Philanthropy’s War on Community

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Editor’s note: William Schambra delivered this speech on September 15, 2012 at the Small Enough to Succeed conference at Hope College in Holland, Mich. The event was organized by the Front Porch Republic.


Writing in 1952, Raymond Fosdick, long-time president of the Rockefeller Foundation, provided this description of its first board meeting in 1913:

The question which faced the trustees as they sat down to their first meeting was how the broad objective of their charter was to be implemented.  What constitutes the “well-being of mankind throughout the world?”  A large number of applications had already been received, and it is significant that they were all declined, including one from the YMCA for the rehabilitation of buildings located in Dayton, Hamilton, and Marietta, which had been damaged in the recent floods along the Ohio River Valley. 

Mr. Gates phrased the objection:  “The Rockefeller Foundation should in general confine itself to projects of an important character, too large to be undertaken, or otherwise unlikely to be undertaken, by other agencies.”  This was in line with the emphasis which Mr. Rockefeller himself, six years earlier, had placed on what he called “finalities.”  “The best philanthropy,” he had said, “involves a search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”

Here, at the inaugural gathering of what was at the time the world’s largest foundation, was enunciated the doctrine that has governed mainstream American philanthropy for much of its existence.

Local communities might approach foundations with requests for projects like helping to repair damage done to beloved and vital village institutions. But the wise, far-sighted patricians running the foundations knew that these would be just stop-gap efforts to address the most superficial effects of society’s problems.  

Such niggling, small-bore projects, however, were all one could expect from benighted local yokels, entrapped as they were by moral and religious world-views that barely extended beyond the village boundaries. 

Look at these towns in Ohio – they honestly thought that Christianity had something to teach young men!

Happily for the villagers, though, the cosmopolitan patricians now had available to them an instrument that could reach all the way down to the “finalities” so important to John D. Rockefeller. 

The newly emerging natural and social sciences of the early 20th century enabled us to probe beneath the superficial manifestations of problems, and penetrate to their very core, their root cause. 

So the first modern American foundations – Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Russell Sage – devoted themselves to developing these new sciences through support for research universities like Johns Hopkins and Chicago, think tanks like Brookings, and coordinating agencies like the Social Science Research Council.   

The professional elites trained in these world-class institutions would have the expertise necessary to guide, shape, and mold the American people. 

Psychology and sociology would find the uniform rules of human behavior beneath all of its confusing and superficial diversity so lamentably reflected in America’s small communities. 

Political science would teach us how to reorganize public life according to those rules, moving us away from divisive state and local allegiances, toward an inspiring and ennobling great national community, quietly and rationally administered by cosmopolitan elites according to the unassailably objective principles of scientific management.

Among the most valuable of the sciences supported by the first foundations was the emerging study of human biology known as eugenics. 

Thanks to the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws of biological inheritance at the beginning of the 20th century, we now knew what the root cause of human pathology truly was, namely bad genes. 

Nearly every form of human misbehavior or misfortune – from promiscuity to shiftlessness to dipsomania to the all-encompassing “feeble-mindedness” – could be traced back to defective “protoplasm.”

And so America’s major philanthropies eagerly poured their resources into the promising science of eugenics.  Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Mrs. E. H. Harriman (as she always described herself) – widow of the railroad magnate – provided the funds for Harvard biologist Charles Davenport to establish the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in New York in 1911. 

The ERO would be the international center for eugenics research and public policy advocacy until it was finally closed in 1939 – when even its philanthropic sponsors could not fail to heed the ominous signals emanating from Germany about the implications of a vigorous eugenic program.

If philanthropy in general was hostile to local community, eugenics was doubly so.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in Charles Davenport’s magnum opus, entitled Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, published in 1911 and dedicated to Mrs. E. H. Harriman.

Davenport and the ERO may be remembered today chiefly for their concern about the promiscuous importation of defective protoplasm from the villages and shtetls of Eastern Europe, which led to the severely restrictive immigration law of 1924.

In fact, however, a larger concern for Davenport was the dangerous accumulation of defective and decaying protoplasm within America’s all-too-prevalent jerkwater local communities. 

As he put it, “negative traits multiply most in long established and stable communities where much inbreeding occurs, while positive traits are increased by emigration, as a fire is spread by the wind that scatters firebrands.”  

Inbreeding (or consanguineous marriage) and the concentration of defectiveness is more likely where people stay put, while “a restless people will show a small percentage of negative traits.” 

The problem is that when the laudably restless and ambitious move on, as they always had since colonial times, “the weaker minds were left behind to breed in the old homestead.”

