American Philanthropy: 'Indispensable' vs. 'Worthwhile' Subjects

GUEST: Peter C. Goldmark, Jr.
VTR: 1/7/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And the very presence of my guest today – Peter C. Goldmark, the challenging and energetic new President of The Rockefeller Foundation – reminds me of the rather extraordinary American intellectual odyssey that is represented by this program’s association over the years with various of the Foundation’s leaders.

Warren Weaver, the dearest and best man I ever knew, and the principal architect of Rockefeller’s innovative and productive programs in the natural sciences, decades ago helped THE OPEN MIND publicly examine for the first time the crucial genetic impact of atomic radiation. And I read just the other evening a 1958 transcript of a program we did on the obviously timeless topic: “The Fate of Western Values”, with the then President of the Foundation, Dean Rusk, who was still to become John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s intrepid Secretary of State. I reviewed, too, my discussion with George Harrar, when he was Rockefeller’s President, and we examined at great length the obligations shared and the opportunities enjoyed by what even then seemed to many to be huge philanthropies too often given to playing God, pushing their own self-proclaimed agendas through the power of unmatchable resources. And finally I looked at OPEN MIND cassettes with the charismatic John Knowles when he headed the Foundation from his physician’s perspective.

Now it’s Peter Goldmark’s turn at the helm. And I want to ask my guest about his tour: whether changed circumstances will of necessity make it differ – and how he will literally work to make it differ —from his predecessor’s turns. Mr. Goldmark?

Goldmark: That’s an open door. I guess for me the biggest difference in the setting of the Foundation, as I understand it, from what it’s been in the past is the period of history in which we live. I think you and I probably belong to the first generation of people on the globe who in some sense conceive of themselves as citizens of the planet as a whole, or as members of a global community, rather than primarily as citizens of the West, or of one country. That’s a gradual thing, but in a lot of ways our world has been globalized. Rockefeller Foundation, as you know, has always been that American Foundation that is most strongly ventured overseas, and in the earliest and longest sense of sustained philanthropic tradition, committed itself to the.

Goldmark: …what we now call the Third World. So I think the particular challenges we’ll face in the last decade of this century have to do with “Can we live together on one planet and keep the biosphere livable?”, “Can we begin to find useful answers to help families, even in the poorest parts of the world, determine how large they want to be, how many children they want to have, in balance with how successful they can be escaping disease … in balance with how much food they can produce”, and “Can we learn to live with the newest and most terrible human capacity”, our capacity for super-ordinately destructive weapons?

Heffner: Where does the Foundation come into those considerations? How does it come in? Who authorizes it to? Who says, “this is your job”?

Goldmark: The genius and the problem of a foundation is that it’s like an extra actor that walks on stage. Nobody authorized it. That’s an opportunity that can be a cause of arrogance, it should be a cause for modesty and care and humility. That’s why I think the most effective work of foundations is often done quietly or behind the scenes. But remember what the foundation is in essence: it is a group of people, self-perpetuating, through the Board of Trustees, a very potentially dangerous form of power, funded be a single donor or a group of donors sometime ago. The perpetual trust. So it has in effect no guideline. IT is one of the few institutions that defines and re-defines its role in each generation. Great responsibility. Great opportunity for mischief and going awry, but that’s the reverse coin of great opportunity for getting upstream on big problems and daring to go where others won’t.


Heffner: So the extra actor has no director really, no one writes his lines.

Goldmark: No, sire, he must listen to what the others are saying and say, “I’m going to enter the play here”.

Heffner: Well, you know, this program … today’s exchange really began when I read and I told you when I called you, and I read this fascinating piece, or there were two pieces in the Wall Street Journal, just recently “Conservatives Create It and Liberals Spend It”, and the one that really attracted my attention, “The Dead Must Be Spinning”. What’s the relationship in terms of the charge made here that if you take the big foundations, yours wasn’t mentioned, but Carnegie because I guess the author was thinking of Andrew Carnegie, and some others, if you take the big foundations and let’s take Rockefeller Foundation, too, just for … just for kicks…

Heffner: … do you think that there is some appropriate relationship between the attitudes and the world views…you talk about a world view now…the world views of the people whose dollars form these foundations?

