Vol. 7 / No. 2 / Summer 2013  

Perspectives on Philanthropy

by Patricia Rosenfield

The role of history as a guide

Carnegie Corporation Board of Trustees, 1941. Standing (left to right): Thomas S. Arbuthnot, Nicholas Kelley, Vannevar Bush, Russell Leffingwell, Arthur W. Page, Samuel H. Church, Henry James, Elihu Root, Jr. Seated (left to right): Frederick Osborn, Nicholas Murray Butler, Frederick P. Keppel (then Carnegie Corporation President), Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, Margaret Carnegie Miller, Walter A. Jessup, W. Randolph Burgess

The work of philanthropy might seem simple, but in reality decision-making by foundation trustees, presidents, and staff is complex. In determining policies, strategies, and the awarding of grants, they take into account a considerable amount of information, ranging from their institution’s mission and values to external political, social, and economic conditions. These decision-makers assess objectives, expected outcomes, and available resources of staff and funds, as well as the inherent, intangible characteristics of the foundation and its leaders, such as the willingness to take informed risks.

With increasing frequency, however, they tend to overlook their foundation’s history, thus distancing themselves to some extent from the way their predecessors made decisions. After John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and Andrew Carnegie founded their institutions—the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913 and Carnegie Corporation in 1911—more than 100 years ago, for perhaps 50 years many of the people involved in overseeing these institutions, as well as other foundations established in the early twentieth century, carried the institution’s history with them: it was an intrinsic part of their lives. But as these philanthropies aged, their history became less and less accessible.

This article explores the possibility that such history provides a prism for enhancing foundation decision-making rather than a prison that locks program officers into familiar patterns of planning. Interviews conducted with former foundation leaders and staff members (including some trained as historians) offer insights into the challenges and potential applications of a foundation’s history in its contemporary work. It is a complex issue that has not been sufficiently explored, and some foundation staff members—even those who argue for including history in current philanthropic decisions—raise counter arguments. Omotade Akin Aina, Carnegie Corporation program director, Higher Education and Libraries in Africa (HELA), who regularly draws on his understanding of institutional history for program development, speculated that many program officers today view history as limiting and even blocking new opportunities. Andrea Johnson, HELA program officer, whose career has spanned two Corporation presidential eras, expressed concern that new staff “might be so constrained by the history that they don’t form new alliances.” Alberta Arthurs, for many years director of the Arts and Humanities Division at the Rockefeller Foundation, commented, “We don’t have a history of learning from each other or building on initiatives made by others.”

Several factors including the relevance of history, ready access to historical documents, and the demands on program officers, who have busy schedules and who are not trained historians, will be explored. Five case studies illustrate how knowledge of the institution’s history served as a prism for program planning. In addition to contributing to the foundation’s own decision-making, the history of an organization is important to other, newer foundations that can learn from the experiences of older foundations. As the number of private grantmaking foundations continues to increase at a rapid pace, there is a case to be made for these new philanthropists to look back before moving forward.

This review also suggests the need for an analytical approach to facilitate the preparation of forward-looking historical reviews. Such an approach emerges from the seminal work, Thinking in Time, by Richard Neustadt and Ernst May. They developed an analytical framework for enhancing the effectiveness of national policymakers through the use of history in their decisions. This article proposes that a similar framework is applicable in the equally challenging area of philanthropy.

Taken together, these discussions and stories suggest that the approach described by Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, might be achievable. In 2010, introducing his institution’s centennial in the following year, Gregorian proposed a moment of stock-taking in which current staff might “acknowledge and appreciate the past, but not let it entangle or encumber us. We will build on successes of the past, heed the lessons of failure, and use the wisdom that accrues from such an accounting.”


Foundations are invariably shaped by the values and intentions of their donors; the twentieth century’s most influential foundations have also grappled with the paradox of flexibility. From Carnegie to Rockefeller to Ford, among others, donors have charged trustees with adherence to the spirit of the founding gift while leaving them free to determine the specifics in light of changing times. In the Corporation’s case, the mission is expansive: founder Andrew Carnegie envisioned the Corporation as a foundation that would “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” The mission is made even more fluid by Andrew Carnegie’s challenge in his deed of gift to the original Trustees, in which he states his conviction that “Conditions upon the erth [sic] inevitably change; hence no wise man will bind Trustees forever to certain paths, causes or institutions…I give my trustees full authority to change policy or causes hitherto aided, from time to time, when this, in their opinion, has become necessary or desirable. They shall best conform to my wishes by using their own judgment.”

