Eli Evans

The World of Philanthropy

VTR Date: November 4, 1999

Eli Evans discusses the changing nature of American philanthropy.


GUEST: Eli Evans
VTR: 11/4/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And the last time my guest joined me at this table was to discuss his role as writer, historian, if you will, and memoirist. For our subject then was his enormously admired The Provincials, A Personal History of Jews in the South, a gracefully written and wonderfully insightful account that has aged so well as to become a veritable American classic.

Today, however, I want to talk with Eli Evans about the other hat he has worn so well, so many years now, as a major foundation executive. First for ten years at the Carnegie Corporation and now for two decades as President of the Charles H. Revson Foundation.

I want to talk today with Mr. Evans about the changing nature of American philanthropy as I have over the years with Rockefeller Foundation Presidents Dean Rusk, George Harrah, John Knowles and Peter Goldmark. With Ford Foundation President Franklin Thomas. With Carnegie Corporation Presidents John Gardner and David Hamburg. And most recently with The Open Society Institute’s founder George Soros.

Now Mr. Evans’ new Presidential reports celebrating the first 20 years of the Charles H. Revson Foundation is titled, Striving To Make A Difference. And I want to begin today’s program by asking my guest to look back over his 30 years in the world of philanthropy and tell us just what differences these years have made in that world.

EVANS: Well, philanthropy itself has really changed dramatically over the last 30 years. I think if I had to put my finger on it one of the biggest differences is the general size of the field has increased…

HEFFNER: Size of the field.

EVANS: Of the field itself. You know it’s doubled in size in the last 20 years. There were 22,000 foundations in 1980. There’s something like 45 to 50,000 of them today. And with this last spurt of great economic growth in America, there are these giant foundations that are being established by new great personalities like Bill Gates and Annenberg and Ted Turner, Soros and others. And Soros has been on the program. That’s one big difference. But if I had to really think about it, the most remarkable difference is the interaction between foundations and government on the one hand. The interactions between foundations and a growing kind of non-profit sector in all of its variety. All of this has enriched American life in many different ways. And I think that it’s made foundations slightly more visible. In the early days when I was in the foundation field very few people had heard much about other than the Ford Foundation or Rockefeller and Carnegie. Now you hear about new foundation activities every day. The newspapers have become much more acutely aware of it. And it operates in a far more public manner than it ever did before.

HEFFNER: Well, you talked about the relationship between foundations and government. There was a time — not so terribly long ago — when there was a great deal of tension between government and foundations.

EVANS: Yes… the ‘69 Tax Act, if one looked back over the course of this century was a real turning point, kind of watershed for foundations. The government, at that time, the political forces in government came to feel that foundations needed to be reigned in because of their really, influence. I think this influence was far overblown. But a few grants had gotten enormous publicity, particularly the grants I was involved in, and on voting rights in the South. And the Southern congressmen and senators who were very much powerful forces in the Senate decided it was time. And new restrictions came on to the foundation world — I spent — at that time you know I had worked as a speech writer in the Lyndon Johnson White House and I took off a year, actually, to…with Ellen Phiffer who became the spokesman the foundation field who was then the President of Carnegie Corporation, who’d succeeded John Gardner, to, to see if we could do something about…about what was happening in Washington. And, indeed, the Tax Act did come out and it put certain kinds of restrictions on lobbying, on… the kinds of grass roots lobbying that foundations could do. But it also had some very good effects. It required foundations to issue reports. It required us to fill out what are called “99A’s so that everything was very public. And the foundation field itself began to, to invest in, in centers like the Foundation Center where grant seekers could go to find out where… by computer … where it is they should apply their grant… apply for grants. And the whole system became much more open. It was required to be open, and that was a very good thing. And also I think the requirement to give away a percentage of money each year of our endowments meant that much more money was going to be flowing into philanthropy.

HEFFNER: What was the purpose of that requirement?

