Wallace Funds head explains new philanthropic approach
In a March 7 talk designed to “remove the shroud of mystery” from the world of foundation philanthropy, the president of the Wallace–Reader’s Digest Funds described how that organization has fundamentally changed its modus operandi.
Addressing an audience of community leaders at a Breakfast Seminar, M. Christine DeVita described how, starting in 1999, the Wallace Funds have shifted their emphasis. Where the Funds once followed the typical foundation model of doing good solely by dispensing money to benefit individual organizations, today it seeks to do good by also dispensing knowledge derived from innovative research — with the goal of benefiting all of society through systemic change.
Narrowing its concentration to three large-scale programs — one aimed at improving public education leadership, one aimed at strengthening arts participation, and the third aimed at improving the quality of after-school programs — DeVita said, the Wallace Funds today aim “to deliver social benefits many times greater than the value of our dollar investment in any single organization.”
In making that shift, the Wallace Funds “realized that to achieve our goals — to really create large-scale change — we needed to better invest our resources in ways that build, capture and share information and know-how that leaders in a particular field can use to bring about beneficial changes.”
“This is a very new and relatively unorthodox way for a national foundation to behave,” DeVita said. “It places more importance on the knowledge we help create and share than the money we give away.”
DeVita began her talk with an overview of American philanthropic foundations, which number nearly 57,000 and in 2000 gave away about $27.5 billion. She described foundations’ unique role as “the only important power centers in American life not controlled by market forces, electoral constituencies, bodies of members or even formally established canons of conduct, all of which give them their extraordinary flexibility and potential influence.”
“Foundations often function as society’s research and development department,” funding innovative approaches to problem-solving that otherwise would go untried, DeVita added. Those experiments include such notable successes as polio and yellow fever vaccines, the 911 emergency telephone system and the children’s television program “Sesame Street.”
Created by Reader’s Digest founders DeWitt and Lila Wallace, the Wallace Funds began improving life in the mid-1950s. As the Funds grew into a national organization, the focus tightened onto education and the arts.
“We had some success,” DeVita said, citing programs for teacher recruitment and preparation, school libraries and arts administration that have become national models. But by the end of the 1990s, “we were not satisfied that we were reaping sufficient social return on the dollars we were investing in various programs and organizations.”
“Even those programs that were successful from an individual organizational perspective did not seem to change or influence the major public systems in which we were working,” DeVita told the Bates audience.
Hence the shift in emphasis. For example, in the arts, the Funds now seek less to benefit individual organizations than to change “the standards of cultural institutions in ways that help make art part of everyone’s everyday life.”
“Similarly, in education, we’re no longer content if our support only improves the work of a few schools, or libraries, or even districts,” she said. “Our objective today is to identify ways to refocus public education on the goal of improving the learning of all students” — specifically through programs that strengthen out-of-school learning opportunities and educational leadership.
DeVita concluded that organized philanthropy, especially large national foundations, are in a period of transition. “Like it or not — and I happen to like it — I believe we’re in one of those rare periods of soul-searching about how effectively our strategies, our missions and our accomplishments measure up to this national demand for wise use of scarce resources.”
DeVita’s talk was the third in a Breakfast Seminar series dedicated to the theme Paying for the Public Good.