America's Giant Philanthropies: Mission Impossible?

GUESTS: Dr. David Hamburg
VTR: 1/29/1993

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today is Dr. David Hamburg (a real doctor, a psychiatrist, in fact) to whom I’d love to put a great many questions about – and have a real exchange concerning – medicine and psychiatry in America today.

But for a decade now, Dr. Hamburg has also been President of the Carnegie Corporation, one of our nation’s largest and most prestigious foundations. And it is about its activities, and those of America’s giant philanthropic organizations generally that I want to talk today with Dr. Hamburg.

First, however, I suppose I ought to ask Dr. Hamburg how, ultimately, he would define their legitimate scope and3 range in our times…and where and when do they, would they, could they, perhaps, step beyond their proper boundaries. Is that a fair question?

Hamburg: Sure, they…the foundations have extraordinary scope and flexibility in this country, much more so here than any other country. The one I have the privilege of leading was the old, original general purpose foundation, Andrew Carnegie invented the concept, and established it in 1911, and it was a sort of revolutionary mandate. It, it centered on the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding for the benefit of the American people. He subsequently added in the people of the British Commonwealth…he had come from Scotland himself as a boy. But in any event, think of that…advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding…the scope and flexibility of that mandate. Furthermore, in, in the original charter he sad to the…establishing a Board to guide the policy of the foundation, he said, “The greatest tribute the Board can pay me is to use its own judgment from time to time, in adjusting the mission of the Foundation”. So we have made a decision in this country to foster foundations and other forms of philanthropy, to encourage them through the tax code, and to give them a very wide scope. That means, I think that the, the Board has to be very careful that that mandate is used in a responsible way. And to the extent that a foundation has a good reputation accumulated from good works over the decades, in our case, nearly a century now, that, that, too, is a part of the responsibility that one feels to maintain the good reputation. The Board is important in this. The Board typically nowadays is constituted of, of highly respected people who come from all over the country and from different professions, and different social backgrounds, so that at a, at a high level of leadership the Board reflects the richness and diversity of the United States. And it offers policy guidance in everything that a foundation does.

Heffner: Well, we’re accustomed to thinking about the public sector and the private sector. What sector is this?

Hamburg: Well, you might say the independent sector. It is private, no-profit. To some extent the foundations are thought of as something like the venture capital of the nonprofit sector. Meaning that we are supposed to take the risks and, and risks in the service of tackling very hard problems. That we should address problems that maybe, maybe lots of people, lots of institutions would prefer to avoid, prefer not to think about, prefer to wish away, but rather we should face very hard problems, and take risks necessarily in trying to find strategies and tactics that will be useful. So it is, it is a very independent status that the foundations have.

Heffner: You say, “We’re supposed to take risks”. Where was it written? And I, I don’t raise that in…that question, or bring this matter up in a hostile manner, lord knows I’ve been the beneficiary of many foundation grants…but, I’ve always puzzled as to…I know that a group of men met in Philadelphia, over two hundred years ago, and created this great union. I know that other times you can identify the origin of power, but where was it written…self-proclaimed, I would imagine.

Hamburg: Yes, that’s, that’s right. I think there was an important influence of Carnegie as the pioneer, and, and John D. Rockefeller who a couple of years later established the Rockefeller Foundation. Both of them were, what you might call, “Root-cause” philanthropists. They, they wanted very much to have their foundations address major social problems, and try to get to the bottom of these problems, however messy or difficult that might be. And, and inherent in that orientation toward root-causes of difficult social problems, was taking risks to get involved…often the people who get involved in difficult social problems, get some of the stigma attaché to the problem. And it is risky. That doesn’t mean in practice that we take the risks that our venture capital status might imply. There’s a tendency for the staff to be afraid of the Board, and the Board to be afraid of lawyers, and the Board and staff together to be afraid of the media, and so that…we, we move back toward more risk of risk positions…but it isn’t the risk, per se, that’s important, I think it’s our willingness to tackle very hard problems and make a big difference in this society, and, and the risk is inherent in that.

Heffner: Whose money is it?

Hamburg: Well, it is, in a real sense, a public, a public trust. If, if the tax code didn’t permit Andrew Carnegie to, to do what he did, we would not have this foundation today. So that we, we are allowed to use the money as a, as a decision of public policy for a public benefit.

