Foundations and the Sin of Pride: The Myth of the Third Sector

“Foundations and the Sin of Pride: The Myth of the Third Sector,” A speech before the Annual Conference of the Council on Foundations, May 30, 1980.


I want to make one final point, which is really my original point. Foundations came into existence originally to do all the things that needed to be done that the government did not do in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That was the right thing for foundations to do at that time. However, the situation has changed today. We have had a reversal. There is almost nothing you can suggest which government is not eager to do. And it seems to me that foundations, therefore, have a special responsibility to be wary of government and to be a lot more solicitous of their own sector, which, I repeat, is the private sector. You’re not above the private sector, by God, you’re in it. I really am a little sorry, with all due respect to Landrum Bolling and the city of Washington, that the Council on Foundations has decided to set up headquarters in Washington. I think that’s the wrong signal to the foundation world. Foundations should not be an adjunct to government. Foundations should be an adjunct to their own, private sector. There is a tendency these days for everything to become an adjunct to government, just as there is a tendency, when foundations have a good idea, for government to take it and run away with it. My favorite example of the latter is the Meals on Wheels program. This was a marvelous program, a community program, where people got together and delivered meals to elderly people who were either house-bound or confined to their beds. And Congress heard about this and said, “That’s a great idea; we’ll do it.” So it passed the Meals on Wheels legislation, but with all sorts of new regulations, so that the community organizations that had been delivering meals for years were all disqualified because they didn’t have enough professional nutritionists, they didn’t have the right number of this or enough of that, they didn’t have the right inspection of their facilities, etc. So you end up with another government agency doing, in its bureaucratic and, I am convinced, in the end not very humane way, what neighbors were doing in a very pleasant and humane way.

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