New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Historical Research

Confronting a Philanthropic Past: A Review of Rosenfield’s A World of Giving

Editors’ Note: Benjamin Coates reviews Patricia Rosenfield’s A World of Giving: Carnegie Corporation of New York – A Century of International Philanthropy

As a pioneer of modern philanthropy, Andrew Carnegie was among the first millionaires to face criticism not for his stinginess, but for his largesse. Why should society admire a man for giving away wealth that he earned on the broken backs of the working class? Workers “herd together and obey the orders of a steel magnate, and produce hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth for him, and then let him give them libraries,” complained a character in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle. They ought instead to seize control of the industry and “build their own libraries.” In the intervening century, critics have attacked philanthropists for evading taxes, diverting societal wealth to useless pet projects, and reinforcing unequal power relations in America and across the world.

Of course the view from within the philanthropic establishment is sunnier. Patricia L. Rosenfield’s 2014 A World of Giving: Carnegie Corporation of New York is an insider’s history of a century of international giving by the Carnegie Corporation (CC) that demonstrates how those charged with distributing Carnegie’s wealth have understood their own successes and failures. A World of Giving is no whitewash; it confronts many of the criticisms lobbed at Carnegie and his trustees, and it convincingly paints the latter as men trying their best to improve society. But because it seeks in history a model for current grant makers, it does not fully grapple with some of the deeper structural challenges posed by corporate philanthropy.

Rosenfield, a former CC officer, has long experience in foundations and NGOs and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Rockefeller Archives Center. Even with nearly five hundred pages to work with, covering CC’s numerous initiatives, projects, committees, and programs poses a daunting task for any researcher. Rosenfield deftly avoids the proliferation of acronyms and jargon that too often pervade this kind of work, and her writing is admirably clear throughout. She has mined CC’s archives and associated oral history collections at Columbia University, as well as archives from Rockefeller and Ford, and her bibliography is impressive. She takes a chronological approach, provides capsule biographies of CC’s presidents, and manages to outline all of the Corporation’s important programs. Those with a particular interest in CC or in how major foundations manage institutional change will want to read this book from beginning to end. The change in CC’s relative financial power over time is particularly interesting. In 1913, for instance, the Corporation’s grants totaled $5.6 million—more than all federal education spending (202). But by the 1960s, the income of all foundations represented less than one percent of federal revenue (202), and by 2012 CC’s $2.8 billion in assets ranked it twenty-second among US foundations (386).

At the center of A World of Giving is the tension between continuity and change. The Corporation’s trustees have tried to stay true to Andrew Carnegie’s founding vision (to spread access to education and to promote the development of knowledge to fix social ills) while reacting to a changing world. CC, Rosenfield argues, has succeeded. She approaches philanthropic history from a technical angle: studying history allows grantmakers to avoid the mistakes and build on the successes of the past. Specifically she argues in her conclusion that the history of CC shows the importance of sticking to a founding mission, of taking risks, of making long-term investments, and of being open to collaboration and partnership.

The benefits of this approach to those in the foundation world are clear. But this narrow focus sidesteps some of the deeper questions about the role of philanthropy in society. It is worthwhile to compare it to Inderjeet Parmar’s Foundations of the American Century, a polemical history that criticizes major foundations (CC, Rockefeller, and Ford) for preserving racial and economic hierarchies and “extending and consolidating US global hegemony (2).” Parmar contends that the Big 3 foundations had real success in only one area: building “sustainable elite networks” which served as “both the ends and means of hegemonic social and political forces (8).” In other words, rather than being nonideological, nonpolitical, and independent of the state, big foundations worked from inside the Establishment to preserve elite power at home and empire abroad. (Rosenfield cites Parmar’s work, and in her acknowledgements references having several “lively conversations and informal debates” with him (489).)

The extent of empirical overlap between Rosenfield and Parmar is intriguing. Rosenfield dutifully chronicles the same elite connections among CC’s trustees that Parmar criticizes. The disagreement comes in their respective interpretations. Consider the effort to establish the academic field of international relations in the 1930s and 1940s. Both authors agree that CC tried to move scholarly studies away from “idealism” toward knowledge of “power conflict,” and to discredit isolationism and convince Americans to support a greater role in foreign affairs (169). But what Parmar attacks as the promotion of war and empire, Rosenfield defends as a commendable response to the dangers of fascism and communism (“enabling the United States to be a responsible and dynamic global player,” as she puts it (97)). It seems unlikely that this sort of ideological dispute can be resolved empirically.