Goldmark: That’s a tough one. You say “an appropriate relationship between the founder and the world view”. I guess on that one I’m a broad constructionist. In the case of the Rockefeller Foundation the man who set it up, John D. Rockefeller, the Original, I call him, the guy who built the Standard Oil Company and amassed a degree of wealth you and I can barely comprehend for his time. He thought about what he wanted the and the limits to be, and he gave his answer. His answer was, “I want it to be the broadest possible definition for the general well-being of mankind”. I’m convinced if he were alive today, he would have written “humankind”, he was that much ahead of his time, and this man was all over the place. This man in the 1890’s, do you understand what a revolutionary this man was? As well as one of the pillars of capitalism. So he set a broad guideline, and you know what he was saying to us? He was saying, “Do the best you can by your own lights, be tough, go to the root causes”, he says that in his writing, but he did not limit it. Now there are other foundations, Dick, where the founders may say, “I want you to limit your giving to a given country…to the Unites States”, or “I want you to pay attention primarily to problems of health”. But not ours, that’s not the way he set it up, and that’s not the way it’s been since, as you know.

Heffner: You know there’s…you, you spoke so tellingly at the Conference you had on the …what was the…150th Anniversary of John D., the Original’s, birth…you spoke about what this old man, what paths he set. Not what he specifically did, and I was enormously taken by your desire to tease out of his life experience some general ideas, and then say “this is…this is what we’ll try to achieve in our times”. Is that a fair restatement of…

Goldmark: That’s very fair. I felt that at that setting, which was a setting sponsored by the Rockefeller Family to…to do more that just celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Rockefeller who started all…really to do much more that that, and say, “where are we in the world of philanthropy?”, and “where are we going?”. I felt it was important to try and relate two sets of issues: one is “what is philanthropy today?”, and “how does that relate to John D., the Original, who started our foundation?”, something we’ve just talked about.


Goldmark: But also the issue of generations because one of the biggest issues we face now, today is: “can we as human beings manage ourselves well enough so that we don’t destroy the world, and the water and the air, and the biosphere in which we live, this thin film, ten or twelve miles deep in which all life and all human and animal and plant activity takes place?”. And that raises the issues of the generation. We have…we will never be so forced and challenged as we will in the coming set of years to think, “what are the obligations of one generation to another, in this case forward”, because in many ways your and my generation are consuming resources that represent, if we consume them too fast, a net loss to those who will come after us, and will want forests and will want clean air, and will want land uncontaminated by toxic wastes. SO the issue of what does one generation owe to another and what is inter-generational responsibility is a whole ethical question that we’re just on the threshold of. So that also was in the background of this speech, which talks about the environment, talks about North/South in development issues as being the same as the environment…but also raises the issue now of “what should this generation of Rockefeller’s be thinking”, and “what should this generation of philanthropists, which includes you and me in some ways, be thinking?”.

Heffner: You know I…you’ll think it crazy of me, but the one name that kept spinning through my mind was that of Kipling because I wondered whether there was something here, and Linda Murray, who searched the material for me, raised this question, whether there wasn’t something here of not “the white man’s burden”, but “the developed nations’ burden”. I have a feeling, forgive me, that…I was almost…

Goldmark: Don’t apologize. There is, but you got the wrong group.

Heffner: What do you mean?

Goldmark: It’s those with choice, and that’s you and me. And that’s me more than you, in this job. Let me explain to you what I mean. It’s not “the white man’s burden”, and it’s not the West. On the contrary, what I’m talking about in there is grappling with these problems, the environment…”can we keep the planet breathable and liveable?”, for the first time in a way that squarely calls on the self-interest of the South and the North as much more equal partners than we’ve seen during the first four decades after World War II, when the basic metaphor of the North helping the South could have been, “I’ve got a bucketful, you’ve got an empty bucket, and I’m going to pour two percent or three percent of my bucket into your bucket”. Very limited metaphor which finally…please excuse this, ran out of gas…taking a sharp zig there.

