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State Boards Of Charities: A Report Of The Committee – 1889

Report Of The Committee On State Boards Of Charities

 By H. Hastings Hart, Of St. Paul, Minn., Chairman

Editor’s Note: This report was presented at the Sixteenth Annual Session of The National Conference of Charities and Correction, San Francisco, Ca., September 11-18, 1889 

Your Committee on State Boards of Charities begs leave to offer the following Report: –

The work of this committee has been very fully covered by the same committee in previous Conferences; and, instead of going over the ground in detail, it seems better to refer to the reports and papers which are to be found in the Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction. The most important reports on this subject are as follows: Proceedings of I879, paper by Mr. F. B. Sanborn, pp. 26-28; Proceedings of i880, address by General R. Brinkerhoff, pp. 26, 27; Proceedings of I88I, Report of the Committee on the Work of State Boards of Charities, by General R. Brinkerhoff, pp. 37-50, and a paper by George S. Robinson, of Illinois, on the utility of State Boards of Charities, pp. 58-76 (note also a discussion on this report, pp. 76-84); Proceedings of I883, report of the Committee on the Work of Boards of Charities, by Bishop George D. Gillespie, pp. 19-35 (note especially pp. 28-31); Proceedings of I886, Report of the Committee on State Boards of Charities, by Hon. H. H. Giles, pp. 19-26, and a paper by Hon. John. W. Andrews, on the Extension of State Boards’ to all States and Territories, pp. 26 -30; Proceedings of I887, report of the Committee on State Boards of Charities, by Mr. F. B. Sanborn, pp. 75-Io5 (note also a discussion on this report, pp. 266-274). Of these papers, the report of General Brinkerhoff in I88I, the report of Bishop Gillespie in I883, the report of Mr. Giles in I886, and the report of Mr. Sanborn in 1887, are of special value to those who contemplate organizing new boards.

It is not the purpose of the present committee to go into an elaborate discussion of the utility of State Boards of Charities, or to undertake an historical statement of the work of these Boards; but your committee will endeavor to answer as directly as possible the following questions: –

(1) What is a State Board of Charities?

(2) What is it for?

(3) What is it good for?

(4) How to get it?

(5) When to get it?

(6) How to organize it?

(7) How to work it?

(1) What is a State Board of Charities?

It is a State agency established by law to oversee the charities of the State. This oversight generally includes State, county, and city charitable institutions, sometimes private charitable societies and institutions, usually the county jails, and State and city convict prisons. Most boards of charities are advisory, and have very little executive power. The principal exceptions are the Boards of Kansas, Rhode Island, and the State Board of Supervision in Wisconsin. The Boards of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and the State Board of Charities and Reform of Wisconsin have some important executive powers.

(2) What is a State Board of Charities for?

This question will be answered somewhat in detail in the paper of Dr. Byers, which is to follow this Report; It is sufficient to say in this connection that a board of charities is a balance-wheel to steady the motion of the charitable machinery of the State. It is its office to promote the wise founding and the safe running of public charities, to correct and prevent abuses, to check extravagance, to promote economy, and to rebuke niggardliness.

(3) What are State Boards of Charities good for?

Their purpose is excellent, but do they accomplish it?

A fair presumption that they do accomplish their intended purposes is found in the fact that no State has abandoned the system after giving it a fair trial. Fifteen States have established boards of charities. Thirteen boards are now in operation. The States of North Carolina and Missouri tried short-lived experiments in this direction, but did not go far enough to accomplish anything. Ohio abolished its State Board of Charities in 1873, but established it again in 1876, having found the organization an essential part of the charitable system of the State. It is reasonable to presume that such States as Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin, would not all agree in perpetuating a useless or superfluous agency.

To illustrate the efficiency of such boards, your committee will cite an instance of the work of each State Board of Charities. The Massachusetts Board of State Charities inaugurated the system of family care for the insane and for dependent children, and stopped the frightful mortality of infant children in foundling homes by their efficient care in private families under vigilant supervision.

The New York State Board of Charities in 1874 undertook a careful study of the physical and mental condition and the antecedents of the inmates of the almshouses, with a view to determining some of the causes of pauperism and crime. This inquiry resulted in breaking up the system of rearing children with adult paupers in poorhouses, and providing for their maintenance and care in families, children’s homes, and other appropriate institutions.

The Ohio Board of State Charities secured the removal of children from almshouses and the establishment of county homes.

The Pennsylvania Board of Public Charities exposed the evils connected with the county care of the insane, and caused great improvements in their condition.

The Illinois Board of Public Charities has secured great reductions in the cost of maintaining public institutions without impairing their efficiency.

The Rhode Island Board of State Charities and Corrections brought about the conversion of the State Reform School from the prison plan to the family plan.