Heffner: It wasn’t so many years ago that there was a great deal of hostility toward…particularly the large foundations…because they seemed to be taking risks in areas that certain conservative elements related to our government didn’t want risks taken. Is that a fair…

Hamburg: Yeah, I think that’s a fair appraisal. I, I think it’s, it’s almost inevitable, perhaps particularly in our adversarial, combative society that, you know, I guess I would post a reward for any important problem in the society that is not highly controversial. And if you tackle the problem, you will offend some people, or run that risk. I think it’s very important to, to tackle these problems with great respect for the diversity of opinions that exists in the country, to understand that there are a lot of different approaches, and to try to support work that will explore different options and not jump to conclusions. I think above all we have responsibility to do our best to get the facts straight in any problem that we address. But there are controversial elements.

Heffner: You know, I remember when Peter Goldmark of the Rockefeller Foundation sat at this table, and I was particularly interested then in the Rockefeller’s interest in birth control measure and population control. Steps that seem to be being taken contrary to governmental policy…do you find yourself in, in that position ever? Understanding you and your Board and your staff, understanding that steps might well be taken in a certain area, but they’re steps that have been rejected by the people’s choice?

Hamburg: Well, we are nothing if not a pluralistic society, and it’s, I think, incredibly beneficial that we are so protective of our pluralism. And it is almost inevitable that foundations from time to time will be supporting work that takes an approach different than prevailing government policy, and it has to be all out in the, in the open. The government policy has to be treated seriously and respectfully, but the independent sector will pursue other, other lines of work. And I think that’s, that’s proper. And most people I know in government at different levels and in different parties, respect that independence.

Heffner: What do you consider now, after a decade, more than a decade at, at the helm of the Carnegie Corporation…what do you consider your most important areas of investigation of activity?

Hamburg: Well, well I think that over the past decade there have been two principle lines or work… one, the, the issues of children and youth in America that I tried to summarize in my book last year, Today’s Children, and the other in, in an area of conflict resolution that I hope to summarize in a book that I can complete in a year or so. The, the big investment in the conflict resolution from 1982 onward was in the Cold War, in the avoidance of nuclear war, an effort to see whether there were additional po9licy options beyond those in vogue in 1982 that would help to diminish the, the risk, an effort to see whether we could mobilize the best minds across a wide range of fields to look at what the dangers were, what the paths to nuclear war might actually be, and how some preventive measures might be built into each path to, to connect that analytical work, of the most rigorous sort, without own policy community, and with the American public on the one hand, and also to connect that kind of work in this country with counterpart scientists and scholars and other experts in the then soviet Union to see about improving the communication on arms control, on crisis prevention, on flash points, and then later after Gorbachev on, on building democratic institutions in the former soviet Union. Now that, that did seem a long shot at the time, it was not obvious that either governments or the independent sector could find ways out of that dilemma. Remember it was very shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which seemed incredibly wrong-headed and dangerous…I felt at the time if they could do that they could do almost anything. And we were responding with the greatest military buildup…peace time build up in history, and there was a lot of confrontational talk, and all over the world, and indeed, a certain amount of talk even here that maybe a nuclear war wouldn’t e such a bad thing, maybe though regrettable, it would be “winnable”, it would be manageable, etc. so it’s a very dire circumstance, and therefore there was, there was an inherent intellectual and I suppose, political risk in tackling such a problem, but the problem was so important that we felt even a small contribution would be worth something in the face of the…a threat of a nuclear war. So that…over the better part of a decade, it was a major effort, and it turned out, for example, that we had wonderful cooperation from our government. From the…first the Reagan Administration, then the Bush Administration, from the Congress…both Houses, both parties, there was a great deal of interest in what independent scientists and scholars might be able to figure out, and, and what a kind of interaction with government would be stimulating and helpful for all concerned. So that turned out not to be a problem, even though we were worried about it at the outset.

Heffner: Why were you worried?

