6 min read

Today’s first mystery: Can you name this donor? He co-founded Silicon Valley’s first great corporation. He funded and befriended every Republican President from Nixon to George H.W. Bush. His decisive actions helped save two conservative think tanks, the Hoover Institution in the 1950s and the American Enterprise Institute in the 1980s. In 1992 he declared, “the Democratic Party has been the party of socialism since President Roosevelt’s term,” and it “is indentured to union labor.” Your last clue: The foundation named for him—America’s seventh largest—is a pillar of the liberal philanthropic establishment.

Did you guess David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard and benefactor of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which at last count gave well over a quarter-billion dollars’ worth of annual grants from its $5.9 billion corpus?

My opening description comes from Martin Morse Wooster’s latest Foundation Watch study for the Capital Research Center (CRC), which itself is only a taste of the chapter on Packard that Wooster has written for a new edition of his magisterial The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor Intent’ that CRC will publish later this year.

Many lessons for donors quickly appear from this account of Packard. As Wooster summarizes:

Do make your intentions as clear as possible. Impose significant restrictions on giving. And if possible, spend your fortune within your lifetime.

Those lessons are obvious because this Republican entrepreneur—who not only built his own fortune but helped to pioneer the very existence of Silicon Valley starting in 1939, when he and Mr. Hewlett launched H-P—now has a multi-billion-dollar foundation doing extremely little to strengthen, and much to harm, the free enterprise system that birthed the foundation.

And yet, as Wooster’s fascinating story also reveals, Packard’s life and giving hold more mysteries than simply how his foundation abandoned much of his donor intent.

I hesitate to criticize Packard because (a) I will never do nearly as much for America as he did through his entrepreneurship, his government service, his giving, and his nonprofit leadership, and (b) I was a lowly researcher at AEI, fresh out of college, when its finances collapsed in the mid-1980s and Packard helped save that great institution.

Nonetheless, we all have strengths and weaknesses, and donors should ponder Packard’s, especially in this centennial year of his birth. First, consider what I would label his strengths. He worked hard to earn an engineering degree from Stanford. He didn’t want to be a cog in a big business and soon abandoned a job at General Electric in favor of founding H-P. The company made great efforts to treat its employees well, not only because that’s the right thing to do but also because this kept the company union-free.

When he had earned enough money to begin major giving, Packard gave much of it anonymously to Stanford, and he served for years on its board. But he wasn’t a rubber stamp for the school’s administration; he publicly challenged its priorities when he thought they were out of line. After the crazy years of the late 1960s, he also publicly pleaded with donors and businesses not to give unrestricted grants to colleges, but instead to shape gifts so they would benefit “the free enterprise system.”

During those crazy years, he bravely encountered protestors in person, something precious few trustees could boast, though the fact that he was 6’ 5” tall and had lettered in basketball, football, and track probably made the task a bit easier. In 1968, students held a sit-in at Stanford. Packard responded by going into the building alone, without telling anyone at the university—though given the administration’s pusillanimity, that probably made little difference. He urged the students not to become violent, as their peers at Columbia recently had, and the stand-off ended without violence.

When Reagan had Packard serve as Deputy Secretary of Defense with an eye to reforming the Pentagon’s procurement system, Packard again eschewed go-along-get-along behavior in favor of criticizing everyone:  the military’s top brass, big business contractors, and politicians who prevented the closure of unneeded facilities. He was most unpopular, but he didn’t care, except to the extent it upset his wife, and she was wise enough to fix the problem by not watching the news.

Lastly, to the end of his life he was clear-eyed about what the other side of the political divide wanted: “socialism.”

Packard, in short, had a string of accomplishments in business, government, and philanthropy that put most of us fellow Americans to shame. Unfortunately, he also had some real weaknesses.

One was the mysterious weakness shared by so many tough, no-nonsense self-made men who become donors: In his business decisions, he was rigorously strategic and demanded high-quality results, but when crafting his giving, he often failed to think clearly, so much so that he didn’t even think clearly about what results he hoped to achieve.

In Packard’s case, this is especially mysterious, because he was an engineer with fierce standards. When one of his hired engineers started work on a new oscilloscope, the man’s prototype used slightly less strong aluminum for its casing than earlier models. One morning the new engineer arrived at the office to find his oscilloscope smashed to bits. On the wreckage was a note: “You can do better than this—Dave Packard.”

The one bit of writing Packard is known to have put down regarding his foundation—a writing which the foundation, by the way, has never made public—he gave the airy title, “Some Random Thoughts about the Packard Foundation.” His family members and a former foundation president who served under Packard claim plausibly that he never gave clear instructions for posthumous grantmaking, nor did he think to put any time limit on the foundation’s existence.

When he died in 1996, the foundation passed into the control of his four children, three daughters and a son. As Packard must have known, the daughters seem never to have shared many of his views, yet he apparently had no concerns where they would take his foundation. Almost immediately, they cut off all conservative grantees, including Hoover and AEI, which he had supported for decades.