Too many such “old homesteads,” in Davenport’s view, had been established and maintained in America by groups that tended to cling – perhaps even bitterly cling – to distinctive and exclusive ethnic, moral, and religious ways of life, each of which became a breeding ground for genetic defect.

Even the very geography of America seemed to promote concentrations of defectiveness. 

Davenport includes in his book a map of the Eastern seaboard, with this caption:  “Coast of eastern North America, showing the broken coast line, with islands and peninsulas, each of which is, more or less, a center of consanguineous marriages.  Such centers can be picked out by looking at the map.”

Wherever there’s some relatively inaccessible but nonetheless inhabited geographical nook or cranny – some rocky islet, some marshy point, some remote valley, some treacherous mountain range – there, genetic defects tend to become trapped and multiply, like so many diverticular pathogens.

Davenport singled out our northernmost coastline for particular opprobrium, noting that “the islands off the coast of Maine show much consanguineous marriage.”

Smarting from such shameful depictions in both scholarly and popular literature, the state of Maine decided to take action against one such consanguineous island cesspool the year after the publication of Davenport’s book. 

This year we mark the centenary of Governor Frederick Plaisted’s bold effort to solve once and for all the eugenic problem of Malaga Island. 

Malaga is today a 42-acre nature preserve in the New Meadows River.  But until 1912 it housed a thriving community of some 40 residents – whites, blacks, and biracial – most of whose families had lived and intermarried there since the 1840s. 

Those of you who may have come across a Newbery Prize-winning book from 2005 entitled Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy will recognize this story.

The islanders eked out a proudly independent way of life through subsistence farming, fishing, lobstering, and odd jobs on the mainland. 

But to savvy mainlanders armed with the science of root causes, the flimsy shanties, peculiar ways, and especially the mixed blood of the Malaga Islanders all suggested ominous subterranean genetic faults.

And so in the spring of 1912, the state of Maine abruptly evicted all the residents of Malaga Island. As befitted a eugenic solution, one-fifth of the islanders were sent to the newly opened Maine School for the Feeble-Minded in West Pownal, where most of them lived out their lives as involuntary residents. 

No buildings were left standing on Malaga, and – lest former inhabitants entertain notions of having any remaining roots there – even the graveyard was unceremoniously dug up, with the remains thrown into five large caskets and reburied on the grounds of the school for the feeble-minded, where they rest today. 

The Malaga Island clearance has justly been described as the most shameful episode in Maine history.  

Malaga is, of course, just one episode in the long and tragic story of eugenics in America.  It seemed to justify the mandatory institutionalization of hundreds of thousands of so-called defectives, and the involuntary sterilization of some 60,000 American citizens. 

And that’s to say nothing of the inspiration it provided for similar such genetic purification programs around the world. 

Today, the governors of the states most enthusiastic about sterilization have apologized for their eugenics programs. North Carolina is moving toward compensation for surviving sterilization victims, and Maine recently deplored its role in the events of 1912.  The Maine State Museum’s current exhibit “Malaga Island, Fragmented Lives,” captures the state’s regret.

Nonetheless, the foundations that provided the financial support for eugenics have never issued formal apologies. 

Indeed, if you look under “e” in the index of any of the leading histories of American philanthropy you will find not one word about eugenics.

In an ironic footnote to the Malaga episode, however, the former grounds of the Maine School for the Feeble-minded, which was known as the Pineland Center when it closed in 1996, have been purchased and redeveloped by Maine’s largest private philanthropy, the Libra Foundation.

Libra presents a vivid contrast to the giving philosophy of the early Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations.  

Although Libra’s endowment comes from Elizabeth Noyce and her portion of the globe-bestriding Intel fortune, it has happily focused its giving entirely within the state of Maine. 

In its hands, Pinelands today features a working farm, producing its own cheese, natural meats, organic eggs, maple syrup, strawberry jam and seasonal fresh produce. It also has an equestrian center, a much-admired public garden, and building space for lease to small, local businesses and nonprofits.  

As Pinelands’ guide puts it, “Tenants enjoy amenities on the campus such as a conference center, cafeteria and”– in a delicious counterpoint to the first Rockefeller board meeting – a “YMCA.”

In short, rather than waging war on local community in the name of tracking down root causes, Libra is trying to shore up the cultural and economic underpinnings of local community – and on the very site of one of the “root cause” approach’s most despicable crimes. 

To be sure, not all of Libra’s initiatives have been successful or popular. Its real estate ventures and its effort to build a self-sustaining Public Market in Portland have come under considerable criticism from Mainers. 