The Wisconsin State Board of Charities and Reform originated the Wisconsin plan of caring for chronic insane.

The Michigan State Board of Corrections and Charities secured the establishment of the State agency system, whereby an agent of the State is appointed in every county, whose duty it is to attend the trial of every child accused of crime, guarding the best interests of the child, to find homes for homeless children, and watch over them in those homes.

The Kansas State Board of Trustees of State Charitable Institutions devised and put in operation business methods in the management of the financial affairs of the State institutions, which have promoted economy and accountability in every department.

The Minnesota State Board of Corrections and Charities caused a transformation of the proposed second State Prison into a reformatory for young men.

The Indiana Board of State Charities astonished the politicians of the State by choosing as secretary the best qualified man they could procure in the United States, regardless of all political considerations.

These good works are but instances, which might be multiplied indefinitely, of the results accomplished by these boards. Nor has their influence been confined to the States where they exist. This Conference, with its wide-reaching influence, has been established and maintained by the joint action of State Boards of Charities.

There is scarcely a State in the Union which has not been influenced to a greater or less degree by boards of charities, in the treatment and care of the insane, the care of dependent children, the treatment of young criminals, the business methods of its public institutions, or the architecture of its public buildings.

(4) How can a State Board of Charities be secured?

In order to secure such a board in any State, it is essential that some one in the State should heartily believe that a board is needed, and should go earnestly and sympathetically to work to secure it. It is desirable that there should be a number of persons thus interested; but even one man or woman who is thoroughly in earnest may accomplish it. The steps necessary to be taken may be outlined as follows: –

First. Secure reliable information as to the nature and utility of such a board, and to this end the persons interested should read carefully the reports and articles already mentioned. They should obtain the recent reports of the several State Boards of Charities, and examine them with care, in order to become familiar with the operations of such boards and the results attained. Much information may be obtained also from the early reports of State Boards, as these indicate their initial work. The reports can be obtained by correspondence with their secretaries, of whom a list will be found in the annual Proceedings of this Conference.

Second. Endeavor to interest one or more influential newspapers in the subject, and induce them to publish several clear and comprehensive articles, setting forth the character and advantages of such a board.

Third. Secure the attention of the governor of the State, and persuade him, if possible, to recommend the establishment of such a board in his message to the Legislature.

Fourth. A bill should be carefully drawn in advance of the assembling of the legislature, and should be submitted to the secretaries of the several State Boards of Charities for suggestions and criticisms, with a view to meeting the special needs of the State in question. In drafting a law for such a board, care should be taken not to sacrifice essentials by way of compromise. The essential thing is that the law shall guarantee the independence and non-political character of the board. This being secured, other matters are of minor importance, and will suggest themselves as the work of the board develops from year to year.

Fifth. It may be desirable to consult some of the most intelligent officers of State institutions, and to secure, if possible, their co-operation. Some of the most valuable friends to State Boards of Charities are found among the officers of public institutions, who appreciate the value of such an agency.

Sixth. Find a strong member of the legislature who is interested in the subject, and induce him to introduce the bill and push it. When the bill is introduced, care should be taken to have it referred to an intelligent committee which will give it a fair consideration.

Seventh. It will be a great help to the Legislative Committee if the merits of the bill can be presented by some one who has a practical acquaintance with the work. This can be well done by any of the secretaries of the existing boards, or by such men as Hon. Andrew E. Elmore of Wisconsin, Rev. O. C. McCulloch of Indiana, General R. Brinkerhoff of Ohio, Hon. J. J. Wheeler of Michigan, Hon. W. J. Sawyer of Pennsylvania, or Hon. W. P. Letchworth of New York. Such a man, by answering questions, may be able to remove objections which naturally suggest themselves to those who are not familiar with the work.

Eighth. It will be necessary for the friends of the bill to do some faithful and conscientious lobbying, in order to see that it pursues its due course and is not buried in the great accumulation of bills before the legislature, or is not made inoperative by the error of some careless clerk. When the law was passed establishing the Minnesota Board, the appropriating clause was accidentally omitted by the clerk in transcribing; and great inconvenience was caused thereby.

(5) When should a State Board of Charities be established?

The mistake is often made of postponing the organization of such a board until the institutions of the State are established and its public policy has become well developed. The greatest need of a State Board of Charities is during the formative period of a State. At such a time there is a lack of precedents and experience in organizing State institutions, while at the same time the foundations are being laid which are to determine the whole future policy of the State. It is in this formative period that errors are sometimes made which cause millions of expense and untold misery to the unfortunate dependants of the State. For example, if the State of New York could have had the wisdom of the Board of State Charities at the time when its system of insane hospitals was growing up, it would have avoided the construction of costly palaces for the insane, while others equally deserving suffered in poorhouses. If the Board of State Charities of Massachusetts had had supervision of the public prison, it is not probable that the Concord Reformatory would have been first opened as a State Prison, when it was not needed, only to be subsequently modified at a large expense for a State Reformatory.