The University of the Witwatersrand, a recipient of support from the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa.When the Corporation relaunched its engagement in African higher education, the new strategy of supporting requests for funding was based on a particular university’s strategic plans and institutional priorities. This approach set the stage for what was eventually known as the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, a 10-year initiative from 2000 to 2010, undertaken by seven American foundations with universities in nine African countries.

Regarding the role of changing conditions, it is interesting to examine the different perspectives of two former presidents of Carnegie Corporation, both of whom had long experience with the foundation. In 1961, on the 50th anniversary of the Corporation, John Gardner, president of Carnegie Corporation from 1955 to 1967 (staff member from 1946 onwards), wrote, “One is struck anew by that paradox of all human history and human life: change and continuity. It is sometimes a little startling, and more than a little humbling, to realize that most of the old ideas are still with us, and that many of the bright new ideas for attacking them today were bright new ideas 50 years ago.”iv He noted, however, Andrew Carnegie’s charge to the Corporation that encouraged program changes as both national and global conditions evolved. Equally reflective of Andrew Carnegie’s concerns, Alan Pifer, president of Carnegie Corporation from 1967 to 1982 (staff member from 1953 onwards), noted, “It is a truism that we live in a period of rapid change, an era driven by staggering scientific and technological advance, by demographic transformations of enormous consequence, by alterations in the nation’s economic structure the import of which even the experts can scarcely imagine, and, finally, by almost constant turmoil in international affairs, fraught with dangers of almost inconceivable magnitude.”

The predominant issues of the last century have been augmented by seemingly new ones: drastic global economic and social inequalities, increasing concern about climate change, and loss of faith in democratic governance in view of persistent inequities. These issues, however, have enduring dimensions, even as they take on new urgency or new parameters today. How can historical perspectives add value in shaping foundation activities as conditions change? This question is not merely rhetorical: when examining potential areas of work based on external conditions alone, foundations often perceive them as fresh, distinctly different, requiring brand new, innovative approaches. As Gardner and Pifer both indicated, foundations have always been confronted with crises and changing conditions; changing conditions convey, in and of themselves, a certain kind of continuity.


The concern about efficient use of time is a real one for foundation staff, always working toward deadlines, overloaded with site visits, meetings, proposal development and reviews, and conversations with perspective grantseekers, scholars, and advisors. Moreover, staff capacity to take history into account is limited by the changing nature of the profession. Typically, foundation officers no longer join a foundation and remain for the rest of their careers.

Historian David Ekbladh from Tufts University and others have noted that foundation program officers (and oftenadministrative staff) previously stayed in one organization for significant lengths of time—thereby acquiring firsthand awareness of past examples to build on. Ekbladh pointed out that, “When [Frederick] Keppel, [Raymond] Fosdick, and [Paul] Hoffman were running the foundations (Carnegie Corporation, Rockefeller Foundation, and Ford Foundation, respectively), they knew the last 20 to 30 years from personal experience either with the foundations or the issues. Now it’s very different; some of the large foundations are a century or at least 50 years old and personal experiences simply can no longer encompass the full legacy of an institution’s efforts.”

The reluctance to delve into history may also reflect the training of program officers. As Kenneth Prewitt, Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University and formerly vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation remarked, “Foundations are not well equipped to use their history. They don’t have the right categories for historical analysis.” He questioned whether program officers who make grants have the time, inclination, or expertise to uncover the historical narrative that would illuminate the context within which the foundation worked and help the officers grasp how the particularities of foundation grants interact with the vast array of factors and conditions shaping social change. Ekbladh elaborated on that concern, noting, “Often when foundation staff examine their history to put a particular program into context, it can be like shining a flashlight in the forest—they don’t see the whole tree or the whole forest. They just see what the light strikes.”


