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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