The officers and trustees of local institutions naturally and properly magnify the importance and need of their own institutions. The result, at least in new States, often is the disproportionate development of certain public charities to the neglect of others. A State Board of Charities takes a broad view of the relative importance and needs of State institutions, and promotes wise and equitable appropriation of the public resources among them. Your committee would therefore advise the young States to establish State Boards of Charities without delay. These boards may be organized with small appropriations and limited facilities at the outset, and still accomplish. valuable work.

(6) How to organize a State Board of Charities?

While there is some divergence of opinion as to whether a State Board of Charities should be advisory or executive, there is substantial agreement on the following points: –

First. It should be absolutely divorced from politics. This is promoted in several States by the proviso that not more than half the members of the board shall belong to any one political party. It is promoted further by the selection of members who are not actively engaged in politics. This desideratum is probably more easily maintained when the board has no appointments at its disposal, except those of its office employees.

Second. The board must be so organized as to be above suspicion, not only of corruption, but also of favoritism. Its character for impartiality ought to be as well established as that of the Supreme Court. This will depend largely upon the personnel of the board.

Third. The board should be so organized as to be a working body. Its members should be men whose interest in the work is strong enough to induce them to give study to it. A board composed of figure-heads cannot do the needed work. It is by the knowledge and experience of the members of the board that the best results are secured for the State. The tendency to neglect in this respect may be partially compensated by securing a thoroughly competent secretary; but, unless the members have personal familiarity with the institutions under their supervision, and with the methods of carrying on the charitable and correctional institutions of their own and other States, they will be unable either to act intelligently or to advise the legislature helpfully.

Fourth. The board must have an efficient secretary. His qualifications can hardly be better described than in the following extract from a letter which was addressed some time ago by Secretary Fred. H. Wines, of the State Board of Charities of Illinois, to the members of a new board who were seeking a secretary: —

“Your board will have a great responsibility resting upon it, and I think myself justified in making a single suggestion; namely, that the choice of a secretary is for you a vital question. No man lives who is qualified in all respects for this position. Ideally, he should be a man of intellectual force sufficient to grasp, both in outline and in detail, the situation as it exists in your State, the wants of the dependent and defective classes, the extent to which it is politic and right to meet them, the methods by which the most efficient service is to be secured at the smallest relative cost, the sentiment of the people, and how far it should be followed or how far left behind. He should possess the faculty of organizing, the tact which makes friends and disarms criticisms, an unfailing benevolence of heart, courage, independence, and firm principles. He cannot know too much; and he must be able to express what he knows, both in speech and in writing. He must appreciate and know how to secure good financial management without subordinating the interests of the afflicted to any question of dollars and cents, and how to conciliate political confidence and support without making the charities of the State subservient to the selfish purposes of politicians.

“He needs a many-sided mind, to understand the great variety of subjects upon which he must form an opinion,- legal, political, medical, educational, moral, financial, theoretical and practical; a wide sympathy, and the ability to forecast the future and shape the policy of the State with reference to a condition of things which does not yet exist. First-class talent is requisite; and it cannot be obtained without paying a good price for it. A hack politician, an unsuccessful physician or clergyman, or a mere clerk, schoolmaster, or editor, will not meet the exigencies of the position. The man should be selected on the sole ground of his supposed qualifications; and it is almost certain that any man who will apply for it is uninformed as to the character and importance of the work to be intrusted to him. Of course, you will have to do the best that you can; and I trust that the man appointed, whoever he may be, will prove to have a teachable spirit and the capacity for growth and adaptation.

“The boards should be organized with freedom to work in such lines as may open up to it. The work of the Boards of Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin, has developed in different lines according to the needs of the several States. It is impossible so to forecast the needs of the State as to prescribe hard and fast rules in advance.

“It is not necessary that the appropriation for the support of the board should be large. A new board can do very efficient work for three or four years, with three or four thousand dollars per year. As -the work of the board widens, additional means may become necessary.”

The majority of the boards thus far organized are advisory in character. The Boards of Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Connecticut, are strictly advisory, except that they have the power to require statistical information and to investigate abuses. The Illinois Board of State Charities audits the accounts of State institutions. ‘The Wisconsin Board has control of the State appropriations for the,care of the county asylums for insane, enabling them to exercise control of these asylums. The Boards of New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, perform executive functions with reference to foreign and non-resident paupers; and the Board of Massachusetts has direct charge of what are called the State Poor. Three boards are strictly executive in their functions; namely, the Rhode Island Board of State Charities and Corrections, the Kansas Board of Trustees of State Charitable Institutions, and the Wisconsin State Board of Supervision. These are, in fact, boards of trustees having in their charge all the State correctional and charitable institutions. The majority of your committee are of the opinion that the advisory plan is the better one, especially in the inception of the work of a board. As the State grows, executive functions can be added if necessity arises. At the request of the chairman of the committee, however, one of our number, Hon. C. E. Faulkner of Kansas, has prepared the following -statements, setting forth the advantages of the executive plan, which we have made a part of our Report:


The management of the charitable, penal, and reformatory institutions of a State, the supervision of jails, almshouses, and kindred places of detention and shelter, and the compilation of statistics relating to dependency, delinquency, and crime, should be devolved upon a single board of control, the size of which should be determined by the population of the State and the duties to be performed, and the members of which should devote their exclusive time to the work.

