Features

Billions for bumbling

"Billions for bumbling" Continued...

Issue: "Don't run, Newt," April 14, 2007

WORLD: When J. Roderick MacArthur set up the MacArthur Fellows program a quarter-century ago, he said, "There was no management association looking to Michelangelo and asking him to fill out semi-yearly progress reports in triplicate. Our aim is to support individual genius and free those people from the bureaucratic pettiness of academia." Sounds good; how have the "genius awards" worked in practice?

WOOSTER: Most of the MacArthur Fellows have been tenured professors in endowed chairs who are good at getting grants. In 2002, Daniel Socolow, who directs the Fellows Program, told the San Francisco Chronicle that his biggest problem when announcing the awards was getting past assistants. "The nannies and secretaries can be quite a challenge," Socolow said. He didn't explain why MacArthur money should go to people who can afford nannies and secretaries! Rather than supporting young, struggling talent, the MacArthur Fellows has largely helped to provide comfortable retirements for highly paid members of the establishment.

WORLD: Why did Ford and other foundations, with all their expertise, make grievous errors?

WOOSTER: These large foundations were arrogant enough to set lofty goals that could not be achieved. They forgot the wise advice given by Rockefeller Foundation president Raymond Fosdick, who wrote that "there is a common fallacy . . . that money can create ideas and that a great deal of money can create better ideas. Nothing can be wider of the mark. You cannot buy scientists or poets as you buy vegetables in a cash-and-carry store. . . . It follows, therefore, that a becoming modesty is a prerequisite for a foundation."

Humility is a virtue and pride is a sin. Foundations would be more effective if they set smaller-scale goals-helping the four or five best local poverty-fighters, say, rather than launching a multi-year task force on reforming American welfare.

WORLD: What can today's big donors, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, learn from the mistakes of the past?

WOOSTER: I think big projects are possible in science. If the Gates Foundation spends money on vaccines and other scientific projects, that's fine with me. If it starts using its wealth to promote a political agenda, I'd be worried.

WORLD: If you were to write a parallel book called Great Philanthropic Successes, what would you include?

WOOSTER: Great Philanthropic Mistakes was originally going to be a project about the 10 best and 10 worst grants. That version of the project died because I couldn't come up with 10 good grants! The Rockefeller Foundation's efforts to fight hookworm in 1910 and improve agriculture in 1970 worked pretty well. So did the Scaife Foundation's funding of Jonas Salk's polio vaccine. I'd also say the Guggenheim Foundation's funding of artists and writers was a success for its first 20 years.

WORLD: Is any of the experience of large foundations useful to people who have, say, $100,000 rather than $100 million to give away?

WOOSTER: My advice to the small donor is the same as it would be for the large one. Find the five best faith-based charities in your city and find out what help they need. And listen to these charities-don't come in with marching orders. If there's a private scholarship fund in your town, see if you can offer grants for some scholarships. Rescue missions always need assistance. There are lots of ways you can help poor people climb out of poverty without spending a fortune.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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