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The Alan Gregg Papers

"Notes on Giving"

[Alan Gregg]. [1930s].
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Gregg clearly meant to write his memoirs. Along with choosing the title "Notes on Giving," he completed the first chapter and left an outline and fragments of later ones. He had ample material to draw upon, for Gregg throughout his career had remained a prodigious correspondent and diarist. He had made observations about the workings of the Rockefeller Foundation, beginning with his early service with the International Health Division in Brazil. The substantial collections of Gregg's papers at the National Library of Medicine and the Rockefeller Archive Center originated with the advice Richard Pearce gave him before he left for Paris in 1924; Gregg recalled after his retirement in his "Reminiscences" for the Columbia University Oral History project, "Three days before I sailed, Dr. Pearce called me into his office and with a good deal of formality spoke as follows: 'After you get to Europe. . .send me your home address as soon as you are settled. You have my home address. Write me at home about any matter which you think should not go into the open files. But,' he added, 'don't overdo it.'" Gregg went on,

The arrangement for confidential letters to my chief at his home rounded out what seems to me an ideal set of communication channels. For formal requests and for reports, we had the memorandum form. The memoranda were supposed to be closely reasoned, coherently organized, and adapted for circulation within the Foundation or outside it if necessary.
The diary was an intermediate form. It was an office document, not to go outside the Foundation. In addition to accounts of my work it served as a vehicle for general descriptions of conditions, impressions of people, and other matters which might make formal memoranda more meaningful to the officers who read it.
And finally, at least in my arrangement with Pearce, there was the confidential letter which I could address to him at his home. These letters served, when needed, for personal matters in relation to the office, for hunches, and for delicate items of background information.

Gregg's private correspondence, not just with Pearce but with colleagues, subordinates, and family, was vividly descriptive and thoughtful, especially when written from remote and exotic locations, such as Brazil, Eastern Europe, and China.

Gregg's notes with his suggestions and observations of how well or poorly the Rockefeller Foundation functioned provide an excellent case study on the management of a major foundation. "Notes on Giving" was more general in scope and Gregg likely would have cited a number of documents with broader applicability, such as a memo he wrote just after Pearce's death in 1930. Pondering the prospect of succeeding Pearce, Gregg asked, "what qualities has the RF which are not characteristic of governments, private universities, national societies, or individual philanthropists?" He first phrased his answer in broad terms: access to large sums of money; expenditures controlled by technical advisors and administrators with international access; and a flexible, broad policy--the "welfare of mankind throughout the world." He then highlighted more specific qualities. For example, no other organization possessed such extensive experience in public health and medical education around the world; most parts of the world considered the foundation detached and impartial; even small grants could provide significant moral support owing to the approval that Rockefeller funds conveyed; and the foundation had the freedom to assist or decline requests without political or other considerations that encumbered governments, universities, or national societies.

With the foundation thus positioned, Gregg argued that it should consider "undertakings which are new; which are large; which require technical advice and intelligent administration; which are benefited by the experience gleaned from many lands; which do not commit or involve the foundation for an indefinite period of time." Accordingly, he concluded that the foundation should fund "experiments on a scale larger than can be usually afforded," coordinating activities in many parts of the world which will be mutually beneficial, and avoiding permanent commitment of funds to any one project or field.

Gregg recorded other insights about philanthropy in general, beginning with the financing of his own medical school education. His benefactor, Arthur T. Lyman, whose grandson Gregg had tutored at Harvard, had rejected any payment of interest, or even all of the principle, if Gregg was unable to repay. Gregg also wrestled with issues like the importance of funding people rather than institutions or projects, the role of trustees, and the changing place of foundations as other private donors and government both increased their support of medical education. He even recognized the growing importance of medical research institutes at universities, a prominent development in medical research by the end of the twentieth century.

Gregg's former assistant, Robert Morison, who succeeded him as head of the combined International Health and Medical Sciences Division, provided perhaps the best description of Gregg's genius in philanthropy:

The really good foundation officer differs most markedly from the really good research worker. The good research man must believe that the solution he is working on is obviously better than all the other solutions so far proposed. The foundation officer must keep his mind constantly open to many different possibilities at once. He must be able to recognize a high quality of operation more or less regardless of the particular content. Alan [Gregg] was very nearly superb at this.

--Robert S. Morison, former assistant to Alan Gregg and successor to him as Director of Medical Sciences Division, Rockefeller Foundation [Journal of Medical Education, 39 (1964), 989]