The sum of this declaration is that the power to supervise and the power to execute should be lodged with the same general board. Its exemplification in private business is seen in the difficult science of railway management, where executive committees of boards of directors not only have general supervision over the management of business, but are also clothed with the full powers of the boards of directors when the same are not in session, and where the opinions of those who give a minimum of time to the duties of official position are not allowed to disturb the findings of experts. The result of such a system fairly organized will be increased efficiency, economy, uniformity, and simplicity in the work of managing public institutions, and studying cause and effect. Greater efficiency will be secured, because wiser legislation will prevail. Those who advise legislatures will touch the things they write about. Theory and experience will walk hand in hand; and the dangerous jealousies and rivalries of institution towns, so often developed through the indiscreet zeal of local trustees in striving for legislative favors, will vanish under the confidence inspired by a disinterested and impartial board of control. Greater economy will prevail, because the estimates for supplies needed for all institutions controlled by such a board will be added together, and the public lettings of such large contracts, secured without any increased expense, attract large dealers, and bring about keen competition and its consequent saving. Again, the business experience gained by contact with the expense records of various institutions, and the opportunities for comparison afforded, are of great value in promoting economical management in each. The use of the products of industrial departments is facilitated to mutual advantage, and also the transfer of machinery or unused property from one institution to another.

The fact that uniformity and simplicity would be promoted by such an organization is too apparent to need amplification here. It is sufficient to suggest that a legislator is in less danger of being stranded between conflicting opinions set forth in public reports, under such a system, than under the ones generally in operation.

Thirteen years have elapsed since Kansas abolished her local boards of trustees; and the wisdom of that action has never been called in question. Prior to that time, the fitness of a member of the Senate or the House to represent an institution district was determined by his success in securing legislative appropriations. Trustees were pressed into undue activity in behalf of their respective institutions; and legislators, seeking to find where the greatest need existed, lost faith in humanity as they listened to the many conflicting appeals. Local merchants were benefited at the expense of the public; and “institution towns” provoked the jealousy of communities less favored, to the detriment of the institutions themselves. Public sentiment was aroused, and a ringing message from the governor led to the change.

Kansas is far from the proposed plan herein outlined; but she is looking for the right. Public sentiment does not encourage an increase of boards; and the drift is in favor of the present board clothed with the powers and duties of a State Board of Charities, in addition to its present duties of management.

(7) How to work a State Board of Charities?

When a State Board has been organized and has secured a secretary, it must obtain an outlook. Unless the Board of Charities can see more and see farther than the managers of the institutions under its supervision, its work will be greatly circumscribed. The board and its secretary must become familiar with the organization and management of institutions of other States, as a background from which to view the institutions of its own State. A wise board will learn as much from badly managed institutions and defective State policies as from good ones. The board must become intimately familiar with the workings of the institutions of their own State. This cannot be done by perfunctory visits. It must be the result of close study and observation. The extensive literature of the subject should be mastered and personal contact be had with the men who have become masters in this field of study.

Having thus obtained an outlook, the work of the board must be determined by the exigencies of the State. Some boards will make a specialty of institution accounts and expenditures (as in Illinois), the system of caring for insane (as in Wisconsin), or the method for the treatment of dependent children (as in New York and Ohio). The following rules may be safely laid down. It is better to work by persuasion than by coercion. You can do more evil in a day by ill-considered action than by a year of patient waiting. Many reforms desirable of accomplishment must await the advance of public sentiment and the education of the officers in charge of the institutions. Conservatism is indispensable to success in this work. Apparent success from hasty action may be followed by speedy reaction, which will finally delay in accomplishing the desired ends. On the other hand, there are occasions when prompt, courageous action is necessary to save the public purse or secure the interests of the public dependants.

There is no better work than is given to such a board. It is not a small privilege to share in the founding of the permanent institutions of a great State. All of which is respectfully submitted.

(Signed) H. H. HART,



For the Committee


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Source: Proceedings Of The National Conference Of Charities And Correction at the Sixteenth Annual Session Held In San Francisco, Ca., September 11-18, 1889. pp. 89-99.

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