Hamburg: Well, because it might…some people might have thought “well, it’s not of our business. Why does a non-governmental organization, why should we be giving grants to American universities and research institutions to work on this problem when the government itself is working on the problem. Maybe it’s none of our business”. Well, as American citizens, of course, we feel that anything that affects our lives is our business in some way or other, and that that private sector, both profit and non-profit, would have something to say about every big issue facing our country. That a government has no monopoly on wisdom. But, when in fact that was well received in the government. Another interesting aspect of it that illustrates what foundations can do…in setting up joint study groups on arms control and crisis prevention and other issues like that with Soviet counterparts, some of the, of the Soviet participants were very able, indeed. Some were political “minders” and so on in the early years…KGB types and the like…but, but some were, were really distinguished scientists and scholars with first rate minds, and open minds, and worked well with their American counterparts, and it turned out, in sheer luck, that some of those ablest people turned out to be advisors to Gorbachev when he came to power, with virtually walk-in access to him in the first few years. And through them I was able to meet Gorbachev at an early stage, and to facilitate Western ideas flowing in to him and his closest advisors and colleagues through the grants we made to various major American institutions and outstanding scientists and scholars who went back and forth with their Soviet counterparts, and therefore, Western ideas contributed to the new thinking. There were many other sources of such contribution and influence beyond, beyond those we supported, but the point is that not only did, did the Western governments play a role in the new thinking that evolved under Gorbachev’s leadership, but that non-governmental organizations of various kinds, like our National Academy of Sciences, like Harvard and Stanford Universities, and, and like the Carter Center…all contributed to the evolution of the thinking that made such a difference in finding a way out of the Cold War.

Heffner: But I have, I have a…not a hostile, but a critical question, and that has to do with “why didn’t the American people know more about that rather than be in a position in which we have to believe that the end of the Cold War came from facing down the Soviets with larger weapon stores, more nuclear weapons?”

Hamburg: Well, I think part of the, of the calculus in the ending of the Cold War was the realization that it was so incredibly dangerous, and that as, as Regan and Gorbachev ultimately said, a nuclear war could never be won, and should never be fought, must never be fought. The realization that the military confrontation was, was not only incredibly dangerous, which was the worst of it, might lead to destruction of all humanity, but also that even if you didn’t get into the war, it was, it was just incredibly expensive. In, in the case of the Soviet Union, even more than with us, not only the rubles, but the people…the very best of their, of their talent and their scientists, their engineers, their managers, went into the military sector and was contributing to the ruination of the rest of the society. So that there was an element of the military confrontation and all its associate costs and risks that, that went into Gorbachev’s thinking, that led him to take such powerful initiatives in, in moving toward the end of the Cold War. But it, it…but on the point of informing the public, we strongly encouraged our grantees to go beyond the campus in their educational functions, and many of them did. It was not just to do their research and do their teaching and talk to policy makers about it, but also to publish articles, OpEd pieces, to, to seek out radio and television interviews, to explain to the American people as objectively as possible what are the facts, what sort of analytical work generates what sort of policy options, the strengths and limitations of different policy options, to try to get that out on the table. I do think that’s one of the advantages of non-governmental organizations, they are freer to speak than, than the government is, and they are less constrained by the prevailing government policy of the moment.

Heffner: When we talked on other programs about Today’s Children your, your book about that other aspect of the interest that you have pursued at the Carnegie Corporation, you talked about conflict resolution in terms of teaching children, getting them to understand the need for and the possibility of conflict resolution. How sanguine are you that the work you’ve done on an adult level has demonstrated our capacity at this time in our history to resolve conflicts other than by, by…what was it Winston Churchill said…”it’s better to jaw, jaw than to war, war”.

Hamburg: Well, we are, once again entering into the hardest problems, just as we did with the Cold War in one of its worst phases. We have entered as vigorously as we know how into these so-called ethnic conflicts…in the former Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe and in Africa. We’re trying to get American scientists, scholars and other experts together with counterparts in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in Africa…first of all to try to understand the conflict better…what’s it all about, how do these conflicts arise, what, what exacerbates the conflicts, and what tends to ameliorate the conflicts. Secondly, beyond and, and based on the understanding, we’re trying to, to do some things that could help in the near term and that, that involves really an understanding, we’re trying to, to do some things that could help in the near term and that, that involves really an understanding in those parts of the world, in much of the world, understanding is very low, about conflict resolution. The concepts, the techniques, even the attitudes, the institutions. I had a friend some years ago, a distinguished Russian scholar who said, “We have conflict resolution in our history, and that is we kill lots of people”. To understand that there are, there are techniques, however crude they may be that exist in the democratic nations to sort these things out. For example, the role of an independent judiciary…we’ve been trying to help Russia establish its new Constitutional Court through contact with experts from other countries. So the building of, of ideas and techniques and institutions and attitudes with respect to conflict resolution is an important near term contribution, i think. At least it has that potential. If nothing else, it does convey to the people struggling to establish new democracies or something like democracy…we are standing with you. The world’s experience is readily available to you, we’ll help you get that and see how it can be adapted to your culture to build ways to resolve conflicts short of disaster.

