The value of foundation history and archives 

Patricia Rosenfield

‘Good programme officers think about where the foundation has been and what it wants to do… it is invaluable to have knowledge of the past,’ says Geri Mannion, programme director at Carnegie Corporation of New York. While foundation officers might have neither the time nor inclination to work with primary source material, they can benefit from the interpretative work done by independent historians and archival staff. 

Several examples illuminate the usefulness of historical understanding. When the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund collaborated with South African partners in the 1970s to build the field of public interest law to combat apartheid, they drew on their past successes in the US.

There, they had taken a three-pronged approach of supporting legal education for African Americans, creating public interest law firms, and funding non-profit advocacy groups that tackled civil rights legislation. With advice from South African colleagues, the foundations supported a similar approach in that country, funding South African universities to train black lawyers, helping establish a public interest law firm, and building the legal advocacy capacity of non-governmental organizations. These strategies aimed to use the law itself to weaken the conditions of apartheid.

In 2000, vice chancellors of six African universities joined with the Rockefeller, Ford and MacArthur Foundations and Carnegie Corporation to help strengthen African universities. They drew on the knowledge gained both from seven decades of foundation efforts in this area and from independent historical studies of that work.

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