“The Checkbook: The Politics and Ethics of Foundation Philanthropy”
Author Charles Merrill
Review by Jud Fisher
The Checkbook is Charles Merrill’s reflections on the foundation his father, Charles E. Merrill, founded and which Merrill (the son) was chairman of for most of its existence. The Charles E. Merrill Trust (CMT) functioned for 23 years and issued over $114 million to various organizations before closing its doors in the early 1980s as its founder had intended. The Checkbook is also a reflection on philanthropy in general as Merrill drills down into the philosophy, ethics, politics, and other moving parts of the CMT.
Merrill begins the book by giving a brief history of the CMT and his thoughts on why it functioned the way it did and how the foundation’s operations fit into the larger quilt of philanthropy. He states “[s]ignificant philanthropy must play the role of both Good Citizen and Damn Nuisance. Merrill also says that the foundation evolved into a better organization after beginning with questionable discipline and direction: “But we did evolve, I think, an ideal of pluralism, a respect for things counter, original, spare, strange that we could strengthen and preserve…” He also refutes that any two foundations are the same – and that if they are, that would be unfortunate for philanthropy and bad for society in general.
Merrill’s contention was that the CMT was a compilation of the personal lives of those individuals who made up the core of the foundation. He did not believe one person was like another due to their different upbringing and environments. Merrill goes on to profile the individuals who filled the trustee positions over the life of the CMT to show the “engine” of the foundation, as well as the multitude of experiences that mold a person and, in turn, a foundation.
The book quickly moves into a series of vignettes that go over all the payouts the CMT made. Merrill does this in chapters that section up each category upon which the foundation spent its money (schools, religion, reaching the outsider, medicine, culture, etc.). Each chapter leads off with a general overview regarding the philosophies that the trustees imparted in choosing what they did.
Merrill’s best insights come from his explanation of why the payouts went to certain organizations within each category. At one point he explains why elite private schools are included in the CMT’s payout. “[I]f the real danger to American democracy… comes from egalitarian conformity, then the exclusiveness of private schools, even in their totalitarian versions, has a role to play if that snobbery is based on higher standards and a respect for independence, not simply money and manners.” He is saying that the CMT was not going to limit itself to assisting those of lesser means only since a healthy society feeds on diversity of thought, processes, systems and organizations – the pluralistic view he mentioned earlier in Checkbook.
There are several good examples of the CMT’s philosophies. Merrill ends up illuminating a hard fact in the foundation world: giving focus can be simple; choosing the final recipients of the grants, whether difficult or easy, is often more art than science.
One of CMT’s concentrations was helping African Americans. They “sought to build black institutions not only to serve individuals but to be sources of pride, strength, cohesion, and leadership within the black community.” Other examples show the CMT’s reasoning for how to help children (working with the family and parents; strengthening resources), ease the process of dying (combat aloneness; promote dignity, not necessarily multiple medical procedures), assisting artists/arts organizations (give a portion to large organizations but make sure you pepper smaller entities; he says “[A] rich culture of active local institutions is the garden out of which artists come”) and so on.
Checkbook is a very insightful and fun book to read. Merrill is raw, blunt, eloquent, cynical, practical and intelligent in his breakdown of the CMT’s giving and its place in the world. In the end Merrill reviews how to run a philanthropic organization, ostensibly CMT, thusly: “A grade-B administrator with a deft secretary and a reliable bookkeeper and a few members of the millionaire’s family and peer group to widen (or narrow) the radar screen can run a 90 percent adequate foundation”. Merrill does an excellent job of changing his tone (sometimes unsentimental, sometimes sarcastic, etc.) to support his many thoughts and explanations of CMT philosophies in a way that gives a depth to the humanity involved in the foundation’s giving not available in most writings about philanthropy. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and it now sits at the top of my reading list in the foundation category.