EVANS: Well a few foundations had been husbanding their money. And not spending it so that a series of abuses became the portrait for the whole foundation field, unfortunately. And because of that the Congress felt that it was necessary to require a portion to be spent every year. One of the really…other bad aspects of this is that they put a tax on foundations… a small excise tax… which they said at that time was to go to administer the field. But it brought in much more money than was required. And, indeed, I think Ellen Phiffer and many people in the foundation field felt that this tax was so unnecessary. I mean it really just took money out of the philanthropic field, out of the charitable field. So there, there were changes then and it created a mood, and the mood was that it brought the lawyers into the boardrooms and the decision-making. And that meant caution. So that it was read not that you can’t do these things, there were just the rules by which you could do it. For instance, no foundation could put more than 25 percent into a single voting campaign. The voting rights project in Atlanta was then run by Vernon Jordan. I was real proud of the fact… I went down to work with Vernon to try to develop ways in which the Carnegie Corporation at that time could put money into voting… voting rights. You know this was a turning point in American history in 1965 when blacks were given the right to vote and at the… and all of the restrictions against them were being challenged. It changed… three million blacks came on the rolls in the South, and the region itself was profoundly changed and registering those voters… we remembered it was “Mississippi Burning,” it was Mississippi on fire, it was the South on fire as they went through this change. On the other end, there are now 3,500 Black elected officials. There were less than a hundred in those days. There are two southern governors who have been elected Presidents because they were moderates, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter could never have emerged out of the South without the Voting Rights Act. And Strom Thurmond, who is in the Senate now, now has blacks on his… on his staff and seeks the black vote every year in South Carolina. This was a tremendous change and the foundations that participated were trying to help these blacks who had never really registered to vote before, to register to vote. And it was controversial.

HEFFNER: Controversial now.


HEFFNER: …that’s the question I want to direct myself to. When you are being more charitable… are being most charitable… how justified would you say was the protest that foundations had taken upon themselves to be instruments of social change.

EVANS: Well, I think foundations are still instruments of social change, social adjustment. I don’t think anything in that way has changed. Of course, there are all types of foundations. What is the phrase about it? “If you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation.” There’s so much truth to that. This profit… this sector of American life… which is not an American invention, but almost an American invention. So remember that when Andrew Carnegie started the Carnegie Corporation in 1911 there was no income tax, and there was no tax advantage for him to do it. There was little tax advantage for Rockefeller who admired what Andrew Carnegie had… John D. Rockefeller to start the Rockefeller Foundation. They began a new idea. And the new idea was that people who earned money should give it away at the end of their life, or Carnegie was very ardent on this subject. And so he did, he actually participated in kind of a visionary way. He was a poor boy from Scotland, who had been favored by some rich people who allowed him into their library and he was inspired by that. And he began the public library system in a… and participated personally in doing it. He loved doing it. In which he would build libraries across the country if the city would put on a school tax, which would enable the library to go forward. I think about it often because the Bill Gateses, and Turners and all the rest and these… Packard and the enormous technology fortunes which are now coming to be part of the philanthropic stream are having to think about American life in a way no philanthropists have really thought since those early days… with this tremendous visionary spirit. I don’t know how it’s all going to come out. But it’s a very inspiring turn of events for the beginning of the 21st century.

HEFFNER: Still… when you say you don’t know how it’s all going to come out… what picture do you have when you say that?

EVANS: I’m just… I think that the kinds of grant making that it takes to do this are much more sophisticated than it was back in the early part of this century. Andrew Carnegie’s foundation was larger than all of the money spent on higher education at that time. The scale in which in this …these funds occur… were acting was just entirely different than what we have today. Look in the whole field of philanthropy there’s something like a 175 billion dollars given away. Most of it… 80% of it by individuals. Foundations give away something like $17 billion a year. It’s not a lot of money in the… in the scheme of things… half the money that’s given away in America goes to religious institutions. Another great percentage is to institutions for higher learning and so forth. So, it’s not really a great deal of money in the sense that it was back in the early part of this century. So we’re dealing with a different scale and a different… dealing with a vastly larger government system in this country. And therefore the idea of how these funds are going to be used is going to take a lot of originality and creativity and one… I think I… you know, you see signs of that in extraordinary ways.