Goldmark: No. The group that has the obligation, the “burden”, I won’t shy away from that, is those of us who have a choice…now what does “choice” consist of? If you run a foundation, or if you’re on the Board of Trustees of a foundation, you have great choice because you have a set of resources, and you have a charter that is broad, and you have to decide how to make a difference. You’re not in the private sector where you have to make a profit, and you have to make sure what you sell for is greater than what you make it for, and that you don’t hire too many people, and that you’re not too soft on your employees…gotta keep them producing. You’re not elected life where you’ve got to make sure you get more votes that the other guy, so you can’t be too far out in front of him, can’t, you know, can’t really open up your heart, too often. You know what happens to people who do that in public life. So you have…the greater the choice, the greater your responsibility at this moment in history when, for the first time, we face “ultimata” as a human race. What a curious point in history. As a group of people, all five billion of us, “ultimata”, ultimatum is…means, “either you figure this out, or something really bad’s going to happen to you”.

Heffner: And you mean that. Something really bad is going to happen…

Goldmark: Yes.

Heffner: …to us.

Goldmark: And we’ve got to do that…back to my three…we’ve got to do that on family size, ability to feed itself and escape disease. We’ve got to do that in the biosphere and we’ve got to do that on these arsenals of weapons. WE live in a world where fifteen to twenty nations will now have access to nuclear, chemical, biological or ballistic technology. SO it is the first time we are, as a group, residing on the globe overall. We’ll face some “ultimata”, and in that facing, and in that period of history those who have the most choice, face the greatest responsibility because if those of us who have choice don’t pay attention, don’t work on them, don’t try and call up the best in ourselves to face these problems how can those who have less choice be expected to?

Heffner: But you know, again forgive me…there’s something almost self-contradictory there because you talk first…you talk about that responsibility, and you talk about it quite eloquently, but you’re also before…

Heffner: …you threw out something about “self-interest”, and I know that you can spina tale here to indicate that ultimately it’s in our self-interest to do this, obviously. But why…why, why do you even mention “self-interest” when what you’re really talking about is the interest of the human species?

Goldmark: When you said, “our self-interest” in your question, I assume you mean we in the North, or the West of the U.S. …

Heffner: Right.

Goldmark: …or something.

Heffner: Right.

Goldmark: I…I mention that because a lot of what humans do ultimately springs from their conception of their own self-interest. For some reason people in this country thought it was in our self-interest to help Europe, to help the countries we had defeated in wat in the late forties, and we called it the Marshall Plan. People accept it as fact, it’s history. Now it’s one of the most extraordinary things in the history of human nations. It must have been…I was a young school boy…it must have been debated furiously…there must have been people saying “this is ridiculous, this is an act of naïve charity”, and all the rest of it. It was only done and carried out because there was some conception of self-interest linked with a broader conception of the general interest. The reason I mention the word self-interest now is because I think as we come to see that managing us so that we don’t destroy the environment and helping the Third World nations develop so that their population rate of increase comes down, so that they can feed themselves, so that they will be the next major threat to the environment, develop in ways safer for the environment than we did. I think we will see that the ily way to get those conversations going is through appealing to the self-interest of the various parties. It ain’t gonna work if you appeal only to some abstract charitable interest, and I think the self-interest is there. If I’m wrong, we’re doing several things in the Foundation that aren’t going to make sense.


Heffner: But if you remain that utilitarian, where do you build up the moral reserves that are going to be necessary for those moments when it’s not going to be so clear that what you think we ought to do is in our immediate or near self-interest?Goldmark: Because life and human endeavor are a set of successive approximations, and each time we set out to do something one of the things we are judging and assessing is “which of my self-interests will I follow?”, and our construction of our own self-interests can be influenced by whether we’ve read something or seen something on public TV that teaches us about what it’s like to be hungry in the Sudan. It can be influenced by a picture of our planet…the one taken in 1969 that shows that blue-green planet from halfway around the moon. There were no political boundaries there, the nation state weren’t outlined in dots. Whatever was in those clouds, whether it was healthy or whether it was polluting, it was floating over the oceans and over the land from us to the Second World to the Third World. SO how we conceive our self-interest depends on what we see, what we learn and the world and the forces we imagine ourselves to be in and in there lies the whole realm of public education, and of imagining what our moral obligation is.

