The article in question:

Philanthropy's War on Community, William Schambra

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....

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The Council on Foundations' response:

William Schambra’s speech, as published in Nonprofit Quarterly on September 18, grossly mischaracterizes the role of philanthropy and the impact it generates in countless communities around the globe. Schambra singles out a shameful piece of global scientific history—eugenics—to assert that philanthropy pays little if any attention to the voices and needs of communities. In doing so, he unnecessarily undermines the strategic insight, commitment, passion, and impact that exemplify the growth and evolution of organized philanthropy during the past 100 years.

Schambra’s speech ignores the influence and change generated by the thousands of foundations, large and small, that have been positively engaged with communities for nearly a century. He uses an outdated and isolated example to assert that philanthropy continues to ignore the true needs of communities, believing instead that its resources, research, and reputation will always lead to the best solution. He disregards our country’s more than 700 community foundations, whose primary purpose is to improve the quality of life of their local citizens.

Take the Cleveland Foundation—the world’s first community foundation and one of the largest—which has been improving the lives of Greater Clevelanders since 1914. Its Evergreen Cooperative Initiative (ECI) is working to create living wage jobs in six low income neighborhoods. With substantial support from the federal government and major institutions in Cleveland, the ECI has successfully started two cooperative businesses and is about to launch a third. Virtually every local organization has benefited from the Cleveland Foundation’s largesse, including those serving the region’s most vulnerable populations. Among these grantees are the Cleveland Foodbank, the Free Clinic of Greater Cleveland, the YMCA of Greater Cleveland, the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland, the Greater Cleveland chapter of the American Red Cross, the area’s community development corporations, and its many hospitals. More recently, the foundation catalyzed the State of Ohio’s transformative public school reform movement.

Cleveland is just one—out of thousands—of foundations supporting community. The examples are too numerous to list, but all consistently and genuinely work to strengthen community. Following are just a few:

  • The Peter Kiewit Foundation makes grants to neighborhood associations on a grassroots level in Omaha, Neb., in order to promote safety, urban rejuvenation, citizen organization, and beautification. Further, these grants are usually made only after in-depth conversations with residents to determine their needs. They also provide new playgrounds throughout the rural regions of the state: 253 playgrounds at a cost of $1.85 million since 2000.
  • Recognizing that families are the heart of communities, The Duke Endowment is heavily involved in Nurse Family Partnership to help first-time low income mothers deliver full-term babies at healthy birth weights. For the past 30 years, this evidence-based program has helped improve prenatal care, reduce the rate of multiple pregnancies, improve school readiness among children, improve maternal employment, and reduce the incidence of child abuse. This national program is making a difference in communities across the country and is being supported wholeheartedly by private philanthropy.
  • The Jacobs Family Foundation founded the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation (JCNI) out of belief that the creativity and innovation of residents can help them change their own neighborhoods. JCNI works in partnership with the Jacobs Family Foundation and residents of San Diego’s Diamond Neighborhoods to build a stronger community through entrepreneurial projects, hands-on learning relationships, and the creative investment of resources.
  • Kaiser Permanente invests its intellectual, technical, financial, and human assets to create health access and healthy environments, and to broadly share knowledge about health. Its philanthropic initiatives, ranging from community-based organizations to national campaigns like HBO’s The Weight of the Nation and EveryBody Walk!, model how Kaiser Permanente works through an expanding network of public and private partnerships. These unique investments contribute to Kaiser Permanente’s comprehensive approach to improving the health of communities across the country.

As one reads Schambra’s piece, it quickly becomes clear that he doesn’t understand philanthropy’s value as part of a global ecosystem for greater good or the role of communities that engage with philanthropy’s leaders to benefit citizens. And, unfortunately, he is not alone.

Ensuring that everyone understands philanthropy’s positive impact on society is critical to preserving and enhancing the sector’s ability to continue to effect positive change. We have an opportunity to increase the understanding of what philanthropy is and does. Our members are moving forward and making the world a better place—each and every day. Looking back, as Schambra has done in such a negative way, is hardly an accurate commentary on the productive and positive partnerships philanthropy has formed with American communities and its potential for our shared future.


Vikki N. Spruill is president and CEO of the Council on Foundations.

Kevin K. Murphy is president of the Berks County (Pennsylvania) Community Foundation and chair of the Council on Foundations Board of Directors.