The Charles F. Kettering Foundation was founded in 1927 “to sponsor and carry out scientific research for the benefit of humanity.” Inspired by the open-mindedness and creative philosophy of its founder, the American inventor Charles F. Kettering, the foundation’s research has gradually shifted to focus on democracy, particularly the role of citizens.
A founder of DELCO, the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, Kettering’s innovative work brought him more than 200 patents, the most notable of which is the electric automobile self-starter. At the foundation, his conviction that new ideas can best be developed through a cooperative team effort was applied to a wide variety of problems—everything from explaining why grass is green to understanding how paint dries. Included in those interests were a broad range of social and political problems, issues like world hunger and political instability.
Charles Kettering believed in sticking with big problems and taking them on in all their complexity, not breaking them into pieces. One needed, he was fond of saying, to “learn how to fail intelligently”—to develop and test new ideas and then to learn from what happened. Few important questions, he believed, were simple. One had to get at “the problem behind the problem.” During Kettering’s lifetime, the foundation’s work focused on projects he found interesting: basic scientific research on photosynthesis and cancer, as well as grants to promote scientific education and work-study programs at colleges and universities.
Building on these varied interests in the 1960s, the Kettering Foundation’s trustees began to explore new areas like civic education and governmental affairs. Major projects included I/D/E/A/ (Institute for Development of Educational Activities, Inc.), which worked to use the latest theories of primary and secondary education to change the way children were taught, and the Dartmouth Conferences, a series of high level discussions between prominent citizens of the U.S. and USSR, which the foundation began to cosponsor in 1969.
In the early 1970s, the Kettering Foundation reorganized itself as a private operating foundation. Instead of making grants, the foundation began conducting its own research. Working with outside collaborators, Kettering staff began exploring fields such as education, urban affairs, science and technology, and international relations. As that work evolved, researchers at the foundation began to believe that lasting solutions to the world’s problems were increasingly social and political in nature rather than technical and scientific. Moving away from its tradition of basic scientific research, the foundation began to focus on basic political research—striving to understand how citizens and political systems can work together. Since the early 1990s, the foundation has researched how democracy can be strengthened. The foundation’s primary research question today is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should?