Why is the foundation closing, 52 years after its founding? John M. Olin, who died in 1982, feared that if it were to exist in perpetuity, it would eventually be captured by hostile forces; the example of Henry Ford II, who quit the board of the Ford Foundation in frustration over its liberal agenda, had especially impressed him.
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The Olin model offers many lessons for foundations that would seek to mimic its success, some of them simply mechanical: restrict the number of trustees to avoid the creation of factions (there will be only six at tomorrow’s Olin meeting); hire a staff of smart generalists with diverse backgrounds from outside the foundation world; and make sure that everybody sticks to a set of clearly defined guiding principles.
Other lessons are more strategic in nature. The Olin Foundation’s leaders understood that success is often unplanned, and so they focused on creating the conditions for success rather than thrusting a set of detailed agendas and goals upon grant recipients. Nobody, for example, expected that Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” would become a runaway best seller whose meaning is still debated two decades after it was published; the John M. Olin Foundation merely decided in the early 1980’s that Mr. Bloom, a political theorist at the University of Chicago, was a genuine talent who deserved financial backing.
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Finally, the decision to spend itself out of existence may seem bizarre, like an act of philanthropic suicide, yet it magnified the Olin Foundation’s influence. Although it never had much more than $100 million in assets, its refusal to hoard its endowment allowed it to spend at the rate of a much larger foundation.
JOHN J. MILLER. “The Very Foundation of Conservatism.” The New York Times (Mon., November 28, 2005): A23.