Let me talk about Soros for just a moment. I find him a remarkable figure in American philanthropy. We’ve never had anybody like George Soros in American philanthropy… a man who’s made his own money. A kind of swash-buckling giver. The kind of person who wants to engage in an interaction and a dialogue with the American public through his grant-making and indeed does that. So when he talks about the meaning of death, or the use of drugs… legalization of drugs, or these vast efforts around the world in which he’s working in 45 cities to help democracy flourish because in his home country that was not the case. This is just an extraordinary single figure, giving away extraordinary money. And he does remarkable things. I mean he just put up $100 million to re-train the Russian Army… think of a man being able to think on that scale. And some of his grants in these newly emerging democracies in Eastern Europe… he bought printing presses and Xerox machines… kind of a gift of insight, I mean an idea of what it takes to make a democracy.

HEFFNER: And if I should say, “frightening”, what would your response be?

EVANS: Well, I know what you mean, but you know, I think also I could mention foundations on the other side of the political spectrum. I don’t… I don’t think… I don’t find it frightening in the sense that there is much more money coming out and one can concentrate on a single giver and say that this is what… you know, this is something that he himself has chosen to do because of his history. I love the fact that men like Soros are now the Andrew Carnegie of this country, because Andrew Carnegie himself decided at some point that enough was enough, sold his business to J. P. Morgan, U.S. Steel and devoted the last twenty-five years of his life, joyously, I might add, to giving his money away. The instances of that happening now… Michael Steinhardt has sold his hedge fund and is committing himself completely to Jewish life and to dealing with paradigmatic changes in Jewish life so that he and the Bronfman family are trying to support an effort to send 50,000 students a year to Israel, for the Israel experience. It’s now about 5,000 students every year going. And they’ve started the birthright program to hope that that can happen. Well, to be able to think on that scale for public good is really an important new element.

HEFFNER: But you say, you say “for the public good” and I would agree with you. But you mentioned just in passing… foundations that use their now tax-exempt money…

EVANS: MmmHmm…

HEFFNER: …and we’re not back in the income-taxless days of Andrew Carnegie… for purposes that you wouldn’t approve of… you wouldn’t approve of politically… talking about people on the other side of the spectrum…

EVANS: Right.

HEFFNER: …you know that I put this question to Peter Goldmark when he was here years ago…

EVANS: Right, right…

HEFFNER: …I wonder your own reactions to the criticism that this is just too much power that can be wielded outside of public policy that is controlled by the electorate.

EVANS: Well I think that… I really think the reaction to this is somewhat over-overstated, if I may say it.

HEFFNER: Yes, it is.

EVANS: Because…

HEFFNER: The power is overstated?

EVANS: No, the power is overstated on the one hand. I certainly don’t feel that power is… as a matter of fact I don’t think there’s any of us in philanthropy that feel that we have anywhere near the kind of money that it takes to really make social change in this country or around the world. The problems are so immense. Extraordinary. And when one looks with insight as we do because we’re in touch with experts and people every day who are dealing with these issues, one really feels like it’s just a drop in the bucket. I could talk at length about the things that we’ve done at the Revson Foundation… about education and poverty in New York. About Jewish life in the world. And bio-medical research. But really when I look at it in terms of the scope of monies being put out… being supported through government and through all.. .all kinds of other activities, I feel like it’s a drop in the bucket. That’s number one.

