Under John W. Gardner, who rose from a staff position to the presidency in 1955 — Gardner simultaneously became president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which was housed at the Corporation — the Corporation continued to upgrade scholarly competence in foreign area studies and strengthened its programs in liberal arts education. In the early 1960s, it inaugurated a program on continuing education, also supporting the development of new models for advanced and professional study tailored to the needs of mature women.
Gardner’s interest in leadership development led, in 1964, to creation of the White House Fellows program. Notable among the grant projects to strengthen higher education in sub-Saharan Africa was the 1959–60 Ashby Commission study of Nigeria’s needs for postsecondary education, which had the effect of stimulating widespread aid to African nations’ systems of higher and professional education from the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States. While Gardner’s strong interest was education, as a psychologist he saw the value of the behavioral sciences in addressing societal and world problems.
At Gardner’s urging, the Corporation supported much of the nation’s basic research on cognition, creativity, and the learning process, particularly among young children, in the process linking the fields of psychology and education. The Corporation’s most important contribution to precollege education reform at this time was a series of studies of education carried out by James B. Conant, former president of Harvard University. In particular, Conant’s study of the comprehensive American high school (1959) resolved a heavily polarized public debate over the purposes of public secondary education, making the case that schools could adequately educate both the academically gifted and the average student.
With Gardner, the Corporation entered the era of strategic philanthropy — the planned, organized, deliberately constructed means to attain stated ends. It no longer sufficed to support a socially desirable project; rather, the knowledge must produce concrete results and be communicated to the public, the media, and decision makers with the intention of fostering policy debate. A central objective was to develop programs that might be implemented and scaled up by larger organizations, especially government. The turn toward “institutional transfer” was partly in response to the relatively diminished power of the Corporation’s resources, making it necessary to achieve “leverage” and “multiplier effects” if it was to have any impact at all. The Corporation saw itself more as a trend-setter in the world of philanthropy, often supporting research or providing seed money for ideas while others financed the more costly operations. As an example, the Corporation advanced the ideas leading to creation of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, later adopted by the federal government. Declaring that a foundation’s most precious asset was its sense of direction, Gardner gathered a competent professional staff of generalists whom he called his “cabinet of strategy,” regarding it as a resource for the Corporation as important as its endowment.