The apparent reluctance to delve into institutional history may not, however, reflect resistance or unwillingness so much as frustration. Foundation historical records are not always efficiently archived or easily accessible. Nonetheless, at the very least, program officers should be aware that other useful material, such as annual reports, board books, and institutionally produced publications, is readily available. These items give details on the scope and intent of foundation activities in earlier eras. Examples of such publications include Carnegie Corporation’s publication Audits of Experience, begun in 1930; the Carnegie Quarterly, which ran from the 1950s through the 1990s and focused on grantee work; and the Carnegie Reporter, Carnegie Results, Carnegie Reviews, and Carnegie Challenge Papers, all of which cover programs, grants, and plans from the 1990s through the present, along with selected deeper historical analyses.

The Rockefeller Archive Center
recently launched a Centennial Web site that presents Rockefeller Foundation programs over the past 100 years via short essays and historical documents, offering access to this material for any program officer considering entering a new field.vi All the foundation’s annual reports are also available on the foundation’s Web site.

These materials are a start, but may not provide sufficient insight to understand the complex issues of the past or those confronting program officers today. Annual reports and institutionally produced publications present the stated objectives and clearest outcomes of grant programs, but only rarely reveal the complicated backstory and unintended side effects of foundation decision-making.

How to Use History

James Allen Smith, historian and vice president of the Rockefeller Archive Center and senior co-editor of the Rockefeller Centennial Web site, has broad experience putting an historian’s academic training to use, first as program officer at the Twentieth Century Fund and, later, as president of the Howard Gilman Foundation. In a 2000 speech about the Twentieth Century Fund, Smith emphasized that the “backstory” details should matter most to a program officer considering work in a new field. In his view, such details are essential to understanding the decisions of one’s predecessors in the context of their times, whether external political, social, and economic conditions, or the internal
operations of the grant-making institution.

Smith indicated further that from the beginning, “I wanted to know what kind of institution the Twentieth Century Fund was and to learn what I could of its history. Indeed, I arrived at the Fund at a time when its history and traditions seemed up for grabs.” Smith found himself employing “historical and archival instincts, turning to informal oral history opportunities, drawing on the historical literature about Progressive Era institutions.” Thus, he explains, “I was able in internal memoranda and board briefing books to help the Board understand the Fund’s role in the new environment it faced in the 1980s. This was a practical, immediate use of the historian’s skills, instincts, and temperament.”

In a conversation, Michael Seltzer, now Distinguished Lecturer at Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs and former program officer at the Ford Foundation, reinforced Smith’s observations by noting, “history is the mother lode of knowledge on how we can be effective foundations.” He added that “Knowing the institution’s history is greatly facilitated by the accessibility of archived historical records.”

John D. RockefellerA current grantmaker, John Craig, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Commonwealth Fund, in 2012 conducted a survey of foundations about the value of archives. He highlighted their importance, noting, “Permanent archives are a primary source for the institutional memory that is vital to learning organizations, and for the institutional pride that ensures the strong staff morale needed to achieve high performance. The staffs of most foundations are small, turnover in leadership is fairly frequent, and many new leaders come from outside the sector.”x He made the distinctive point that access to historical analyses can contribute to successful transition in presidential leadership at foundations by commenting that, “The speed with which successive leaders of the Commonwealth Fund, for example, have been able to take charge has been accelerated by the existence of a comprehensive history of the foundation.” At Commonwealth, Craig noted that such a “history was made possible by archival records dating back to the organization’s founding in 1918.”

An especially compelling argument for the usefulness of archival records comes from Susan Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation from 1996 to 2007. “As grantmaker and foundation leader, history meant an enormous amount for my work,” Berresford recently stated. While acknowledging that “There are always a lot of short-term new projects to support,” she identified four approaches across Ford’s history that consistently yielded “home runs.” These were “building entirely new institutions (such as the Kenya Community Development Foundation); funding social movements (even controversial ones such as civil rights in the United States); taking entirely new ideas from the margins to the center (such as with Mohammed Yunus and the Grameen Bank); and underwriting fellowship programs (for example, the $325 million, 10-year Ford Foundation Andrew CarnegieInternational Fellowships Program).” As Berresford explained, “It’s all about long term. You don’t know if these grants will pay off, but using history as a guide, you have faith based on the history. It’s important to look at the patterns. Where are the home runs? Where have we succeeded? Where have we failed?” Berresford and colleagues signaled their respect for the value of knowing Ford Foundation’s history by “instituting program officer training, urging the staff to review the history, and learn from both the big successes and big failures.” They similarly prepared orientation programs for
new trustees.

