A utilitarian foundation?

The introduction to Jacobson (1984) makes it sound as though the John A. Hartford Foundation was roughly cause-neutral and utilitarian in its approach, at least for some of its history:

The 1958 annual report of the Hartford Foundation describes its starting point:

Neither John Hartford nor his brother George, in their bequests to the organization, expressed any wish as to how the funds they provided should be used… Our benefactors’ one common request was that the Foundation strive always to do the greatest good for the greatest number.

…If available funds are to be used effectively, it is necessary to carve from the whole vast spectrum of human needs one small band that the heart and mind together tell you is the area in which you can make your best contribution.

The first task of the Foundation was thus to define the greatest good. Basing its decision on the pattern of John Hartford’s previous giving, the Foundation chose to support biomedical, largely clinical, research. Between 1954 and 1979, the Hartford Foundation participated in some of the most important advances in modern medicine, supplied hospitals and medical centers with equipment that reflected those advances, provided for the training of a generation of researchers, saved countless lives, and involved itself deeply in the burgeoning of the current health care crisis. In that period, the Foundation spent close to $175 million [presumably this is 1984 dollars, i.e. $408 million in 2016 dollars].

…Many modern research-supporting institutions have chosen to bear the costs of close supervision and peer review in order to ensure the quality of projects supported either directly or indirectly by the public. But both the trustees and the staff of the Hartford Foundation came from a background that stressed minimizing administrative costs so as to maximize benefits to the public. During the Foundation’s first seven years as a leading source of funds for biomedical research, the full-time staff consisted of one person. To achieve quality control at low cost, the Foundation adopted a policy of hiring consultants as they were needed to review particular grant applications.

As a matter of policy, too, the Foundation tried to fund projects and types of research that could not obtain funding from other sources. For example, the Hartford Foundation was the first to pay for the patient-bed costs of clinical research. Filling this gap was clearly desirable. But the Foundation also supported some researchers whose theories or personalities inspired skepticism in their colleagues. These grants were calculated risks. Many of the projects thus supported were unsuccessful; a few have produced major advances in clinical medicine.

When these successes occurred, the Hartford Foundation could have chosen to publicize its role in them. But John and George Hartford disliked publicity. The trustees and staff made this family trait a matter of policy. They believed that being in the public eye was tasteless, a waste of time, and likely to produce an excess of grant requests unmanageable by a small staff. As a result, the pool of grant applicants was limited largely to those who heard about the Foundation by word of mouth — from past grantees or consultants.

Probably the truth is more complicated; I haven’t investigated the foundation’s history closely. Note also that the foundation seems to have cared a lot about the overhead ratio, whereas today’s effective altruists tend to think overhead ratio considerations should be subordinate to impact per dollar.

Have any of my readers heard of any other charitable foundations aspiring to be (roughly) cause-neutral and utilitarian in their approach?


  1. Yinzadi says

    I was wondering if you would write a post about why you’re not an anarchist? I love your work and would really like to know your reasoning on this issue.

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