Secondly, I think this tax exemption is not a kind of gift of the American government, if I can say that. It’s a kind of statement about democracy and about the kind of democracy that we want. The most important thing about foundations and I would now argue it’s been proven over and over again that they represent a kind of fourth way. You know a kind of way for people with ideas whose ideas are rejected by government to find another door to walk through. And I could mention instance after instance through history. There was the case of the… opportunities to build a new kind of education system in America. John Gardner was there at the time, the Montessori programs had just begun and the whole Head Start program came out of Carnegie’s kind of watchful look at these early programs and the idea that it was a, it was an important element in the future of the country that pre-school education become a national movement. One can go case after case of the great angst of American philanthropy in this century. Who’s to say what the most important of them were. One looks at the Rockefeller Foundation’s building of the Rice Institute out in the Philippines…


EVANS: …simply sixteen experts brought together to look at the nature of the… of the growing cycle of rice and increase that cycle four times over what it was. Now the Green Revolution which was… began with this small institute in the Philippines was a tremendous contribution to the future of the planet, actually. It created tremendous amounts of problems and I could talk at length about them. But for the moment it was an extraordinary act.

I think one of the important elements in this country was the, was the Ford Foundation’s actual creation of public broadcasting. They spent $350 million between 1950 and 1965 to support public broadcasting in America. There would have been no public broadcasting without, without the Ford Foundation. Stations all across the country were built, this was a chaotic period. The Congress was under tremendous pressure from very strong financial forces not to assign these, this limited spectrum space to a public use and yet that battle was won and not only was supported by Ford in a way that people don’t appreciate today – and looking at the Carnegie Corporation — I really think that the creation of Sesame Street which…in which I participated in late ‘69 really changed the attitudes of Americans toward what public… what television might be. It’s now… Sesame Street is now in a hundred countries around the world. This has been an extraordinary device for early learning, for allowing poor people to participate, and the families to participate in it. So I went back on this as something that America did, not as a gift, as a favor to these foundations, but as a way to help our country be a more democratic country, to make decisions in many different ways, to have a yeasty, large number of doors to walk through for people with ideas. And that’s really the heart of it .

HEFFNER: That’s certainly not the comments that those southern senators and representatives…

EVANS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: …were making when you were doing your bit in the south.

EVANS: Right.

HEFFNER: …and what you did was enormously important. I’ve read up on, on your activities there and the, the creation of a program for young lawyers. I mean this was wonderful by my lights and by yours, but not by those southern…

EVANS: Well, if I could tell you the forces operating against this small program, it would, it would… it almost overwhelmed it. Just to fill your viewers in, it was an idea to increase the number of black lawyers who would work in Southern cities. Between 1969 and 1973 I was working at Carnegie at the time and I began to see, as we worked in voter education that the lawyer in the local community was the chief economic developer, the chief leader of the community, the person who would pull the community up. And I took a trip and visited all the Southern State university law schools. After that the Earl Warren Fund was created at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the only effort that Warren ever lent his name to… remarkable. But the… I want to talk a little bit about what I call the art of the grant. The grant here was to increase the numbers of black lawyers in the south, not just to give scholarships to young people who wanted to go to these law schools. And so the program consisted not only of a black, you know, black school to state university law schools, but also serving in the summertime and civil rights activities and if they then, after graduation, agreed to go back to a town that did not have a black lawyer, they received a stipend for civil rights work, a law library and that sort of thing. Well, ultimately over 40 foundations, almost 70… 34 corporations… something like that participated, raised something like $4 million to do this. Over a five-year period the numbers of black attorneys went from less than 17 to almost 400 over a four-year period, in state university law schools. The Dean said to me “we will accept black students, but we can’t afford to give them scholarships. But if there’s a national fund to support scholarships, it will be supported.” And I think that, that project has resonated throughout the south ever since. It’s funny, we did a report in which we described this project and then focused on a single lawyer. It was on a kid named Stanley Bishop, who just wanted to go to Atlanta and Jack Greenberg said, “no, you’ve got to go to Columbus, Georgia.” And he’s now a member of Congress from that, from that district. On and on. But I really understand what it is you’re saying, which is that there is… was at that time, certainly at that time, a political force that did not want Black people to have those kinds of rights, that kind of representation, that kind of participation in American life. A group of foundations and many of our top corporations in American felt differently about that and had a way to act, not just to, to report, but to act on that, on that subject. I think it was fine.

HEFFNER: Now, let me pick up something you said, “the art of the grant.” Tell me more about that.