Of course, some of the actions of CC’s past trustees—supporting a virtual ban on immigration in 1924, advocating eugenics, etc.—cannot be defended under any modern liberal framework. And Rosenfield forthrightly acknowledges these. But because she wants to use CC’s history as a source of relevant lessons for today’s philanthropic leaders, she has a tendency to avoid any criticism that goes deeper than surface level, and she tends to emphasize continuity over change. In so doing I think she misses an opportunity to respond more fully to the critique posed by Parmar and other radical detractors.

The case of South Africa is especially revealing. Between 1927 and 1941, as Rosenfield narrates, CC disbursed some $1.3 million there, advised by two all-white, local committees made up of nationalist Afrikaners and more liberal South Africans of British origin. As with other CC programs, most of this money funded educational facilities and academic studies. The most troubling of the latter was the so-called “Poor White Study,” a five volume report published in 1932 that drew attention to Afrikaner poverty. South Africa’s Nationalist Party trumpeted the study, arguing that the plight of poor whites demanded enhanced racial segregation. Some scholars later called the study a “blueprint for apartheid” (111). Rosenfield rightly argues that such a claim grants too much influence to a single academic study, but acknowledges that CC did offer unintentional support for white supremacy.

Rosenfield presents the episode as a “major lesson” on the need “to think through the possible implications of such work” (110), but it seems that the Corporation took many years to learn that lesson. As late as 1954 CC sponsored psychometric research and standardized testing conducted by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Unsurprisingly the Nationalist government subsequently cited the results of this research as proof of inherent black inferiority (189).

In her book’s conclusion, Rosenfield describes the Poor White Study as one of the “unexpected consequences of risky grant-making” (471). Reducing this episode to a kind of philanthropic collateral damage fails to grapple with its actual causes. CC trustees did not intend the study to promote the rise of apartheid, and they generally preferred liberal South Africans in the 1920s, even as they underwrote “projects that both Afrikaner nationalists and pro-British liberals would approve” (110). But even the white liberals of the moment advocated racist policies; Charles T. Loram, CC’s “chief liaison” in South Africa (109), challenged conservative Afrikaners to improve black welfare, but he still made policy recommendations on the assumption that “whites would continue to rule and Africans would continue to be ruled (Davis 90).” And Thomas Jesse Jones, who received CC funds to spread his proposals for black vocational education to Africa, advised that too much emphasis on “bookish studies” for black students would harm race relations, for “the Negro’s highly emotional nature requires for balance as much as possible of the concrete and definite (Zimmerman 203).”

To explain why CC supported these projects it is not enough to write, as Rosenfield does, that the trustees were “men of their time and place” (76). Not all men of that time and place advocated educational policies designed to keep black advancement within limits. Contemporaries like W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson charged at the time that Jones was “an evil in the life of the Negro (Zimmerman 203).” Rather CC trustees’ worldviews were the product of their position within the kind of “elite networks” that Parmar criticizes. By flattening the South African experience into a generalizable lesson about philanthropic administration, Rosenfield evades grappling with the more difficult—but potentially more fruitful—problem of how to bring about equitable social improvement from within an elite position.

This is unfortunate because, as Rosenfield and others have demonstrated, CC did evolve more than critics like Parmar give it credit for. For instance, as Maribel Morey argues, CC President Frederick Keppel himself changed his views about racism over the course of the 1930s, and came to believe in the need for deeper structural changes to promote black equality. In order to move beyond vocational education, Keppel funded Gunnar Myrdal’s influential An American Dilemma, which emphasized the social, legal, and economic toll of white supremacy. And under the leadership of Alan Pifer in the 1960s the Corporation discovered the limits of apolitical social science, and devoted significant resources to legal defense funds—in short, to direct intervention in law and politics—in order to support African-American equality in the US. While CC had helped export the model of vocational education from the US South to South Africa in the 1920s and 1930s, in the 1960s Pifer—at the urging of NAACP official Jack Greenberg—helped establish the Legal Resource Centre in South Africa to bring direct challenges to racial hierarchy. I wanted to know much more about these transformations. How and why did they occur? Was there resistance from established figures in the foundation? How did CC discover the need to, in essence, embrace politics? More engagement with such questions would bring a more frontal challenge to Parmar’s central critique. If CC has learned how to transcend the ideological limits of elite power networks, this might be the most important lesson of all.

– Benjamin Coates

Benjamin Coates teaches the history of the US and the World at Wake Forest University. His book, Legalist Empire: International Law and American Foreign Relations in the Early Twentieth Century, comes out next year from Oxford University Press.

Works Cited: 

Davis, Jr., R. Hunt. “Charles T. Loram and an American Model for African Education in South Africa,” African Studies Review 19:2 (1976).

Morey, Maribel. “A Reconsideration of An American Dilemma,” Reviews in American History 40:4 (2012): 686-692.

Parmar, Inderjeet. Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle (Chicago: Published by Upton Sinclair, 1920 (1906)).

Zimmerman, Andrew. Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

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