From Carnegie to Rockefeller to Ford, among others, donors have charged trustees with adherence to the spirit of the founding gift while leaving them free to determine the specifics in light of changing times.

Henry Ford

When to Use History

Frederic (Fritz) Mosher, Carnegie Corporation staff member in both domestic and international programs for over 35 years, brings a depth of perspective on history almost unique amongst former Corporation staff members: he served under four Corporation presidents. Reflecting on what might prompt foundation staffs to look back, Mosher admitted that “An explicit reference to history doesn’t usually play a role in grantmaking.” But he noted two key exceptions to this rule in the life-cycle of foundation decision-making: presidential transitions and Board discussions focused on revising or ending program areas.

When Mosher prepared for an intensive review by the committee of Corporation Trustees overseeing the program he chaired, Avoiding Nuclear War, he studied the history of the program carefully, as well as similar work at other foundations. His report added to the Board’s understanding and played a significant role in securing ongoing support for the program. Likewise, Geri Mannion, currently the Corporation’s program director of the U.S. Democracy Program and the Special Opportunities Fund, underlined the role of institutional history for presidential transitions. She found the reviews that she prepared in 1997 for incoming President Vartan Gregorian “made it clear where we had been, where we were, and where we could go forward.”

History: A Policy Science

Daniel Fox, president emeritus of the Milbank Memorial Fund, who is both an historian and a participant in the politics of policymaking, has written about the role of history in foundation decision-making and has applied findings from historical research in his decision-making at the Fund. In an article at the Fund’s centennial, he described how “the Fund has been consistent in its goals, and in how its board and staff implemented them, for most of its history.”xi Fox explained, when interviewed, that history should be viewed as a “policy science.” He elaborated, “Like practitioners of other disciplines of the policy sciences, such as sociologists, operations researchers, economists, and political scientists, historians use data from primary sources to meet rigorous methodological standards. Effective historical analyses can contribute to making and implementing decisions; evaluating strategies, programs, and projects; and then changing or sustaining them. Such analysis could, therefore, be important for the work of the philanthropic sector.”

Examples from the Field

The cases discussed below are drawn from a recent study by this author of 100 years of Carnegie Corporation international grantmaking and from the Rockefeller Foundation Centennial Web site.xii They provide examples of foundation staff members using their knowledge of history toward a variety of ends: sometimes to address old issues within a new era, sometimes to redefine an existing relationship, and sometimes to discontinue work in a high-profile area of acknowledged accomplishment and longstanding commitment. Taken together, they offer a portfolio of the judicious use of evidence-based experience.

CASE 1: Nearly a Century of Continuity

African higher education exemplifies institutional continuity for Carnegie Corporation. From 1925 through 1975, the Corporation continuously built upon its growing record of investment in this field.

In 1925, the Corporation made its first grant in this area for a program to train teachers at the community level in Kenya. Known as the Jeanes approach, this type of community-based teacher training had been honed initially in the American South, with both Rockefeller and Corporation support, through the General Education Board. For the next 20 years, this grassroots approach dominated the Corporation’s strategies in British colonies in Africa. By the late 1940s, the Corporation took notice of changes in British support for higher education in its colonies, as well as decolonization and rising independence movements. The Corporation then began to support higher education as a field and funded specific universities to strengthen them as institutions. This phase of work culminated in Nigeria in 1959 to 1960, with the Ashby Commission, a major undertaking to review the issues in national higher education systems, from personnel to infrastructure to curriculum. The subsequent report became a blueprint for the higher education sector in Nigeria and elsewhere throughout the region.

