Great Philanthropic Mistakes – Martin Morse Wooster

Detecting failure in the field of philanthropy is hard. The intense sensitivity and lack of transparency surrounding most grant givers makes it a specialist skill. It reminds me of the story of the thoughtful Russian during World War Two who, after reading daily reports of the triumphs of the Soviet army, consulted a map and realized that the ‘glorious victories’ were happening closer and closer to Moscow, as the army retreated.

Very little in the way of a map has been available to philanthropists, but now Martin Morse Wooster, in this short book (157 pages), has provided the first, brave outlines of one.

A copy of his eight cautionary tales should be supplied to every programme officer at the major foundations, particularly those at the new mega-foundations which are, once again, embarked on plans to alter the course of the universe. As Morse Wooster writes: ‘This report looks at eight cases where foundations made major mistakes. They thought that given enough resources and expertise, they could prevent overpopulation, cure cancer and “find Michelangelo”. Their failures provide valuable lessons for future philanthropists who believe that their wealth gives them unlimited power to change the world.’

The cases are well researched and nicely told, without recourse to the impenetrable jargon of philanthropy, and they lay bare a frightening waste of money, billions of dollars poured away in chasing inappropriate or unachievable goals. They also follow the fortunes of a lavish cast of characters ranging from those who ought to have been diagnosed with a serious case of megalomania to the merely arrogant.

All eight chapters cover programmes conceived by well-known US foundations – Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Annenberg, Albert and Mary Lasker, MacArthur. The case studies, with one exception, relate to programmes that have ended, which may well have made Morse Wooster’s task a little easier, dead teeth being less sensitive than those with fresh decay.

The exception is the MacArthur Fellows Programme – the so-called ‘genius awards’, which remain much coveted. The Foundation’s original aim was to try to unlock the talent of the world’s next Michelangelo or Einstein. As Rod MacArthur said: ‘If only a handful produce something of importance – whether it be a work of art, or a major breakthrough in the sciences – it will have been worth the risk.’ Morse Wooster argues that the fellowships have in fact been largely risk-free, going mostly to members of the establishment who have often used them to fund children’s college fees or home improvements: ‘The evidence suggests the MacArthur Fellowship uses a great deal of philanthropic energy to fund awards that, except in a minority of cases, have made little difference in the lives of their recipients.’ It would be interesting to hear MacArthur’s reply.

In another case study, Morse Wooster traces the extraordinary head of steam a determined woman, Mary Lasker, managed to get behind her ‘War on Cancer’ in the US during the 1960s and 1970s, chasing the mirage that if only sufficient money could be made available ‘cancer could be conquered’. What was missing here was not money but any understanding of how medical science generally advances – by small, slow steps and not dramatic breakthroughs. But her success in hijacking the US political establishment as well as the philanthropic community saw $8 billion poured away between 1969 and 1976, in private and public money, with no noticeable effect on cancer mortality.

The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations’ population control programmes (1952-81) tell a darker story. The Rockefeller Foundation’s adoption of this cause sprang initially from links with the eugenics movement, whereas Ford’s attachment came more from a development perspective, of providing birth control to the poor: a case of ‘we have the technology, it will do you good to use it’. Both foundations poured hundreds of millions of dollars into their programmes to little long-term effect. In India, Ford advised Mrs Gandhi’s government, its staff, according to Morse Wooster, raising no objections to her forced sterilization and mandatory birth control programmes, while Ford Foundation trustees who went to India were imperially treated with, among other attractions, parties on the backs of elephants. Eventually the programmes sank under the weight of scandals surrounding the coercive use of population control as well as the rise of feminism and the idea that women have a right to control their own bodies.

Morse Wooster’s book is an enjoyable read, but its importance goes much wider than that. Failure is part and parcel of human endeavour, except, it seems, in philanthropy, where the only currency is success. What causes mistakes to be made in philanthropy is largely unacknowledged and unexplored, making it harder for succeeding generations to learn the lessons of what went wrong and to avoid repeating them, or to understand the elements of genuine success. Morse Wooster shows how things went wrong but is less focused on why. In his conclusion, he attributes failure largely to arrogance on the part of foundation staff, over-reliance on expertise, and the lack of democratic or institutional accountability. He sees very clearly that the alternative followed by far too many foundations is to err on the side of caution: ‘The path of timidity leads to uninspiring mediocrity.’ Agreed, but are there any useful guidelines for trying to steer a middle path?

From my own experience, I would suggest three. One is to understand change and how it comes about. History shows us few moments of explosive change: nearly every human or scientific advance has a traceable path leading to it, made up of small steps. So money poured into cancer, HIV/AIDS, malaria or any other human ailment is unlikely to result in an immediate breakthrough, while lesser sums of money applied over time in the right quarter will probably lead to slow progress, less sensational but probably more useful. Equally, humans will not simply adopt a new idea or a new technology, like birth control, because it’s there. It depends instead on millions and millions of people weighing up a host of complicated factors before deciding in their own best interests.

The trick for grantmakers is either to dedicate themselves to an issue they care about, and then back it at a helpful level over a long time in a mature way, or, alternatively, to look for issues in the fields to which they are committed that they think are at a tipping point, where some money, applied now, could be extremely helpful – in other words, to back issues that look as though they are ripe for change. This is hard and requires judgement, but it’s rewarding when you get it right.

My second guideline is not to ignore politics in its widest sense, something which most foundations appear to pride themselves on doing – and it costs them. If you seek to reform schools, as the Annenberg Foundation did in the 1980s in the US, and you ignore the views of those who use them and work in them, and try to bypass existing management structures and the political structures that supply public support, then failure is assured – thankfully, since it will be a dangerous day when foundations and their staff find themselves more influential than democratic and local institutions. This is an important thought for those big foundations now operating in small, poor countries where their wealth dwarfs local exchequers.

Lastly, and this is often hard for foundation staff to remember, we need to bear in mind always that money is not important in itself: it is only useful in so far as it sets free human talent and enables imagination and creativity to be applied to a cause, or supplies the goods that people need and wish to use. If there is no human expertise or talent available, if people are not ready to construct a peace, or to change the way they live, then money can do nothing. Foundations have to have the courage to admit that sometimes there is no way for them to help, however emotive or desperate a problem may be.

This book is a good read for everyone with an intelligent interest in philanthropy. It is also a fine tribute to the resilience and fortitude of all those people, often the poorest and most deprived, who refused to change their behaviour to suit the interests of rich and powerful foundations.

Jo Andrews is an independent philanthropic consultant, formerly director of the Sigrid Rausing Trust. Email

Great Philanthropic Mistakes
Martin Morse Wooster Hudson Institute $14.95
ISBN 1558131477 

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