Tag Archives: Indiana Grantmakers

Trying to Make a Difference? – Tell a Story Well (Here’s One: Norman Borlaug, and the Rockefeller Foundation)

Without question, foundations are the primary source of start-up support of a whole spectrum of civic-sector organizations on the left, right, and center…  foundations often continue to support for many years organizations they helped to start.  Moreover, foundations provide civic-sector organizations with the wherewithal to launch the widest possible variety of major new initiatives.
Joel Fleishman: The Foundation — A Great American Secret: How Private Wealth is Changing the World


Yesterday, I spoke at the Leadership Academy for the Indiana Grantmakers Alliance.  (I asked if Peyton Manning would be there, but he couldn’t make it.  Something about getting ready for some big game on Sunday against the Patriots…).

The other speaker for this Leadership Academy was Mark Sedway, director of the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative.  He spoke about, among other things, the power of stories — that telling stories well is a powerful way to make a difference.  I agree.  One of his current projects is this: helping Foundations tell their stories in ways that get heard.

So, I have a question for you:  do you know what Foundations have brought to this world?  I could tell you many stories, but here’s one worth telling and re-telling.

Have you ever heard of Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug?  He died in September of this year at the age of 95.  He didn’t accomplish much in his life other than saving one billion lives.  So, yes, the real story is about the genius and the determination and the hard, hard work of Norman Borlaug and the team he pulled together.  But it is also the story of the foresight and focus of the Rockefeller Foundation, who made his work possible.

Here’s a quick summary of the Borlaug “miracle” in a moving scene from Season 2 of The West Wing (“In This White House” — script here).  (And, I’m sad to say, I had not heard much about Borlaug until this West Wing episode, and then I started reading…)

It was called dwarf wheat, which produces heavy yields without its stalk falling over from the weight of the grain.

Was it a hybrid?

What am I, Farmer Bob? It was wheat, and there was more than there used to be.
You ever read Paul Erlich’s book?

“The Population Bomb”?

Yeah. He wrote it in 1968. Erlich said it was a fantasy that India would ever feed itself.
Then Norman Borlaug comes along. See the problem was wheat is top-heavy. It was falling over on itself and it took up too much space. The dwarf wheat… guys, it was an agricultural revolution that was credited with saving one billion lives.


Foundations are not perfect, and the stories are not always as successful as the Borlaug story.  But – one billion lives saved.  It’s enough to justify a lot of false starts and half-successes.

There are many other Foundation success stories  (ever heard of Sesame Street?).  But I think it may be tough to top the Norman Borlaug story.  And this story is equally the story of one foundation:  the Rockefeller Foundation, and its determination to do something that mattered.  People lived that would have died because of the decision to hire Norman Borlaug and give him the resources he needed to pull off his “miracle.”

Norman Bourlaug

Norman Borlaug: The Green Giant

We could all benefit if we learned a few more of the great stories of what Foundations accomplish.  (And you might start by reading Fleishman’s book, The Foundation).