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Merrimon Cuninggim Papers

Identifier: MSS029

Scope and Contents

The collection consists of the papers of Merrimon Cuninggim from the period of 1939-1996. Because of the complex and inter-relational nature of material in the collection and the multidimensional relationships of the individuals involved, the records are listed in alphabetical order, rather than in series. It should be noted that materials may be found throughout the collection which reflect interest and interaction with one or more of the major topics files. Papers from Cuninggim's professional life form the bulk of the collection and include five major areas of interest: Center for Effective Philanthropy, Danforth Foundation, Ford Foundation, Lilly Endowment, and Southern Methodist University-Perkins School of Theology. The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) was established in 1981 by Cuninggim and 15 other professionals with extensive experience in philanthropic and foundation work. Early support grants came from the Carnegie Corporation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Cuninggim was the first chairman of the group, serving from 1981-1983. He then held the office of president of CEP from 1983 to 1987. Offering its services for little or no charge, the CEP worked with more than a hundred foundations and philanthropic agencies. By 1990 the CEP ceased operations, recognizing that many leading American universities now had training and research programs that provided guidance in philanthropy and nonprofit management. In 1991 the CEP's assets of $35,000 were given to Duke University to establish the Cuninggim Endowed Lectureship. By 1993 it was apparent that Duke was unable to raise the endowment principal to the level needed to maintain the lectureship, and the money was returned.

The CEP files, 1975-1994, consist mostly of correspondence between Cuninggim and individuals connected to the CEP either as associates or as consulting clients.

The Danforth Foundation was begun in 1927 by William H. Danforth, founder of Ralston Purina Co. and his wife, Adda, as a personal Ahip-pocket@ charity, giving scholarships and grants to those students and projects that met with personal favor. By the time Cuninggim came to Danforth Foundation in 1960, it no longer had formal ties to Ralston Purina, although it held a substantial amount of its stock as assets. From its establishment, the foundation focused its efforts on the "support of education for the public good."

In 1972 with the McGraw-Hill publication of his book Private Money and Public Services, Cuninggim warned against private philanthropies being too closely aligned with the original donor or one particular institution, stating Aa foundation is obligated, because of its special tax-exempt status, to serve the broadcast public interest. It should not be a pet project of board members.@ This clearly stated the major areas of contention that culminated in Cuninggim's resignation from the Danforth Foundation in October 1972. They were (1) the composition of the board of directors, (2) making larger grants to fewer institutions, not as support for programs but as operational funds, and (3) focusing more on regional, rather than national interests.

The materials relating to the Danforth Foundation contain Board of Trustees meeting minutes, 1956-1972 (complete), Executive Committee meeting minutes, 1959-1961 and 1968-1972 (incomplete), and the Pake Committee files. The Pake Committee, so named for George E. Pake who was its chair and a member of the Danforth Foundation's board of directors, was formed in February of 1972 by William H. Danforth in response to Cuninggim's concerns regarding the foundation's future direction. Its charge was to Aconsider the implications@ of the grants awarded to Saint Louis University, Washington University, and Webster College, to study the size of gifts and whether to make them from the annual operating budget or from capital. The remainder of the Danforth Foundation files consists of general correspondence, newsletters and materials relating to Cuninggim's resignation.


  • 1939 - 1997


Language of Materials

Materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open to the public without restriction.

Conditions Governing Use

The copyright law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code) governs the making of photocopies or other reproductions of copyrighted material.

Biographical / Historical

Augustus Merrimon Cuninggim was born in 1911 to Jesse Lee & Maud Merrimon Cuninggim in Wesley Hall, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, where his father was a professor in the Biblical Studies Department. Cuninggim received his B.A. from Vanderbilt in 1931. He received his M.A. from Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, attended Oxford University in 1933 where he received a B.A., M.A., and Diploma in Theology. He became an intercollegiate tennis champion in Britain, held national ranking in the United States, and reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. In 1936 he returned to the United States where he became Director of Religious Activities at Duke University. In 1939 Cuninggim married Annie Whitty Daniel and began studies at Yale University, where he earned a B.D. and Ph.D. in Religion and Education. His academic honors included Phi Beta Kappa, of which his father had also been a member, and a Kent Fellowship in the Society for Values in Higher Education. Merrimon and Whitty had three children, Lee, Penelope, and Terry.

