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Through an agreement with UK-based Alliance magazine, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles about global philanthropy.

Learning from the past to create the present

Learning from the past to create the present

In writing for our online storytelling platform, RE:source, I use the archival records of foundations and not-for-profit organizations to bring to light stories that relate to current concerns. In the case of gender and economic inequality — major societal challenges that philanthropy is currently trying to mitigate — two seemingly disparate stories come to mind.

The first is the story about a relatively small philanthropic investment in Alfred Kinsey's sexuality research in the 1940s and 1950s.

The second, by contrast, is the story of how a large amount of money in the 1950s was dedicated to revolutionizing the private sector, professionalizing business practice for the greater good.

Here's how the two played out.

In the early 1940s, Kinsey came up with a revolutionary hypothesis: human sexuality did not fall into strictly binary categories. To test it, he would need funding to conduct research. But with the Second World War ramping up, and laws criminalizing homosexuality on the books, support wasn't easy to come by. That's when philanthropy stepped in.

Rockefeller and Kinsey

The Rockefeller Foundation became the primary financial backer of Kinsey's research, providing annual funding for the project that by 1947 amounted to $40,000, the equivalent of approximately $500,000 today, and resulting in the production of the groundbreaking Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948.

Kinsey and his co-authors used study data to support the assertion that human sexuality existed across a spectrum, from exclusively homosexual at one end to exclusively heterosexual at the other. What has since become known as the Kinsey Scale plots the vast majority of human sexual identity somewhere in between.

The book was a commercial success, and, as one might suspect, it also sparked controversy. If the foundation's leaders had regrets about its involvement, however, they did not let on. In fact, the paper trail contains letters from several trustees expressing reassurance and support.

The study's positioning of non-binary human sexuality as the norm did not instantly lead to social acceptance of the idea, but Kinsey's work provided important data-driven evidence to what became the LGBTQ rights movements in its continuing struggle to achieve equality, protection, and social justice.

The Rockefeller Foundation's grants to Kinsey have some lessons for today's practitioners. First, the foundation's willingness to take a measured risk was instrumental to Kinsey's success. Funding the sexuality study was not a shot in the dark, in that it sat within long-established Rockefeller funding areas such as science and medicine (albeit on the margins). And Kinsey's scientific approach to the question gave foundation leadership the confidence and security to fund a study of what many might have viewed as a social and cultural issue.

Second, the story of Kinsey and Rockefeller underscores the extent to which a single foundation staff member can make all the difference. In this case, medical sciences director Alan Gregg was Kinsey's steadfast advocate within the foundation. But after Gregg was promoted to a vice presidential position and no longer directly oversaw the Kinsey grant, the project lost the strong support that program-level staff so often provides.

Third, finding the right exit strategy isn't always easy. Once Kinsey's book was out, leaders at the foundation argued that the royalties would be sufficient to fund future research. Or perhaps they used the commercial success of the project as an excuse to pull further grant funding. In any case, they agreed on a three-year tie-off grant to show the foundation still had confidence in the work, to give Kinsey time to raise funds from other sources, and to give themselves an exit.

The issues Kinsey and his team raised have had lasting impact. Neither he nor Rockefeller Foundation staff sought to fund a social movement, which would have been well beyond the scope of the grants. But foundation staff did nothing to prevent such a movement from coalescing, either. In the end, the the foundation funded behind-the-scenes work that would be taken up by others in revolutionary new ways.

Making "economic statesmen"

The Ford Foundation, on the other hand, did have larger social aims than its crosstown neighbor — and a larger checkbook — when it set out to revolutionize business education after the Second World War. Ford leaders committed the foundation to promoting democracy and free markets around the world and its programs helped create international agencies and fund development work, all contributing to the building of an increasingly interconnected global economy.

One factor in that decision was the concern shared by some in the foundation's upper ranks that business and industry leaders in the United States lacked the full range of skills and the perspective needed to weather future economic storms. The business sector in the U.S. was focused primarily on day-to-day operations, never making plans beyond the next quarter. There was no widely-adopted theory of practice, no broader social view, staffers argued. They also believed that those engaged in business, as leaders in society, had an inherent civic duty. The pivotal Ford-funded Gordon and Howell study of business education argued that proper training could create "economic statesmen," and in 1954 Ford spearheaded a movement to make American business schools less vocational and more academically rigorous and theoretically grounded.

In just ten years, Ford grants to business education totaled $46.3 million (about $380 million in 2020 figures). The funds created centers of excellence, supported business schools across the U.S., and funded individual faculty fellowships, research and book projects, and workshops aimed at boosting the quality of teaching and learning in those schools.

While different from the Kinsey story, the business education episode shows another foundation working within its own wheelhouse. Ford drew on its experience working with American institutions of higher education to completely overhaul business education. But while the program was successful in making rigorous business study a prerequisite for a leadership role in the private sector, many today are calling for a second revolution in the field. Where a half-century ago it seemed that free markets and democracy went hand-in-hand, today there is a growing feeling that the two are often at odds.

In the decades since it helped foster a revolution in business education, Ford has been flexible enough to change course, funding new approaches designed to combat rising economic inequality and helping to create the program-related investment mechanism in 1968  as a way to support minority enterprise.

New orthodoxies and wrong assumptions

Looking at the history of philanthropy, I often ask myself where a philanthropic approach has made the wrong assumption or created a new orthodoxy.

One assumption held by staff at Ford as they were formulating the business education program was that a rising economic tide would lift all boats. Perhaps, at the time, the foundation put too much stock in the idea that the private sector, with intellectual, ethical leaders at the helm, would always benefit society in more equal ways. In the case of Kinsey, sexuality research fit within the Rockefeller Foundation's focus on medical research, but when the implications of Kinsey's research crossed over into the social and behavioral realm, the support dried up.

Of course, the aims and approaches taken by the two foundations were vastly different. At Ford, leadership identified a social issue, looked for a lever to advance the issue, and then developed a multi-pronged approach involving a network of institutions, individual researchers, publications, and training at several levels. Kinsey's work was a single project. Both efforts, however, revolutionized their respective fields.

The two stories reveal something else: the deliberate and often unexpected ways in which philanthropically funded work has proved to be impactful. There are thousands of others. I plan to keep sharing them.

Rachel Wimpee (@rachelwimpee) is assistant director of research and education at the Rockefeller Archive Center.