Heffner: Dr. Hamburg, in doing that…to what extent do you, as a psychiatrist, now, have to look at the nature of human nature? Not the nature of conflict resolution formats, but the nature of human nature.

Hamburg: Well, I do. I, I can’t help but be concerned about those questions. For example, the, the issue of group membership, what it means to have a sense of belonging in a valued group. I’ve long believed that that was one of the fundamental human needs. And I think it, it arose in the long course of our, our history as a species when the opportunity to survive was greatly enhanced by being part of some kind of a group where an individual’s capacities would be greatly amplified. So that attachment to others, in a sense of belonging is a survival matter for us. Now does that mean that our sense of belonging in a group has to carry with it the depreciation, the harsh depreciation of other groups? Well, there’s a large body of research literature, both in experiments and in field studies that shows that we do have the remarkable capacity, almost a virtuoso capacity to form sharp distinctions between “in” groups and “out” groups…my group and your group…us and them…we and they. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an invidious distinction, but it very often is. It seems easy to learn and hard to forget these distinctions between us and others, the us part is very supportive. I have some sense of continuity and worth and even survival enhancement by being part of this group. But it’s going to be absolutely necessary in the next century for us to do that without necessarily putting down in harsh ways other groups, but rather to learn that we, we live in a world with many different groups, which are actually quite interesting, and have a better chance of all of us surviving by cooperating with one another, and respecting one another, provided that certain basic ground rules are met, than if we fall to the hatred and violence of the other groups. And I think that does deal, deal with some fundamental human attributes. However, I want to say that, that i do not agree with the conventional wisdom of the moment that that kind of group belonging need means that ethnic conflicts are always deeply embedded and the moment the lid is off, some repressive lid comes off, that the ethnic groups must fall to fighting…not so. The, the ethnic tensions which are more or less enduring historically, can be made much worse by an economic free-fall, as you see now in the former soviet union, and much of eastern Europe. They can be made much worse by the rapid dissolution of social norms, as you see in the former Soviet Union right now. All that creates a near chaos which makes people feel a great sense of jeopardy to survival, and under those conditions, it’s much easier to pull back to your group as against the other groups. Our survival chances, our economic success, our opportunities may hinge on being part of this group, but also what we’re seeing around the world is that you…what you might call “ethnic entrepreneurs” and even “political demigods” are playing on these fears to get power, to get prestige, to get military strength by, by exacerbating the ethnic tensions, and that is very dangerous. So that also involves something about human nature.

Heffner: It, it…we have a minute or so left…I gather you’re saying “tensions, yes” they will be there. Aggressive manifestations, not necessarily.

Hamburg: Exactly.

Heffner: And that’s the work…one of the arms of the work of the Carnegie…

Hamburg: That’s right. And the basic for the long term…the basic response, I think, that has to come is to build democratic institutions in places where there’s very little experience, but ways of accommodating pluralism, the fact is that peoples are all mixed up together…ethnic groups are all mixed up together in most parts of the world. And they have to have some institutions that give an assurance of fairness, that “my” people will have a fair shot at protection of human rights at the individual level, and of protection of minority rights, maybe even some systematic basis for a decent minimum of representation for all groups in government, or other powerful entities, but in any even a culture of fairness that accommodates pluralism. Those are the kinds of institutions we’re trying to help strengthen in many places where they have only begun to emerge.

Heffner: Dr. Hamburg that’s an optimistic note on which to end. I note you said a “culture of fairness” which is not a culture of majority rule necessarily…

Hamburg: Not necessarily.

Heffner; …of fairness. Thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind, David Hamburg.

Hamburg: Thank you.

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, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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