Foundation chairman tells how to give money away

The Checkbook: The Politics and Ethics of Foundation Philanthropy, by Charles Merrill Jr. Boston: Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain. 543 pp. $24.95 This is an unusual report, wonderfully opinionated and peppered with some gritty anger, on how a medium-size foundation disbursed $114 million during its 23 years of operation.

When the founder of Merrill Lynch & Co. died in 1956, he provided generously for his children and friends; his residual estate of $35 million established the Charles E. Merrill Trust.

As chairman of the trust, Merrill's son Charles signed thousands of checks. Now, in ``The Checkbook: The Politics and Ethics of Foundation Philanthropy,'' he riffles through the stubs and tells us how the money was spent and why. In the process, he serves up critical, comic, and thoughtful advice to the managers of America's 22,000 foundations.

Forty percent of the trust's income had to go to four schools and four hospitals. But what of the other 60 percent? How, asks Merrill, do you spend money effectively? How do you look with fresh eyes at issues like elitism vs. democracy in education and culture, and conflicts between quality and equality? Is it wiser to take risks or play safe? What, he asks, is philanthropy's proper relation to the Establishment that supplies its resources and to the society that asks its help?

Merrill is an insider - thoroughly familiar with both the potential and the failures of foundations, which, he says must be both good citizen and nuisance. He is frank about the blunders of the Merrill Trust and its chairman, and skewers the pretentiousness, self-delusion, and timidity of many of those asking for money, as well as those giving it.

What does the foundation executive know about reality? he asks. ``All the habits of administration are arranged to protect his ignorance, beginning with the 30th-floor office on Madison Avenue and the receptionist with honey-colored hair and Radcliffe accent paid to screen out deadbeats.'' Suppose the foundation allots money for development in Central America. ``Is this to be spent in rightist Honduras or in leftist Nicaragua? In what country and under what system is there a better chance that those extra resources reach the campesinos who need them? How will the executive who signs the checks know? The newspapers will just confuse him. Does he travel to Central America? Does he possess a knowledgeable friend he can trust? Has he at least worked out a set of beliefs based to some extent on the suffering, failures, lies, and humiliations he has witnessed himself?''

Some passages could not be more timely. Merrill writes as a man who knows there are no easy answers. ``The great conceptual breakthrough of the 1980s is the soup kitchen. The federal government shrugs off the problem of suffering, and accordingly the safety net of public welfare for the truly needy becomes an assumption that allows conservatives an untroubled conscience - the same assumption trusted by the Pharisee and the Levite as they passed by the traveler set upon by robbers. Churches set up cots in their basements.''

Merrill graduated from Harvard and also, he writes, ``from the Fifth Army in Italy [in World War II], where he received another type of education.'' That may account for his courage in boldly advising: ``Write checks to repair the roof, replace the heating plant, or repaint the hallways. Ignore the appeal for that grand new performing arts center.'' And, he says, don't ignore ``the deferred maintenance of human resources.''

David Burns is project director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

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