After the Ashby Commission, as other donors entered the field of higher education, notably the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Corporation staff members Alan Pifer and Stephen Stackpole, both executive associates, assessed the evolving situation, including a meticulous review of the Corporation’s work in Africa since the 1920s and recommended to the Board that the Corporation concentrate on teacher training.

By the 1960s, other agencies also increasingly supported similar initiatives. Because of the Corporation’s depth of experience, staff members and partners in Africa were able to further hone their focus to a neglected subfield: early childhood education and child development, the cornerstone for successful continuance in school. From the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, the Corporation founded and supported institutes of child development in Nigeria and Kenya that led to new understandings about different approaches to early childhood teaching.

After a hiatus of nearly 30 years from the field of higher education institutional support, Corporation staff members reviewed their own history and that of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations’ support for universities in developing countries. They gleaned one key criterion as a basis for sustained success: listening carefully to the partners in the field and building on their plans. Therefore, when the Corporation relaunched its engagement in African higher education, the new strategy of supporting requests for funding was based on a particular university’s strategic plans and institutional priorities. This approach set the stage for what was eventually known as the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, a 10-year initiative from 2000 to 2010, undertaken by seven American foundations with universities in nine African countries.xiii

Carnegie Corporation’s history in Africa reveals an unwavering commitment to participation, yet a degree of flexibility as to content and even geographic emphasis. Stanley Katz, scholar on philanthropy and nonprofit institutions and lecturer with the rank of professor at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, considers that “This is the compelling historical overseas example for the Corporation.” To provide support that would target the greatest need, the Corporation constantly reviewed its own historical strengths in light of external conditions, including the work of other agencies.

CASE 2: A Prison or a Prism?

In 1975, with the impending retirement of long-time staff member Stephen Stackpole, Corporation President Alan Pifer charged the Board of Trustees to review the 50 years of the Commonwealth Program, including both the experience in funding higher education and other activities throughout the British Commonwealth. The consultant who prepared the reviews, E. Jefferson Murphy, highlighted both the successes and the challenges throughout all of these periods, noting that with the considerable resources invested in higher education in Africa, the Corporation could easily continue work in this field and go from success to success.

The foundation’s decades-long support for higher education in Africa could have been a binding constraint on identifying and engaging in new activities. That did not happen. The Trustees had been fully supportive of the Corporation’s focus of its U.S.-based grantmaking on helping to advance social justice, starting in 1960s in the American South. They were also aware of the global opportunities in the new field of women and development as well as the international social justice challenge of confronting apartheid in South Africa.

Ralph BuncheThe resulting recommendations from the Trustees’ review ended the work focused on the education sector as the primary program thrust in Africa and began to increase support for nongovernmental organizations in the field of women and development and new approaches to confront apartheid in South Africa, the latter drawing on the public-interest legal and civil rights program in the American South. Grants were concluded for university-based activities in West and East Africa and were focused instead on Southern Africa.
This example of not being restricted by one’s history, although not explicitly discussed in this way at the time, reinforces the value of historically grounded strategic reviews, as indicated earlier by Mosher and Mannion. In this instance, the Trustees interrogated the history and, based on the answers, along with their understanding of contemporary opportunities, determined it was time to propel the Corporation in new directions.

CASE 3: Justifying a Major Grant

The Social Science Research Council (SSRC), funded in 1923 by the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (consolidated with the Rockefeller Foundation in 1929), aimed to put the associations of the different social science disciplines into conversation with each other and develop a comprehensive “science of society.”xiv Soon, the major foundations of the day—the Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and the Russell Sage Foundation—actively supported SSRC research committees, studies, and meetings. In early 1950, when former Carnegie Corporation staff member Pendleton Herring was president of SSRC, he and staff members of the Rockefeller Foundation, then the primary foundation supporter of the Council, discussed ways to cover its core operational costs. Herring astutely argued that SSRC added value as an informal operating arm of the foundations, saving them resources in staff and in grantmaking. As he noted in a lengthy letter, the SSRC strengthened the social sciences, built fields of knowledge and research, issued significant publications, and funded myriad fellowships developing prominent scholars in new fields. In short, the SSRC effectively brought together the specialists, “upon whom the foundation must rely to achieve its purposes.”