That’s not to say they discarded every bit of his donor’s intent. The not-so-conservative causes, of course, they continued. And here lies another of Packard’s weaknesses. Despite his background in the hard sciences, Packard fell for the population explosion myth that was so fashionable when he fell for it.

Today it’s clear that a lack of births is causing grave problems for Europe, the United States, and Japan, while God only knows what will happen in Communist China as a result of the coerced low birth rate there (see AEI demographer Nicholas Eberstadt’s chilling studies of the problem here, here, and here).

So, Packard in his day and his foundation today have supported anti-population efforts including abortion efforts, thereby discouraging other people, especially poor people, from imitating his own decision to have four children. And tied up with this view that each person is more a consuming mouth than a producing brain, Packard then and the foundation now support a variety of environmentalist efforts. True, Packard in considerable part liked traditional conservation measures such as having private groups buy land that would remain undeveloped, whereas the foundation has moved toward more extreme environmentalism. On the other hand, Wooster shows Packard making statements like these:

… the environment is going to determine, in the final analysis, what population can be supported.
        * * *

We’re changing the character of our atmosphere, which might change the character of our [planet] … [and we may see] some very drastic changes in our climate.

 Why did this great man of science fall for pseudo-scientific population control and global warming? I suspect part of that mystery may be explained by an excessively scientific mind-set. Packard publicly disdained the non-science parts of Stanford’s teaching and urged other businessmen not to fund liberal arts.

That wasn’t crazy, given how much nonsense, including anti-business nonsense, is taught by many liberal arts professors. But the remedies for bad science and bad liberal arts are good science and good liberal arts. And if Packard himself had had a better formation in the political philosophy that has built the Western civilization he loved, he might have been able to see through the nostrums of population control and climate change, which are really just new forms of the socialism he opposed all his life.

Who knows? Perhaps with a richer formation in philosophy and theology Packard would also have been better able to pass on his own social and political views to his children, so that for at least one generation his billions would have continued going to more of the causes he supported.

Providence, which has quite a sense of humor, did arrange for Packard’s one non-liberal child to earn a doctorate not in engineering but in classics. In 1999, the liberal leaders of the Packard Foundation allowed this namesake son to secede with 11 percent of the corpus, and that money now supports such things as Mozart and old movies. Life is indeed mysterious.

FOOTNOTE: For more on the socialist tendencies of radical environmentalism and population control, see these comments by outgoing Czech president Vaclav Klaus, who had the pleasure of living under Soviet socialism, and this article from The New Atlantis, which includes some history of the fight against human populations carried on by the Nixon administration and large U.S. foundations.

4 thoughts on “Mysterious donors”

  1. Joseph Bast says:

    In his comment, Paul Brest protests Scott’s use of the label “pseudo-scientific” to characterize the views of David Packard on global warming. Actually, it’s about the most gentle way to characterize them. Robert Zubrin’s excellent book, Merchants of Despair, also uses the term to label those who cherry-pick data and subvert peer review to politicize what could be our generation’s greatest scientific controversy. They exploit scientific illiteracy and fear of change (“climate change”) to advance a political agenda that Packard would have abhorred. There are many words, all of them impolite, to describe that kind of behavior.

  2. Drew Anderson says:

    I once asked Billy Graham how he suggested that foundations could be kept to the mission and values of the donor. He had seen foundations stray away. His advice was that the donor should “pick good trustees” (who knew him and his ideas). The key was to start at the heart of the foundation’s leadership.

    Based upon Scott Walter’s article, it seems to be a serious missed opportunity that Mr. Packard did not seriously think about and write down or even take part in an oral history that could reveal his hopes and goals for his most significant philanthropic investment.

    I would only add as a former foundation staff member, it would follow that the staff should be insync with the donor’s mission and values. Perhaps, more foundations should consider the Hewlett Foundation practice of employment terms for staff members. This approach could reinvigorate the foundation and the staff and keep the foundation on track and not off on side agendas.

  3. Paul Brest says:

    I do not have enough information (nor do Martin Wooster or Scott Walter) to speak to the issue of the Packard Foundation’s adherence to its donors’ intentions. But the reference to “pseudo-scientific population control and global warming” is absolutely shameless.
    The Packard Foundation’s population grantmaking has tried to provide millions of people in developing countries the same access to family planning through contraception that its donors had and that I’ll bet most readers of the column have and use.
    As for global warming, you have every right to disagree with the large number of climate scientists who believe that human-caused emissions are contributing to climate change and that this is likely to have catastrophic results, but it hardly advances rational discourse to brand those with whom you disagree “pseudo-scientific.”
    I would expect better of Scott Walter, who, at least based on his tenure at the Philanthropy Roundtable, was a responsible journalist.
    Paul Brest (Emeritus Professor Stanford Law School and former president of the Hewlett Foundation)

  4. Theo says:

    Providence, which has quite a sense of humor, did arrange for Packard’s one non-liberal child to earn a doctorate not in engineering but in classics. In 1999, the liberal leaders of the Packard Foundation allowed this namesake son to secede with 11 percent of the corpus, and that money now supports such things as Mozart and old movies. Life is indeed mysterious.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *