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Justin Fox

Philanthropy Should Be Controversial

Carnegie and Rockefeller hit political roadblocks, too.
Giving money away isn't easy.

Giving money away isn't easy.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer

When steel magnate Andrew Carnegie tried to get Pennsylvania towns to build public libraries in the 1890s by offering them matching funds, 20 of the 46 local governments he approached turned him down. When John D. Rockefeller Sr. asked Congress to grant a federal charter for his proposed Rockefeller Foundation in 1910, then Attorney General George W. Wickersham denounced it as “an indefinite scheme for perpetuating vast wealth” that was “entirely inconsistent with the public interest.” In 1925, the regents of the University of Wisconsin voted to reject all contributions from private foundations.

Wisconsin’s regents changed their minds five years later, Rockefeller got his foundation chartered by New York state and Carnegie’s public libraries, which began to spread across the country after 1900, are now often cited as the uncontroversial epitome of what private philanthropy can accomplish.