Heffner: It seems to me that when you emphasize self-interest, as you do, and I think I understand why you do, you must then fly in the face of what the sovereign people have decided is the self-interest of this nation, as expressed at the polls. You talked about what I gather must be family planning a moment ago… as one of the…

Goldmark: Yes.

Heffner: … legs on which the Foundation must stand now. We have a government duly elected that has decided otherwise and so if you put yourself into the arena of what our self-interest is, set it aside from a moral basis, aren’t you going to have to lose, because you’re going to have to do battle with forces that are even stronger than the Rockefeller Foundation, namely, government?

Goldmark: We don’t really battle with government. Your… I think your question is based on a correct perception. WE have a government here that’s really ambivalent about family planning…

Heffner: (Laughter) That’s very generous of you.

Goldmark: … and… well, I don’t, you know, I don’t think it’s clearly against it, I think it’s sort of… there’s a lot of winking and blinking going on, but they’re clearly ambivalent, and…

Goldmark: … but our stance overseas, as communicated through our government, is against it, and it really looks to many people in the rest of the world…looks pretty confusing and ridiculous. So here’s a foundation, and we say, “we know very clearly where we stand and how we think on this, and we think for the planet to work, and for families to work, they’ve got to be free to make some choices about how large they get, and we’re for family planning as a tool, for families to help make that decision”. NO ambiguity about that, and we spend money each year, and have for the past ten or twenty years, and have been roundly criticized for it, overseas to help nations and to help families and communities use and understand the tools of family planning as they try and work out their future. What is the difference between that and any other group, or any other newspaper that takes an editorial position or any other political party, or any other group that has a set of ideas that disagrees with our government. What’s the difference?

Heffner: Well, I guess the question comes up as to what the tax laws so to you and the kinds of dollars you use. Is there a difference then?


Goldmark: Tax laws say you’ve got to get it for charitable activity and you can’t use it to try and influence legislation.

Heffner: Do you, by the way, try to influence legislation?

Goldmark: Not since I’ve been there. We… we are strict on that one, we are really strict. But I think it’s very easy to get too close to the fuzzy grey line there. I understand exactly why that law is there. It’s there because foundations really do enjoy an assist from the body politic and from the taxpayer, and that is by the absence of the obligation to pay taxes. Because the Rockefeller Foundation doesn’t pay taxes, you and I, off our paychecks, are paying a little more, and you can’t duck that. People… I’ve discovered people in the philanthropic world love to duck that one, they love it. They say, “it has nothing to do with, you know, how much other people have”. Of course it does. We are tax advantaged, and it is one of the greatest things about this country that relies so heavily on the private sector and on the independent spirit, says, “let there be charities and philanthropies that go out and do the best they can”, and in return for that they say, “don’t muck around with legislation”. “Don’t come here with your independent studies, and your experts and your, you know, Ph.D’s with four sets of spectacles, and use tax assisted, tax advantaged money to influence the political process. We want a line there”. I think that’s a good line, and we’re going to stay way clear of that one.

Heffner: Now, you know I say this, or ask this question in a friendly way, but that tax advantaged money, when it’s used overseas, again in terms of family planning, aren’t two signals being given from this country?

Goldmark: Yes.

Heffner: Aren’t there two signals emanating from it.

Goldmark: Yes, and thank God…

Heffner: How do you deal with that?

