Caracas, Venezuela — It could have been just another conference on how to end poverty in the third world. The luncheon speaker was David Rockefeller, saying things that might have shocked any other group of social activists assembled for the same reason:
"Capitalism, not Marxism," Mr. Rockefeller said, "is the revolutionary system. . . . Governments have been trying but failing miserably to imitate the successes of the private sector."
No grimaces of disapproval here. This audience believed that the shrewd philanthropy of capitalists, not the bumbling development programs of government bureaucrats, was the only hope for averting the collision courses that they agreed Latin American countries are traveling on. It was the second international conference on foundations, and it drew together in early March more movers and shakers of the international foundation world than had ever been assembled before.
It was a diverse group. The big US foundations -- Ford, Kellog, Kettering, Mott, and others -- were represented not by their affluent trustees, but by young professional staff members who had no family connections to the donors.
And there was a smattering of "contributing officers" from the big US transnationals such as Exxon, Xerox, and Levi Strauss. There were another 150 Latin Americans in separate delegations from 12 countries, each representing foundations that operate nationally. There were also a few Europeans representing large Spanish and British foundations involved in Latin America.
David Rockefeller described how his family had "shaped the modern notion of the foundation," as if this audience didn't already know. It may have been a familiar story, but they were clinging to his every word -- probably each for different reasons.
Those from the US strained to hear a revealing message about a Rockefeller-instigated reemergence of private foreign aid on a large scale. They knew that the international budgets of the US foundations had plummeted in recent years to about 7 percent (down to about $70 million a year) of their total giving and were destined to slip still lower.
Now David Rockefeller was about to step down from the Chase Manhattan Bank and into the presidency of a small, free-wheeling member of the Rockefeller philantrophic network, the Rockefeller Brothers' Fund. Would he use that post to rally new US leadership?
Was he going to announce the formation of a new US philanthrophic era tied to the big multinational banks?
No such announcement was forthcoming. Instead, he offered himself as a role model to the Latin Americans present. He insisted that the new leadership must come from them.
These Latin Americans were among the wealthiest of the wealthy in Latin America where wealth is not always a political asset. In their own countries they are used to being called, disparagingly, the "Rockefellers of Colombia," the "Rockefellers of Argentina," etc. Many of them are living in the out front opulent style of John D. Rockefeller I, a level of luxury no longer possible in the US where labor costs and taxation levels are higher.
Here was David Rockefeller telling them that, Marxist rhetoric to the contrary, their wealth was not at all the cause of their countries' problems, but a vital social asset which, through their foundations, could be directed to overcome some of the "negative byproducts of capitalism." They listened intently when Mr. Rockefeller spoke of his grandfather's New England ethic: "He saved 10 percent of his wealth and gave another 10 percent of it away. Our foundations emerged out of the tithing principle."
This very gathering was an extension of the Rockefeller family's philanthropic interests. The conference was sponsored by the Eugenio Mendoza Foundation, the first Venezuelan foundation, created in the 1940s as an outgrowth of Nelson Rockefeller's business relationship with wealthy Eugenio Mendoza.
Since then, groupings of foundations have popped up in every industrializing Latin American country, most of them mixing the Rockefeller model of the "family foundation" with the charitable style of the Roman Catholic Church, tied to hospitals and private schools.
Today, the Latin American foundations are not run as "personal playgrounds out of the hip pocket" of the donors and their wives. They are more than likely directed full time by the donor's children or even grandchildren.
I was bored in Europe," said one Colombian, "so I went to work for our family's foundation in Cali. Our programs give technical assistance to small farmers in the countryside."
Another member of this second generation of foundation staff members in Luisa Mendoza de Pulido, the tall, elegant daughter of the founder of the Eugenio Mendoza Foundation and its current president. She was also the conference organizer, managing an international organizing committee and paying attention to every detail.
Convinced that if the Latin American foundations are to make a difference they must form a continent-wide network, she tapped her family's far-flung contacts to make sure the key people from each nation attended.
Once they were here in Caracas, the challenge was not to get them to listen to speeches and to make new contacts, but to loosen up socially and to transcend their cultural barriers. Mrs. Pulido relied on superb organization and impeccable (and lavish) Venezuelan hospitality to achieve this.
After the second day, the North Americans felt brave enough to convey in broken high-school Spanish their controversial ideas about birth control and community schools.
On a few occasions such conversations produced promises to team up on projects.
And to the delight of those present, a group of foundation officials from 13 Latin American nations, the Soladarios, have offered to organize and host the next foundation conference scheduled in the Do minican Republic in 1983.