An effort by Libra in 2000 to open a new center at Pinelands for individuals with disabilities was turned back with particular vigor.

But that’s the point – Mainers know precisely where to take their complaints, because Libra is devoted not to the “well-being of mankind throughout the world,” but rather to the well-being of this one small, struggling state whose residents live and work beside those who run the foundation.

One additional irony of the eugenics movement is worth noting.  We are urged today to regard progressivism as the tribune of America’s low-income, ethnic communities. And yet no one was more enthusiastically eugenicist than progressivism’s founders like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Herbert Croly.  

They shared Davenport’s deep concern about the idiocy of local community life, along with its ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry. 

They yearned for an expansive, unified, homogeneous national community, within which all ethnic, religious and moral distinctions would disappear, along with their pathological genetic concentrations.

Yet in the face of that homogenizing, nationalizing impulse, it was the precisely the tiny island community of Malaga that stood for a degree of racial harmony and intermixture almost unheard of at the turn of the 20th century. 

And so it has often been, throughout American history: the small communities so offensive to sophisticated American writers and intellectuals in fact end up providing the surest refuge for racial minorities, religious dissenters, and cultural renegades.

At any rate, I wish someone from Maine would approach the Libra Foundation with the following proposition. Those lonely graves from Malaga at the back of the Pinelands site:  they should be unearthed once more, and transported with dignity and ceremony back to a suitably restored cemetery among the red spruce trees of the Malaga Island nature preserve.

But the cost shouldn’t be borne entirely by Libra. It should be shared by the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, as modest down payments against the day they embrace their own shameful past in the war against American community, and begin to reorient their giving accordingly.

William A. Schambra is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.

  • Bill Huddleston

    Headline doesn’t match the article.

    If Schambra is going to use examples from 1912 as his main point, he should also make the argument that the quack medicine manufacturers that killed thousands of people, as well as the food processors that produced food that sickened or killed people of all ages commercial enterprises didnt’ apologize either. See “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.


    Bill Huddleston
    The CFC Coach

  • Jeff Wilklow

    Thank you for a very informative and thought-provoking look at Big Philanthropy in its early years. Much to contemplate here.

  • Cris Doby

    Oh, Bill – this is just snotty. But then maybe I do like the idea that from my perch in Flint I should be the one choosing the nonprofit winners and losers in Ohio, Iowa, and Maine…nah, I don’t like that idea after all.

  • Judith Taylor

    An excellent article. Thank you!

  • The Lt. Uhura

    Yikes. That was a mess to get through. Will there be a test now? Sorry. I’m not the most brilliant bulb, but if you want to share or disseminate your ideas, put some effort into basic communication strategies — organization / visual cues, perhaps using common story pattern such as beginning-middle-end, provide summary before going into detail, use thesis sentence…

  • Kevin Feldman

    Do not forget that eugenics is alive and well today, and well funded by major foundations. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood was a shameless practitioner of eugenics. Her well-funded legacy continues to this day. “Philanthropy’s war on community” continues.

  • Elizabeth Drozd

    What a refreshing and tought provoking perspective! Sincere congratulatons. Elizabeth Drozd, CEO, Australian Multicultural Community Services, Melbourne, Australia

  • Charles Chan

    I am a retired social worker in Hong Kong.
    Your artical is very inspiring!
    Nowadays the in HK, non-profit making organizations depends more and more on private welfare funding set up by the successful business.
    One Fund Donor claimed that:” It is much more difficult for me to give money to the deserving projects and make sure they really achieve what they promised than earning the money!”
    Recently, he set aside a portion of the Fund and asked NPO to submit applications and he posted them in a website and asks the public to vote which one they support. The ones that get more votes were given higher priority.
    We would expect some insight in a few years’ time, which is better judge, the public or the experts.

  • Ronnie Early

    This seemed to be an exercise in mental masturbation by a scholarly avenger who liked to show off by using big words. Maybe an article like this could be used to qualify for a thesis but probably bores someone looking for information related to the title. It comes off like an effort to villify some large foundations for past mistakes. I thought some evidence showing a lack of funding to the community by these philanthropists would be exposed in terms of CURRENT trends. An example of some sympathetic community funding sources versus those who are at “war” would have also been helpful. I think this was good for Malaga Island survivors.
    Ronnie from Triple R

