Would Darwin have gotten a grant from one of today's foundations? Would the Wright brothers? The young patent clerk, Einstein?
Not likely, according to the experts. With a few notable exceptions, foundations favor institutions over individuals. Despite our national commitment to the value of the person and his or her potential to contribute to culture and social progress, American philanthropy eschews individual grantees.
''Our statistics show that only a sliver of all the grants given each year go directly to individuals,'' declares Donna Dunlop of the Foundation Center here, ''and most of those are scholarships and fellowships for formal study. If you're just an unaffiliated person with a big idea for finding new truth or improving society, you have very little chance. Private foundations generally limit their giving to tax-exempt organizations.''
Why is this so? ''It isn't just an anti-individual bias,'' Mrs. Dunlop points out. ''The tax laws make it cumbersome for foundations to make grants to individuals and still comply with IRS regulations. Apparently the government is afraid of personally motivated or whimsical grants. But the result has been a throttling of almost all support of individuals.''
Observers of the American cultural scene point out that this fixation on institutions rather than individuals, hasn't always prevailed. Thomas Bender, a professor of the humanities at New York University and a historian of our intellectual institutions, says: ''The famous Bollingen Foundation program shows how an alternative style can produce marvelous results. For 25 years this foundation contributed magnificently to the humanities through the support of talented and dedicated individuals, both inside and outside of academe.
''Today, the Bollingen exists no longer. Major philanthropies now operate quite differently. They do not deal with individuals, but rely overwhelmingly on institutional grants - good ones, often - but not direct patronage of talent. Our culture is the poorer for the loss of Bollingen-type foundations which put their faith in the finest people they could find.''
One foundation which has supported individuals - in the face of considerable controversy - is the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation. It regularly awards five-year grants to free ''exceptionally talented'' people from economic pressures, in the hope that they will produce notable discoveries, creative works, or contributions to society. So far 60 persons, mainly scholars and scientists, have been awarded the tax-free grants, ranging from $24,000 to $60, 000 annually, depending on the recipient's age.
''We've been happy with the risks we've assumed in this program, and now it is taking on the diversity which we have wanted,'' said J. Roderick MacArthur, chairman of the prize-fellows program and son of the philanthropy's founder, the late John D. MacArthur, whose fortune was made in insurance and real estate.
Other foundations, while not emulating MacArthur's flair, have been quietly exploring ways to provide better support for individuals.
The Ford Foundation has experimented with grants to serious nonfiction writers embarked on important works, consciously seeking the freelancer rather than the professor ensconced in academe. And even a federal agency, the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (see story on p. B7) has found a way to support the most promising individuals in its field.
The Fund's Mina Shaughnessy Scholars Program, named for a pioneer in teaching remedial writing to college students, finances sabbaticals for innovators in post-secondary education, so that they can distill and disseminate their hard-won wisdom. ''Until this program, there were few funds from private or public sources to enable the best practitioners to refine their ideas,'' says Russell Garth of the fund. ''Most grants for educational research and development went to large universities for group efforts. Our focus is on the creative individual.''
Will foundations increase their support of individuals in the future?
Mrs. Dunlop of the Foundation Center says: ''Frankly, I'm not optimistic. Nothing in the data we collect or the views we hear from the leaders of American philanthropy suggests a strong shift toward funding unaffiliated people. Foundation giving has declined in all areas due to inflation.
''My own conviction is that the best route for a grant seeker is to arrange for some form of affiliation with an institution - which is not as hard as it sounds, if you have a worthwhile project. I've seen hundreds of people do it over the past few years. You stand a far better chance for funding if your project comes in under the aegis of the Tri-County Mental Health Organization, than from Donna Dunlop who lives on 68th Street.''