know what to do with them.

Martin Morse Wooster
Capital Research Center
Washington, D.C.

Heather Mac Donald responds:
It is astonishing to see, in Susan V. Berresford's letter, the words "social change," "activist," and "agenda" associated with Andrew Carnegie. No philanthropist ever articulated his philosophy of giving more clearly than Carnegie, and he left no doubt that he would have wholly rejected the anti- capitalist, anti-establishment direction of his and other large foundations. Carnegie's "agenda," if one may use so inapt a phrase, consisted of helping the worthy poor pull themselves up by their bootstraps, not of teaching them to regard themselves as victims of an unfair, racist system. His support for international peace hardly constitutes the sort of abrasive, confrontational mission embraced by latter-day foundations.

Even Julius Rosenwald, unquestionably the most "progressive" of the early twentieth-century philanthropists, would surely have denounced the balkanizing identity politics bankrolled by today's foundations. That Ms. Berresford apparently cannot see the difference between the early philanthropists and the subsequent direction of their foundations is as good a demonstration as any of the blindness to donor's intent that can infect the professional foundation.

True, every philanthropist presumably wants to make the world a better place; the question is, how does he analyze its shortcomings and hope to improve it? Henry Ford, as rock-ribbed a capitalist as they come, most certainly did not intend to "improve human welfare" by promoting wealth redistribution and grievance politics. To cite the letter of the Ford Foundation's broad charter while ignoring its spirit is disingenuous.

It is no surprise that Ford's current staff is proud of the late McGeorge Bundy, since he set the course that the foundation still follows. Would Henry Ford have been equally thrilled? The resignation in disgust of Ford's grandson from the board of trustees during the later years of Bundy's tenure suggests not.

As I stated in my article, the Ford Foundation has indeed supported worthy causes. But as long as it continues to impose its race- and gender-based agenda on the world, any good it does will be canceled out by the divisions it leaves in its wake.

Frederick Gates did indeed cut John D. Rockefeller Sr. off from his own philanthropy, as Martin Morse Wooster points out in his letter (and his fine book). But it remains the case that a prime impetus for creating the foundation was Rockefeller's ever-burgeoning wealth.

I am deeply grateful to Waldemar A. Nielsen for his willingness to put aside ideological disagreements and support well-meaning criticism of the world he knows better than anyone else.
 

Above Nature

To the editor:
Bravo for David Gelernter's excellent article "The Immorality of Environmentalism" (Autumn 1996), on our society's decidedly unthinking adulation of everything "natural." Might I add a line from the classic movie The Aftican Queen that I think sums it up best? After Humphrey Bogart's character delivers some paean to the primacy of nature, Katharine Hepburn's prim spinster responds: "Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put on this earth to rise above."

James M. McCown
New York, N.Y.
 

Doubts on Megastores

To the editor:
Rita Kramer's "New York's Missing Megastores" (Autumn 1996) optimistically contends that the building of megastores would serve to invigorate neighborhoods and boost New York's economy. To a certain extent this may be true, but she fails to mention the potential disadvantages they could have brought to many localities under the Giuliani administration's proposal. No one on the City Council is against the employment and retail opportunities that megastores might provide, but some of us feel that the stores' pluses don't always outweigh their definite minuses.

The mayor's plan, the latest economic messiah from the Department of City Planning, would have stripped communities of their right of approval and taken away the City Council's right to perform land-use review. The community's best interests should be the Council's priority, and we are elected to discern exactly what that entails. Is Ms. Kramer asserting that the Pathmarks, Home

Depots, and Staples of our city truly have the well-being of existing neighborhoods in mind when they decide to site a faceless, colorless 200,000square-foot big-box store? Some communities may want the big-box stores; others may not. The administration's ill-conceived plan for reforming the city's zoning laws to placate large retailers would have compromised the city government's democratic foundation.

Martin Malavé-Dilán
Chair, Subcommittee on Manufacturing and Small Business
New York City Council
Brooklyn, N.Y.

To the editor:
Contrary to Rita Kramer's arguments, Mayor Giuliani's proposal to open certain manufacturing districts to megastores of up to 200,000 square feet "as-of-right," bypassing citizen review, was a shortsighted response to pressure from developers and to New York City's need for money and jobs.

What taxpaying local business can compete with out-of-town megastores receiving tax subsidies? The claim that "if big retailers are allowed to flourish, small businesses don't die" is contradicted in Manhattan, where we see near a new Barnes & Noble superstore the graffiti-covered steel shutters where Shakespeare & Company, a vibrant neighborhood bookstore, once flourished. Small retail is an important part in the symphony of New York's neighborhoods and a way into the American economy for immigrants. One cannot go from stocking toothpaste in Kmart to opening one's own megastore.

Mayor Giuliani's proposal would have encouraged architectural brutality inappropriate to New York City, the home of Grand Central Station and our beautiful little City Hall. A 200,000-square-foot megastore is nearly the size of five football fields, with blank outside walls and a vast parking lot. Labeling opponents to this proposal "urban aesthetes," as Ms. Kramer does, may intimidate some, but it does not change the truth.

Mary Campbell Gallagher
New York, N.Y.
 

An Era of Extravagance

To the editor:
I read David Garrard Lowe's article about Richard Morris Hunt ("The Man Who Gilded the Gilded Age," Autumn 1996) with great interest. I knew little about this fabulous period in New York; Mr. Lowe brought its architecture—and the extravagance of its wealthy architectural patrons—to life.

Mary Field Arehart
Shawnee Mission, Kans.

 

 


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