Goldmark: Thank God for two things. First of all, as in this case, Mr. Heffner, where the government is wrong and we are right…

Heffner: (Laughter)

Goldmark: …thank God, at least, there is another American signal to be heard. But let us imagine a more plausible circumstance which is, we don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong. One the great strengths of this country is that people overseas see that Americans act in different ways and that we’re a pluralist society, and neither you nor I, nor even, I’ll wager Ronald Reagan, the architect of the policy we’ve just been talking about against family planning overseas, I’ll bet you none of the three of us want a monolithic, single voice without any other channels open to be heard overseas.

Heffner: Let’s talk for a moment because I’ve just gotten a signal, we have five minutes left, unfortunately, we should have arranged to do two [programs together, I’ll have to get you to come back because I have so doggone many questions. The power that you… I mean when you describe… when I read what you say is the mission, you feel are the missions of the foundations, I couldn’t help but think, “My God, this guy’s in the best spot in the world”. Fine, I envy you, and I think that’s great. What about the power of the foundations today? When George Harrar was my guest twenty… more than twenty years ago, quarter of a century ago, I guess, they loomed more importantly, didn’t they, because their resources, proportionately, were so much greater. What do you think of their power today?

Goldmark: Very astute, because I think you’re right, and most people would say, “their power may have grown”. I think you’re right, it hasn’t. The power is less because the influence of this amount of money is much smaller, the money itself is smaller with all the other forces, including primarily government, which has grown tremendously, which are spending money. Second of all, far more research is being done. You have vastly… you have a quintupled university system since the period you’re talking about, the late fifties in terms of its scope and its size, the amount of research and independent investigation and enterprise going on. SO the foundations are smaller in the world, and where we’re active in Rockefeller, they’re even less significant. There was a time when the Rockefeller Foundation spent more money overseas that the United States government.

Heffner: Seriously?

Goldmark: Yeah. In its history because Rockefeller’s been active overseas throughout its 75 years. What do you think this country was spending overseas in 1923?

Heffner: Right.

Goldmark: But those days are long passed. You know where a foundation’s power comes from now? It comes from the power of its ideas and the ideas and the wise people it can find to back and sponsor. It comes from the power of good timing, understanding a problem, as it’s forming… early, and being able to address it, being able to walk on that stage we talked about earlier when the forces in the play aren’t quite clear, but when something important is being addressed and is going to heave to be dealt with. It’s power comes from entering an issue upstream, when it’s just a little brook or a little puddle of water as the spring comes out on the ground, not when it’s a river ten miles wide and fifteen miles deep. Then foundations, like the rest of us, get lost and blown away like an ash in the wind. So there are great issues of timing, strategy, point of address, and you’re talking to someone who’s been in this job a year and a half and I haven’t begun to understand the physics of philanthropy.


Heffner: Talking about the “physics of philanthropy”, you talked before about the “extra actor upon the stage”, are you going to be able to get the other “extra actors” to play… act… follow a script… do something constructive with you because you want the major foundations to pledge a very substantial portion of their expenditures to overseas, to world development projects.

Goldmark: That’s an adventure we’re just beginning, and that’s one we ought to do two years from now… see how we did, we ought to be judges on that. That was one of the most difficult things I tried to do in that speech, and the traditional advice would have been “this is a sensitive world of foundations, Goldmark, they’re all prima donnas, non of them like to have one of the others suggest directions they ought to be looking in”, and I decided we’re entertaining a special decade with a very unique set of problems of… you’ve given me a chance to talk about them here today, and I said, “one of the things we ought to do is be tough with each other’s ideas, so I’m going to challenge you with mine, and you can be as tough as you want coming back”.

Heffner: I noted that and I wondered at the time, as I read it, whether that’s something new in the foundation world.

Goldmark: We’ll see. Some of the reaction from foundations to that speech was of a rustling, muttering type… so I hope over the long run there’ll be some leadership. Now whether we can address some of these in concert, some of are going to try.

Heffner: Peter Goldmark, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, I really appreciate you’re joining me today, you’ve got to come back, don’t wait for two years to find out how that idea flew.

Goldmark: (Laughter)

Heffner: Thanks again.

Goldmark: It was fun for me.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, PO Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “ Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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