Cuninggim's career consisted of two primary fields of work: higher education and philanthropy. In the early 1940s Cuninggim was a professor of religion, first at Emory and Henry College in Virginia and then at Denison University in Ohio. An ordained Methodist minister, he was a chaplain in the Navy from 1944 to 1946, serving aboard the battleship Tennessee. From 1946 to 1951 he was a professor of religion at Pomona, the Associated Colleges of Claremont, California, where he was also the chaplain of The College Church. In 1951 he became Dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. Under his leadership Perkins became the first graduate school in the South to desegregate, two years before the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, 1954. This was the professional accomplishment of which Cuninggim said he was most proud.

In 1960 Cuninggim began what became the second accomplishment of which he was most proud. When Cuninggim became the Executive Director/President of the Danforth Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, the institution had a growing national outlook that matched his own view of philanthropy. In 1961Cuninggim said that he wanted to expand and develop the genuine concern which the Danforth Foundation had in regard to the national character of their educational grants. Throughout his tenure at Danforth, he consistently held this position and under his guidance, both the national reputation and influence of the foundation grew substantially as did its resources. By the time Cuninggim resigned in 1972 the Danforth Foundation had reached the rank of eighteenth in resources among the nation's 25,000 foundations.

From 1973 to 1975 Cuninggim served as an advisor on program management to the Ford Foundation. McGeorge Bundy, then president of the foundation, said in his recommendation to hire Cuninggim: "I have met most of the senior philanthropic professionals now at work in the country. I have no hesitation whatever in saying that outside our own staff the man most respected for intelligence, integrity and humane wisdom is Merrimon Cuninggim."

In 1976 Cuninggim became the President of Salem Academy and College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one of the oldest institutions for the education of women in the United States. He served in this capacity until 1979.

From 1979 until his death in 1995 Cuninggim served as a special consultant to both colleges and foundations, largely on management problems, counting among his clients Duke Endowment, Lilly Endowment, National Endowment for the Humanities, Association of Governing Boards, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation.

In 1981 he and 15 other professional people, all of whom had extensive experience in foundation work, formed the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to advise foundations and other charitable institutions on effective management. Working with grantors only, the CEP offered expert evaluation and improvement suggestions in reports that focused on efficient and effective management, organization, program development, and grantee relations. The CEP published occasional papers by its members on various aspects of foundation management and held seminars/colloquiums for foundation trustees, officers, and staff, frequently in cooperation with other agencies such as the Council on Foundations.

Cuninggim served on various boards of directors including St. Louis Community Foundation, Association of Governing Boards (a trade association of trustees of colleges and universities), and the Society for Values in Higher Education. He sat on the board of trustees of Duke University, Vanderbilt University and the Board of Visitors of Wake Forest. At Vanderbilt, he served as consultant to the Margaret Cuninggim Women's Center, so named for his sister who served as Dean of Women and Dean of Student Services from 1966 to 1972.

During his career, he authored eight books: The College Seeks Religion (1948), Freedom's Holy Light (1955), Christianity & Communism (with others, 1958), The Protestant Stake in Higher Education (1961), Private Money and Public Service: The Role of the Foundation in American Society (1972), Church-Related Higher Education (with others, 1979), Letters to a Foundation Trustee: What We Need to Know About Foundations and Their Management (1991), Uneasy Partners: the College & the Church (1994). He was awarded seven honorary doctoral degrees.

Merrimon Cuninggim died in 1995.


8.6 Cubic Feet (8 record cartons and 3 document cases)


Working in higher education and philanthropy, Merrimon Cuninggim gained national recognition in both fields. His early career was as a professor at various colleges and in 1951 he became Dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He remained there until 1960 when he accepted the position of Executive Director/President of the Danforth Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, where he remained until 1972. From 1973 to 1975 he worked as an advisor/consultant to the Ford Foundation and from 1976 to 1979 served as President of Salem Academy and College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. From 1979 until his death in 1995 Cuninggim served as a special consultant to both colleges and foundations on management problems. In 1981 he was one of the 16 founders of the Center for Effective Philanthropy which was formed to advise foundations and other charitable institutions on effective management.

The papers consist of correspondence, reports, meeting minutes, and notes from Cuninggim's professional life.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Presented by Whitty Cuninggim, October 5, 1997 A1997/98-001, A2005/06-024.


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Merrimon Cuninggim Papers, 1939-1997
Barbara J. Mondary
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Repository Details

Part of the Philanthropic Studies Archives Repository

IUPUI University Library
755 W. Michigan St.
Room 0133
Indianapolis IN 46202 USA