Research at the RBML | Peter Weber investigates how philanthropies supercharge their impact

Peter Weber is Assistant Professor of History at Auburn University. His work examines public life through the lens of philanthropy and non-profits. At the RBML, he dove into the Carnegie Corporation’s records from the 1970s that tracked their efforts to expand the impact of their philanthropy. He found evidence of internal disagreement within the foundation about the most effective and ethical strategies to pursue. Below he shares some of the research finds that will contribute to his book project in progress, “Philanthropic Innovations: How Program-Related Investments Expand Social Impact.”


What brings you to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library?

I’ve been researching philanthropic foundations that experimented with program-related investments (PRIs) in the 1970s. PRIs are investments by foundations that align with their programmatic goals and thus were viewed as a strategy to expand the philanthropic capacity of foundations beyond traditional grantmaking. From previous archival research at various archives, including the Rockefeller Archive Center, I knew that The Carnegie Corporation was involved in these early debates around PRIs but decided initially against participating in these efforts. I hope to gain greater insight on the rationale of The Carnegie Corporation leadership for not participating in various joint efforts pioneering PRIs, so to better understand how foundations adopt and experiment with new philanthropic strategies.

How long have you been using RBML materials (for this and/or previous research)?

This was my second research visit at the Butler Library to use RBML material. My first visit was more than ten years ago to conduct research for my dissertation, The praxis of civil society: Associational life, the politics of civility, and public affairs in the Weimar Republic. At the time, I used the Records of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Ernst Jäckh Papers, and Nicholas M. Butler Papers to research efforts to build democratic political culture in interwar Germany. The dissertation and resulting peer reviewed articles analyze the role of trans-Atlantic philanthropy and of Germany’s first school of public affairs (funded in part by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) in building democracy in Germany in the context of extreme political polarization, a topic that in the past years gained new relevance in both the US and Western Europe. This work has interested me in how historical research can inform contemporary practices and debates.

What have you found? Did you come here knowing this material was here?

I knew from the finding aid that one folder in the Policy and Program Sub-Series focused on PRIs; I was, however, interested in the broader debates over PRIs, which – from my previous research at other archives – I suspected had taken place. With the help of Jennifer Comins (Archivist, Carnegie Collections), I identified numerous boxes that might have contained traces of these internal debates and allow me to contextualize them in the broader strategic discussion of the Carnegie Corporation.

Overall, the research visit was quite successful. I found numerous evidence, across multiple boxes, of the debates around PRIs and how they were part of broader discussions over the Carnegie Corporation’s mission, goals, and strategies. This material will allow me to trace the decision-making processes of philanthropic foundations, offering insights on how grantmaking strategies are adopted and shift over time.

What have you found that’s surprised or perplexed you?

In line with my past research on foundations and interwar Germany, I find it fascinating how historical research and archival data can inform our understanding of contemporary philanthropic practices. The Carnegie Corporation’s internal debates around the adoption of PRIs in the 1970s are linked to today’s debates over the use of business and investment practices in the nonprofit sector. The files I consulted show how the decision-making process of Carnegie Corporation leadership and program officer was historically contextualized, as past grant decisions informed approaches and strategies. The depth of information provided by the records of the Carnegie Corporation, and likewise those of other philanthropic agencies, are an important reminder that many of the celebrated “disruptive” practices and “new” debates are really new iterations of past debates; and understanding these historical debates around philanthropic practices are essential to comprehend both the potential and limitations of contemporary approaches to philanthropy.

What advice do you have for other researchers or students interested in using RBML’s special collections?

I would definitely encourage everyone to engage with the archivists of the RBML. My conversations with on the phone and via email with Jennifer Comins were extremely helpful to identify potentially relevant boxes.