EVANS: Well, you know, most people think that working in a foundation is simply allocating money. But working in a foundation as a professional is thinking hard about outcomes, who the people are that you’re supporting, what it is you want to determine at the end of that project. In our own foundation, I suppose if I had to pick a number of different projects, the one that jumps out at me was the series in 1984, “Civilization of the Jews’ Heritage, Civilization of the Jews” with Abba Eban. We began that project which…came really out of my experiences at Carnegie of going to England and seeing, meeting Benowski and Kenneth Clark who had done The Ascent of Man and the “Civilization” series, and thinking that there ought to be a series on Jewish history. I was not the only person to do that, and incidentally ideas are always lying around waiting to be done… they are not originators in that way. But Eban did agree to do it, we did raise the money to do it, it was almost ten million dollars, by a hundred givers. And the show went on the air, but then we went on a really ardent educational effort to develop teacher materials and books and ways in which fundamental documents could be collected in a single book and teachers could use it. And then it ended up in 5,000 college classrooms. We saved all the research at the end of 1984 thinking that some day the technology would be there to use all of that material in a new, in a new technology.

HEFFNER: And it is now.

EVANS: It is. It will be coming out next year on DVD. After all this had five thousand art objects which were collected all over the world, it was an encyclopedic show. It went to the Louvre, the British Museum, the museums in Egypt and in Israel and in Prague, the Vatican collection. All these objects were collected, collected and since photographed and we cleared the rights for them to be used in a new technology. At that time it was able to be done. It became the richest visual collection of Jewish history that exists. And along with encyclopedia Judaic this will come out so that you can not only, you can stop the film at any point… you can not only see the Dreyfus trial, you can read what historians have to say about it, and you can go through and read Emile Sola’s J’ccuse, all on the same disc.

HEFFNER: Now, we just have a couple of minutes left, but you’re talking about a pro-active approach…

EVANS: I am, indeed.

HEFFNER: …to foundation grants that I would think would raise the hackles on the part of a lot of people from the Old World philanthropy…

EVANS: It’s true. But I think this differs between pro-active and just taking the knocks on the door as really overstated, particularly in a world in which there are 45,000 foundations. Most people don’t have the contracts, the address that grantees need to apply for these funds. And the great acts of philanthropy have been, I think, in some ways pro-active. One can’t say public broadcasting or bringing Sesame Street to the screen, or develop the programs that we’ve been involved with including Sesame Street now in Israel, and Israeli/Palestinian Sesame Street which went on the air last year. You can’t do that without taking some sort of approach that allows you to develop the power of an idea and then go out and find friends and others who will support it with you. That allows small foundations to think on a larger tapestry. And one needs to do more of that because the, the problems are so large that no one funder, thinking within the context of their own funds, can do anything about them. But thinking together and working together one can do a great deal about them.

HEFFNER: I presume you anticipate that foundations will have a much great influence… you don’t like that word… you don’t like the notion of power… but will play a larger role in our lives in the years ahead.

EVANS: I think so if… and the “if” is this. If they’re on the frontier of change. No less a figure than Clark Kerr said that university education was at a turning point in his history, unlike anything that has occurred for five hundred years. The Internet is a profound, remarkable, important device for American education. I want to leave away E-bay and I want to leave out the commercial impact of it. I have fourteen-year old kid who won’t use an encyclopedia anymore. But he does research and it’s just incredible to talk about… to talk to his friend and see the why they’re so comfortable in this computerized world. They go on vacation, they can talk to friends who are in California and Israel as if they were around the comer. This is a remarkable revolution. I think if foundations… and that’s why I hold out so much hope for the technology foundations, take it upon themselves to help America and the world become a closer place, a more intimate place, a place committed to freedom and individual responsibility, then I think we do have a tremendous role for philanthropy in the next century to help this work become a smaller and better place.

HEFFNER: Eli Evans, thank you so much for joining me today and talking about philanthropy, particularly from the point of view of someone’s who’s been in the world of philanthropy for 30 years now. Thanks for coming on The Open Mind.

EVANS: Thank you. Thanks.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N .B.: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.