  • Laura Harrison

    I read yI I read your I I I am a descendent of the Tripp and Darling family that were evicted from Malaga 100 years ago. My grandfather My grandfather was a child on Malaga at the time of the eviction. The event haunted him through his adult adult life. I am in the process of resarching further the life and evnts of my descendents. I could use any any help given from people who may have known my grandfather Herald Tripp from Belgrade Maine. I nee I would like any information about his sisters Pearl Tripp, Abbie, and brother Leonard.I would like any info information or letters or photos regarding the Marks family who were forced into The Home for the
    Feeble Minded. Their must be families who had descendents that worked in Pownell who may have
    diaries or letters about my family. If you have any information I would appreciate your help putting a
    fragmented puzzle together for us.Any information at all may lead us to another piece of our puzzle.
    Thank you…..Laura Harrison…

  • Laura Harrison

    My computer made several mistakes while typing the previous comment. But I hope my intent was clear. I am trying to get answers for so many questions my family still has. The story of Malaga is not just a historical event it is the story of my family. There are so many questions we have that we are not able to find the answers to. The shameful event that this story has been labeled makes it hard to get people to talk about even today. My mother is in her senior years and I want her to have some of the answers we seek. So please understand that there are people we hppe may have even small clues to our story. We know that my Great grandfather lived in or near Harpswell and his name was Robert Tripp. His wifes name was Laura Darling tripp. She perished aboard the make shift house boat after the eviction and we are not sure where she was buried. Their are few answers about the Marks family who all but two perished locked away in The Home for the Feeble minded. Their was a kitchen worker who risked her career at Pownell to seek the release of Lottie marks and her mother Abbie. If you have any information about this employee at Pownell or any other workers who may have shared their thoughts or letters or just stories please help us peice together the events from that time….I ask with the hope that this story will touch hearts and people will be moved to help us….Thank you again…Laura harrison

  • Melanie

    I find this article a joy to read. And importantly, provides background to the origins of big philanthropy. As a former historian, thank you.
    The idea of addressing “root causes” continues in philanthropy. It makes difficult the innovative work of NFPs whose grass roots ideas do not sit well with those of ex merchant bankers and accountants who dominate the Boards of philanthropic organisations. We haven”t found THE root cause of homelessness because there isn’t one cause. It has a multiplicity of drivers, that event the largest NFP can’t influence all at once. And it is much contested as to what these drivers may be.
    There is also the love affair with social investment bonds, social financing, social ventures etc, which we must adapt too in order to reap new sources of income.The philanthropic set have also pushed this on government as a brilliant idea. Some huge NFPs are on board. But to join in, we will need to dramatically alter our mission, staffing profile, theory of change etc in order to bid for these funds. Because we will be judged an old fashioned, stuck in the past,non adaptive NFP if we do not?Ethically we could feel like “bounty hunters” returning profit to investors if our work with ex offenders in the community has a success fee over their heads. And do those ex-offenders know or consent to the arrangement?
    Philantho-capitalism exists and the move to put the business community in charge of the NFP sector rings alarm bells for me. Or was it the NFP sector who caused the GFC?

  • Tom King

    Billy, Billy. You are so going to get hate mail for this one. This was a well-written history lesson that makes abundantly clear what is wrong with big philanthropy these days. It’s not likely to get much better, sadly. The driving minds behind most big philanthropies are individuals who earned or inherited vast fortunes. These folk are necessarily people who think big. That’s how they made themselves big fortunes.

    Once one has a big fortune, one tends to begin casting about for ways to protect that fortune and one’s control of it. It’s really quite simple. Throughout time, the one thing the wealthiest among us have feared is that the downtrodden peasants would rise up and murder them in their beds. They’ve come up with a variety of schemes for protecting themselves from the unwashed masses over the years. They’ve surrounded themselves with armed retinues. They’ve invented the “divine right of kings” doctrine. The whole eugenics thing was just another attempt to protect the bloodlines of the wealthy.

    Socialism was embraced by the wealthy as a way to seal the passages between the proletariat and the upper crust. Despite Marxism’s anti-capitalist rhetoric, the robber barons of the day were quick to see that the central-planning aspect of socialism was a two-edged tool that could be used to manage the masses. There’s not all that much altruism in it. It’s mostly about lulling the herd into a complacent state so they won’t riot or loot and accidentally kill any privileged people.

    The wealthy families of the world are looking for massive schemes that will keep things as under control as possible. America’s free markets allowed many to make fortunes, but all that freedom also meant that ordinary people could do things which inconvenience the upper classes. As Mr. Schambra so ably points out, have little interest in solving little problems in local communities. That’s why they are always looking for “demonstration” project that are reproducable on a larger scale. Big money wants big results. It’s not true always, but it’s true enough that a lot of fund-raisers who work at the community level were probably nodding their heads as they read this. – Tom King