Conferences / Philanthropy and Historical Research

Foundation Grant-making and Historical Insight: Opportunities Missed and Met

Editors’ Note: The following are remarks made by Patricia Rosenfield at a January 4th panel discussion–“Understanding the Past to Plan the Future: Historical Inquiry and Philanthropic Grant-Making”–sponsored by the National History Center, at the 2018 annual conference of the American Historical Association.

As a scholar and practitioner of philanthropy, I have written about the history of philanthropy for the joy of scholarship. I have also written with the intent to persuade philanthropic decision-makers that knowing their history will enhance their decision-making.  I am convinced about the importance of the latter because I have been on that side of that ledger.  I have had the experience of making grant program decisions without knowing the history. To start off this panel, I want to share a few brief examples that illustrate how knowledge of the history of philanthropy can yield findings that not only inform other scholars but also inform philanthropic practitioners.

Example #1:  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Carnegie Corporation through its traveling fellowship program in Africa supported many African scholars who went on to become vice chancellors of African universities and higher education opinion shapers.  Twenty years later, as a new staff member, I was charged with designing a program to strengthen human resources in Africa and the Caribbean.  Had I known about this remarkable network in Africa of talented friends of Carnegie—still significant players in higher education—I would have asked them to become our program advisors.  Instead, working with junior scholarly colleagues from the region, we ended up supporting interesting and important but time-limited and non-sustainable projects located in various university departments. With the input and backing of university vice chancellors who also knew the Corporation, we could have much more effectively developed cross-university programs that would have been relevant and sustained by university leadership.[1]

Example #2:  Recently, I was conducting research about the history of foundation support for women in the Caribbean in response to a request for a journal article. In studying the records at the Rockefeller Archive Center, I realized the important—albeit now completely unrecognized–role of Caribbean women scholars in actually shaping Ford Foundation and Carnegie Corporation’s programs in that region in the late 1970s. These records revealed another of my missed opportunities. In the early 1990s, I was asked by the Carnegie board to bring to a close the Corporation’s Caribbean program. Again, had I known the earlier relationship with these key scholars from the Caribbean, I would have asked for their guidance in making the case to continue the work we had been doing in support of women in the region, not just over the past five years that I was aware of, but, rather, over more than twenty years. Instead, the program was closed.

Example # 3:  In this third example, knowledge of past grantmaking directly influenced a new program. In the late 1960s, Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund together played an active role in building the public interest bar for blacks in the southern United States. They worked together to support programs for black law students, particularly in southern law schools, along with support for nonprofit legal defense funds. Ten years later, in the late 1970s, the three foundations again worked together but this time in South Africa. New and longtime program officers were familiar with the approaches and results of the earlier law-oriented work in the American South. They adapted that knowledge in South Africa as a way to confront apartheid. Working with black, coloured, and white South African colleagues, they supported training programs in law schools for black South Africans, the first public interest law firm in South Africa, and a variety of nonprofit legal groups. Throughout the 1980s, the cases brought to the courts by South African lawyers chipped away at apartheid. Building on their knowledge of history, the foundations—through the support of black South Africa lawyers and pertinent legal institutions—helped contribute to ending apartheid in South Africa. Here, in this example, foundation staff knowledge of history made a palpable difference.

The fourth example is work in progress. This past summer at the Rockefeller Archive Center, we held a meeting on the role of foundations in the early history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States; in the 1980s, foundations took the risk to be involved when the government was not supporting either social research or activism. The meeting was the first time that the activists, historians, early grantmakers, and archivists had met together. In the reading rooms at the Rockefeller Archive Center, in small interdisciplinary groups, we all read files from the 1980s. It was another eye-opening, transformative experience—the activists and their then- program officers reading the grant reports and officer memos, the historians gleaning new insights from this new approach to oral history, and the archivists seeing the records come to life. The results have set in motion new activities to build on that knowledge and engage with foundations currently working on HIV/AIDS. The group is also preparing reports to illustrate the results of the high-risk, high-impact grantmaking from that era to encourage foundations to play a distinctive role in countering today’s new life-threatening epidemics. [Editors’ Note: HistPhil plans to focus several future posts on this research initiative.]

These examples hint at the value of uncovering such experiences and bringing them to light for both historians and current practitioners. Of course, it requires that foundations make their records accessible, preferably through curated archives. I want, however, to emphasize, that this is not to instrumentalize history but, rather, to bring historical knowledge forward to enlarge the scope for decision-making and action.

While understanding the influences and outcomes of past philanthropic decision-making is not the only knowledge that philanthropic decision-makers need to design a new program, I would argue strongly that it is critical knowledge needed to launch programs that are much more likely to make a difference.

-Patricia Rosenfield

Patricia L. Rosenfield, PhD, is Senior Fellow at the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), Sleepy Hollow, New York. Prior to joining the RAC, Rosenfield was at Carnegie Corporation of New York, where, among other responsibilities, she directed the Carnegie Scholars Program. She is the author, most recently, of A World of Giving: Carnegie Corporation of New York—A Century of International Grantmaking (Public Affairs, 2014).


[1] This understanding featured significantly in the design of a new multi-foundation program in 2000, “The Partnership for Higher Education in Africa,” that more than exceeded program goals. For more details, see

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