Rockefeller staff considered Herring’s arguments and conducted an additional review of their own nearly 25-year history with SSRC. An internal memo prepared by Rockefeller staff member Leland DeVinney highlighted signal accomplishments.xvi One standout example was the SSRC’s support of Ralph Bunche’s postdoctoral research at the London School of Economics and his field work in Africa in the late 1930s. (Following that experience, Bunche served as a lead researcher for the Corporation’s study by Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma.) Bunche went on to become a distinguished American diplomat and scholar, winning the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation work with the United Nations in Palestine. He later became under-secretary-general of the United Nations. Another example that emerged in the Foundation’s review of its involvement with SSRC was the comprehensive work an SSRC special committee did in researching and developing what eventually would become Social Security. In this case, the result of using detailed records was that the Rockefeller Foundation Trustees approved in 1951 an unusually large endowment grant for the SSRC, $1.5 million, equivalent to $13.4 million in 2013, as well as continued ongoing program support.

CASE 4: A Six-Decade Gap

Immigrant civic integration is an area in which the Corporation was actively engaged during its first 30 years. With the hiatus of more than 60 years, in the early 2000s, the Corporation began to reengage in that field, drawing, in part, on earlier lessons. As Mannion said, “In preparing for strategy development in this area, I looked at the Americanization studies and saw some of the same issues of anti-immigration that are present today. I saw continuity in the pushback against immigrants. By looking at our history I saw that it was the same story, just different players.” In developing the program strategy, the Corporation thus learned from the past and worked in new contexts to identify ways to help immigrants better integrate into American society. In the new era of the twenty-first century, Mannion and her colleagues honed the focus on educating the public, build coalitions of immigrant-serving organizations, and identify new approaches to strategic communications on policy reform initiatives.

The earlier work to which Mannion referred is the Corporation-supported 10-volume Americanization study (Study of Methods of Americanization or Fusion of Native and Foreign-Born), completed in 1921.xvii This study addressed different dimensions of immigrant life in the United States and discussed how to integrate immigrants into American society but refrained from endorsing any one model. As Vartan Gregorian described, the current focus of the Corporation on immigrant civic integration reflects, “a long-standing interest in the conditions affecting immigrants to the U.S. and their ability to flourish as American citizen.”xviii The Corporation’s current grantmaking, echoing the impetus for the initial Americanization studies, aims to advance “immigrant civic integration as a means of increasing civic participation and strengthening U.S. democracy.”

CASE 5: Knowledge of History Helps Right a Wrong

While early grants have sometimes inspired latter-day Corporation staff members, at least one grant has also haunted them: The Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question in South Africa, undertaken from 1928 to 1932. The project’s stated intent was to study conditions surrounding poverty among Afrikaners. Its statistically based surveys proved definitively that poverty correlated to many detrimental conditions such as poor nutrition, lack of education, and diminished standing in society.

These findings launched departments of sociology in South Africa’s institutions of higher education. Unfortunately, they launched as well the political career of a student of one of the study participants, Hendrik Verwoerd. Verwoerd used the study results as a platform for eliminating white poverty while promoting apartheid. He became a leader in the Nationalist Party, the party of apartheid, and prime minister in 1958, implementing draconian laws that institutionalized racial, economic, and other forms of discrimination against blacks, “coloureds,” Indians, and other South Africans of non-European ancestry.

This “Poor White” study and its unintended tragic consequences have led many scholars in and out of South Africa to charge that it played a key role in reinforcing apartheid in that country. Since the late 1950s, the collective sense of guilt felt by Corporation staff was palpable whenever the study was mentioned. This part of the Corporation’s history has never been forgotten, even after the Corporation terminated its grantmaking in South Africa in the 1950s. As previously discussed, the Corporation shifted to a social justice agenda in the United States in the mid-1960s and in South Africa in the late 1970s. The 1975 Trustee review in particular encouraged a focus on supporting anti-apartheid activities in South Africa.

