Book Profile

Should Foundations Live Forever?: The Question of Perpetuity


Two cultures of American anti-poverty philanthropy live upstairs and downstairs from each other, sometimes meeting on the landings but then moving off into different worlds and different world views. We hear much about heavily funded, upstairs attempts to help the poor through massive monetary intervention and political organization. Send dollars to anti-poverty organizations and provide housing for the homeless, we are told, and all will be well. Public relations specialists guide the discontented and their genteel allies into support of “compassionate” programs that provide healthy salaries to those who direct them. We hear less about the downstairs culture that depends upon unpaid or poorly-paid individuals spending hours of their weeks and years of their lives in the truly compassionate activity of suffering with those in need. And what we hear is often overly-simplistic: the noble volunteer knight of the grassroots group slays the dragon of poverty, and all live happily ever after. The reality is more complex. Setting up new, downstairs programs to combat poverty, or revitalizing stultified old ones, is hard. Cultural, economic and bureaucratic frustrations are often choking. The pioneers are sinner as well as saints, and they need to further develop their own discipline as they seek to discipline others.


Should Foundations?

Two cultures of American anti-poverty philanthropy live upstairs and downstairs from each other, sometimes meeting on the landings but then moving off into different worlds and different world views.

We hear much about heavily funded, upstairs attempts to help the poor through massive monetary intervention and political organization. Send dollars to anti-poverty organizations and provide housing for the homeless, we are told, and all will be well. Public relations specialists guide the discontented and their genteel allies into support of “compassionate” programs that provide healthy salaries to those who direct them.

We hear less about the downstairs culture that depends upon unpaid or poorly-paid individuals spending hours of their weeks and years of their lives in the truly compassionate activity of suffering with those in need. And what we hear is often overly-simplistic: the noble volunteer knight of the grassroots group slays the dragon of poverty, and all live happily ever after.

The reality is more complex. Setting up new, downstairs programs to combat poverty, or revitalizing stultified old ones, is hard. Cultural, economic and bureaucratic frustrations are often choking. The pioneers are sinner as well as saints, and they need to further develop their own discipline as they seek to discipline others.

Articles in Philanthropy, Culture, and Society over the past three years have attempted to get at the reality. From the beginning, we de-emphasized theoretical essays and pressed for descriptive reporting of both successes and failures. Too often those of us involved with foundations in one way or another tend to sit at our computers and fund or write about good intentions, without having paid our dues by pounding the pavements to find out the reality.

I became committed to the development of Philanthropy, Culture, and Society three years ago when I attended an annual conference of the Council on Foundations. Two thousand foundation executives and staff members met at the Chicago Hilton, historically — according to a hotel brochure — “the choice of visiting government officials and royalty.”

Under sparkling chandeliers and surrounded by 22 karat gold leaf, conference attendees heard about the need to help the homeless by increasing funding for political efforts to change national housing policy. They contemplated such appeals while relaxing in guest rooms “richly appointed with traditional cherry wood furnishings,” according to a hotel brochure; attendees washed their hands in bathrooms “complete with gleaming brass fixtures and lined with exquisite Italian marble.”

Attendees who really wanted to learn about homelessness, however, could have learned far more by walking two blocks away, to the Pacific Garden Mission. Furnishings there were not ornate, but the four-story mission did offer dormitories with “sturdy army-type beds” for some 300 men and 40 women, with “12 white porcelain showers for each floor,” according to a mission brochure. The mission offered other amenities as well: a guest there placed “his clothing on the hanger, which is hung for the night in a delousing unit.”

Mirrored ballrooms at the conference were filled with rhetoric about “social change,” “justice,” “moving toward a multicultural outlook,” and “accepting the homeless as they are.” Plastic chairs on a linoleum floor at the mission two blocks away were filled with 200 black, white and Hispanic men and women who were in or had just come out of the drug and alcohol culture, and their words were different: “I praise God that He saved me from drugs,” or “I’m living for drugs, I want to be free.”

The articles that follow avoid the mirrored ballrooms and concentrate on the linoleum and the long twilight struggles that occur there. Some of the articles are generally positive, and others describe the failure of attempts to merge the personal approach with government dollars and a philanthropically correct vision of societal oppression. All are expressions of directed reporting: each author appreciates downstairs philanthropy and has pounded the pavements to describe objective reality as accurately as he or she can.

The articles, written by ten different authors, have several common conclusions that I will summarize in an afterword. But the point of these varied articles is not simply to provide a 1-2-3 set of poverty-fighting techniques; for that, a textbook would do as well. Rather, these articles provide texture. They show the interplay of principles with hard practice. They show the importance of perseverance.

Most western movies provide action but few memorable lines. My four sons and I the other day, however, were watching one of the best, The Magnificent Seven (1961), which tells of how seven Texas gunfighters come to the defense of a village that previously had succumbed to a bandit gang. We were struck by the words of a gunfighter who is surrounded by a circle of admiring children. “We are ashamed to live here,” one boy says. “Our fathers are cowards.”

The gunfighter replies, “You think I am brave because I carry a gun, but your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers, and this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody that says they have to do this. They do it because they love you and because they want to.”

The gunfighter concludes, “I have never had this kind of courage, running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee what will ever come of it. This is bravery. It’s why I never even started anything like that. It’s why I never will.” And the gunfighter is killed at the end of the film, but the bandits are defeated and the village will be able to survive and perhaps even thrive.

Upstairs philanthropists think they will save our despondent inner city villages of today by constructing some shining new buildings and shiny new programs. But downstairs philanthropists seek out those people in the neighborhood who, faced with crime and drugs and bad public schools, still try to be good citizens, who raise their children properly. If this responsibility were removed, the residents would become mere drones, their lives full of drudgery, without noble purpose.

It is philanthropically correct to want massive government programs that promise to transform society. But downstairs philanthropy says to the courageous, “We honor your bravery. We acknowledge that though you are poor, you are doing vital work. We will not undermine your efforts by imposing our theories of social change. Instead, we will help you have safe streets and decent schools.

“We will help, not by depriving you of your purpose, but by helping you bear the burden with dignity and a society’s gratitude — and together, we will throw the bandits out.” This book presents the case for and against perpetuity in grantmaking foundations. As a sequel to Wooster’s 1994 (and soon-to-be-republished) book The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of “Donor Intent,” it explores the reasons why some philanthropists, both famous and lesser-known, have given their foundations limited lives.

In Wooster’s view, wealthy donors should create foundations that expire no later than 25 years after their deaths. This is because the wishes of philanthropists, and sometimes their explicit instructions for grantmaking, have not always been followed after their deaths.

For donors who wish to create perpetual foundations, however, Wooster advises that they make their intentions as explicit as possible: “Donors should also make up their own minds about how to donate their wealth without relying on peer pressure, family lawyers, or professional grantmakers. People who are smart enough to create fortunes are smart enough to decide how their wealth should be used.”

Should Foundations Live Forever? profiles the philanthropy of Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman and Sears, Roebuck executive Julius Rosenwald as well as the philanthropists who created the Rockefeller Foundation, the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust, the Jacobs Family Foundation, the Whitaker Foundation, the Stern Fund, the Stern Family Fund, the Aaron Diamond Foundation, the Vincent Astor Foundation, and the Max C. Fleischmann Foundation.

PDF download

Martin Morse Wooster

Wooster is senior fellow at the Capital Research Center. He is the author of three books: Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds (Pacific Research Institute, 1994), The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor Intent’ (Capital Research…
+ More by Martin Morse Wooster