Big philanthropy was born in the United States in the early twentieth century. The Russell Sage Foundation received its charter in 1907, the Carnegie Corporation in 1911, and the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913. These were strange new creatures—quite unlike traditional charities. They had vastly greater assets and were structured legally and financially to last forever. In addition, each was governed by a self-perpetuating board of private trustees; they were affiliated with no religious denomination; and they adopted grand, open-ended missions along the lines of “improve the human condition.” They were launched, in essence, as immense tax-exempt private corporations dealing in good works. But they would do good according to their own lights, and they would intervene in public life with no accountability to the public required.
From the start, the mega-foundations provoked hostility across the political spectrum. To their many detractors, they looked like centers of plutocratic power that threatened democratic governance. Setting up do-good corporations, critics said, was merely a ploy to secure the wealth and clean up the reputations of business moguls who amassed fortunes during the Gilded Age. Consider the reaction to John D. Rockefeller’s initial request for a charter from the U.S. Senate (he eventually received one from New York State):