In this context, and with history in mind, in 1980, the Corporation’s leadership welcomed the opportunity to conduct a study carried out by Francis Wilson, a leading economist in South Africa, who was acutely aware of the earlier study. Wilson had persuaded President Alan Pifer and program officer David Hood, along with Ford Foundation senior staff member William Carmichael, to support the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa.xxi This second study was co-led by Mamphela Ramphele, a leading scholar-activist in the country who had been exiled to a “homeland” by the government. Wilson and Ramphele reviewed the design of the first study, led by a “Commission of Wise Persons,” and took a different route, engaging local participants from across the country who reflected a wide range of disciplines, experiences, and viewpoints. The major difference in the second study was that the participants were Africans of all colors and backgrounds. This time, the resulting 300 papers dramatically revealed the dire poverty created by the oppression of the apartheid system.

As David Hamburg, president of Carnegie Corporation from 1982 to 1997, said in his 1997 oral history interview, “Our inquiry in South Africa, we believe—and I think most South Africans believe—played a significant role in helping to roll back apartheid. It was started, to his great credit, in Alan Pifer’s time...The only plea that Alan Pifer made to me and to the Board was to continue the work in South Africa.”xxii Hamburg explained further, “We wanted to get the facts straight...that was one piece of it. The second piece was to do that in a way that would involve blacks and browns and not only whites, to embed it as much as possible in the black community. I should say we built upon early Carnegie history... the poor white study.”

This example provides much material for further consideration. While the second study aimed, in part, to make amends for the negative effects of the first Carnegie Corporation study, the very impact and prominence of the first study made it nearly impossible for the Afrikaner apartheid government to prohibit the second from being carried out. The leaders of the second study, aware of the approach and results of the first, obtained detailed and accurate results by conducting this study with a conscientious eye toward the uses and abuses of historical bias. As Hamburg put it, “We basically revisited that study, looking at the whole population, which, of course, meant in our time [that] poverty was very largely black.”

Framework for Using History as a Policy Science

These case studies provide only a glimpse of the rich materials available to foundation decision-makers. A framework for systematic reviews would help program staff to incorporate more detailed ongoing analyses of past activities. Insight into how earlier program officers made decisions on comparable themes, whether in their own foundation or others, could help current staff avoid some pitfalls.

Geri Mannion, drawing on her experience at the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations as well as the Corporation, asserted, “Good program officers think about where the foundation has been and what it wants to do. They shouldn’t assume that a foundation has never done anything in an area. Even if they don’t like the older strategy, it is invaluable to have knowledge of the past.” One way to make history more active, she suggested, would be to develop portfolios of what has been funded and the kinds of analyses undertaken by programmatic strategic reviews across time and institutions.

The historical analytical framework proposed by Neustadt and May provides a starting point for compiling such portfolios.xxv Here are the seven main questions posed by Neustadt and May, somewhat modified for the foundation field:

  1. What has been done that is similar to what was done in the past?
  2. What were the conditions that prompted the first initiative?
  3. What do we know about the resulting grants? What is unclear? What is presumed?
  4. What are the similarities and differences in external conditions related to the program area under review between now and then?
  5. What stories emerge from those grants or programs that have relevance for today?
  6. What do we know about the nature of the individuals who were making those decisions and the foundations and the grantee institutions at that time?
  7. If a review is undertaken to change or develop new foundation strategy: Can we answer the journalistic questions of “Who? What? Why? Where? How? When?” to complete the historical analyses?

Developing and using such a framework will enlarge a program officer’s grasp of historical perspectives, enhance knowledge of past grants and program areas, and sharpen the capacity for assessing differences and knowing the key questions to ask. As Mannion puts it, “The first rule of philanthropy is to do no harm, which means doing your homework and connecting the past with what you want to do. We want to bring in new, creative people to the foundation world, especially in foundations of long history. But it is important that these new staff understand what the history means. Even officers of newly endowed foundations should talk and collaborate with other donors."

This article does not place history on a pedestal or consider history to be a closed book on a shelf or a file in an archive. Rather, as presented here, history is an active, living force that can enable a philanthropic organization to make thoughtful, effective grants that will have a lasting impact.

Vol. 7 / No. 2 / Summer 2013