Donating money to modify public thinking and government policy has now taken its place next to service-centered giving as a constructive branch of philanthropy. Many donors now view public-policy reform as a necessary adjunct to their efforts to improve lives directly. From school choice to creation of think tanks of all stripes, from tort reform to gay advocacy, donors have become involved in many efforts to shape opinion and law. 

This is perhaps inevitable given the mushrooming presence of government in our lives. In 1930, just 12 percent of U.S. GDP was consumed by government; by 2012 that tripled to 36 percent. Unless and until that expansion of the state reverses, it is unrealistic to expect the philanthropic sector to stop trying to have a say in public policies. 

Sometimes it is not enough to pay for a scholarship; one must change laws so that high-quality public schools exist for scholarship recipients to take advantage of. Sometimes it’s not enough to build a house of worship; one must erect guardrails that protect the ability of citizens to practice their faith freely. 

Because public-policy philanthropy has only become common recently, this list has more entries dating from the latest generation, compared to our other lists of U.S. philanthropic action. And since one man’s good deed is another man’s calamity when it comes to giving with political implications, we have included policy advocacy of all sorts on this list. 

Not all public policies split neatly into “Left” or “Right” variants. But for those that do, the reality is that much more philanthropic money has been deployed leftward than rightward. Detailed quantification in the book The New Leviathan showed that 122 major foundations with total assets of $105 billion provided $8.8 billion of funding for liberal causes in 2010. That same year, 82 foundations with total assets of $10 billion provided $0.8 billion for conservative causes. In other words: there is eleven times as much foundation money going into public-policy philanthropy that aims left as aims right. (Individual donors are more evenly split, though still predominantly on the left.) The Washington Post once observed that the Ford Foundation alone has given more to liberal causes in one year than donor Richard Scaife (sometimes called the Daddy Warbucks of the Right) gave to conservative causes in 40 years. 

Whatever your aspirations for American governance and society, tracking the deeds of previous public-policy donors—summarized below—will help you find the best ways to succeed. 

— Section research provided by Karl Zinsmeister with assistance from Christopher Levenick, Evan Sparks 

Howard Marcus was a dentist who left his native Germany when Hitler came to power. He and his wife Lottie lost to the Nazis most of their family members who remained behind. While Mrs. Marcus was working as a secretary on Wall Street, she became friends with a very young investor named Warren Buffett. They put much of their savings in his hands, never sold a share, lived thriftily their whole life, and ended up with hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2005 they shared their blessings by donating $200 million to Israel’s youngest and fastest-growing university, Ben-Gurion.

Howard lived to 104, and Lottie died a year later at 99. In 2016 their estate announced a posthumous gift to Ben-Gurion University of an additional $400 million—believed to be the largest single philanthropic grant to any Israeli institution. Ten percent of the gift will be directed to one of the university’s specialties and a special interest of the Marcuses: research on water use in desert areas. The rest will more than double the college endowment.

American Christians have actively donated to charitable work overseas for more than 200 years. And there is evidence that the level of foreign donations by U.S. Christians has risen briskly during the past decade.

American churches contributed about $13 billion to relief and development abroad, in the latest year. (This totals both direct mission work and giving to other aid groups.) That religious giving compares to $5 billion sent overseas by foundations, $8 billion from secular relief organizations, and $11 billion donated internationally by U.S. corporations. The $13 billion in religious overseas philanthropy also compares impressively to the $33 billion of official development aid handed out by the federal government that same year.

One indicator of the sharp rise in overseas giving by U.S. churchgoers is the Mission Handbook compiled by the Billy Graham Center. It cumulates the budgets of prominent Protestant groups that are providing international aid—like World Vision, Compassion International, Heifer International, and Opportunity International. Between the years of 1992 and 2008, those budgets more than doubled (in constant, inflation-adjusted dollars).

Roberta Buffett Elliott, the sister of Warren Buffett who has profited from his meteoric investment returns, is an alumna of Northwestern University. By funding the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies there she has supported academic work on overseas poverty, migration, understanding of world religions, tropical medicine, and democratic governance in the developing world. In 2015 she made a $100 million gift to expand Northwestern’s center into a full-blown institute. It will hire professors focused on international subjects, fund new research, provide up to $20 million in scholarships to bring overseas students to Northwestern to earn degrees, and otherwise expand international study and exchange.

In 2015, Melinda Gates announced that the foundation she and her husband steer would double its investments against hunger in the developing world. “Malnutrition is the underlying cause of nearly half of all under-five child deaths,” she noted, promising that the Gates Foundation would spend $776 million over the next six years to help change that. Malnutrition is now concentrated in a small number of countries where Gates will focus its efforts—India, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Burkina Faso. Emphasis will be placed on improving the nutrition of women and girls as soon as they become pregnant, educating mothers on infant feeding, encouraging breastfeeding, increasing sanitation to reduce energy-sapping infections, fortifying purchased foods with nutrients known to be underconsumed, and focusing on keeping children fed from birth to age two, when neurological development and other crucial growth is most rapid. 

This is overseas content

In Tel Aviv and Venice
Beit Hatfutsot, the museum of Jewish history and culture located at Tel Aviv University, first opened in 1978. It needed an overhaul to bring its story up to date, so in 2014 two American donors pledged $5 million each to create a new wing and freshen the exhibits. The gifts came from Alfred Moses and from Milton and Tamar Maltz. The Maltzs are serial progenitors of museums, having been involved in creating the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the International Spy Museum in D.C. This joint $10 million donation will allow creation of a new Great Hall of Synagogues and a new core exhibition to open in 2017.

At about the same time, a group of U.S. philanthropists led by designer Diane von Furstenberg and real-estate investor Joseph Sitt announced they were donating $12 million to restore the Jewish Museum in Venice and the five remarkable small synagogues in the surrounding Jewish neighborhood. The project was planned so it would be complete in 2016—the 500th anniversary of the declaration by the Republic of Venice that the city’s Jews must live in the one-block enclosed area that remains home to much of the Venetian Jewish community, as well as the museum and synagogues.

Robert Miller, co-founder of Duty Free Shoppers, is a long-time supporter of the arts in Hong Kong. In 2014 he and his wife, Chantal, made the largest gift ever for that purpose when they donated $12.9 million to support artists in the port city. Their gift to the Asia Society Hong Kong Center will be used to commission new works, underwrite performances, and maintain galleries. The Millers previously donated $3 million to restore an important Hong Kong theater.

U.S. philanthropists Sheldon and Miriam Adelson made two large gifts in 2014 to bolster the sciences in Israel. They offered $25 million to the school of health sciences at Ariel University to allow it to open a full program in medical science. And they donated $16.4 million to SpaceIL for its project which aims to land the first Israeli craft on the moon.

SpaceIL, which is also supported by the Schusterman Family Foundation and other U.S. donors, is participating in the latest competition sponsored by the X Prize Foundation: the Google Lunar prize. This offers a $20 million award to the first team that lands a privately funded operating robot on the moon, an effort to speed affordable access to the moon by encouraging private entrepreneurs and donors to get involved.

Other major U.S. donors to Israel include Bernie Marcus, Haim Saban, John Paulson, Charles Bronfman, Morton Mandel, Michael Steinhardt, and the Weinberg Foundation. Overall, it is estimated that about $2.7 billion is now donated annually to various causes in Israel by diaspora Jews, with the largest portion of that coming from the U.S.

Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder of the Blackstone investment company, has focused his giving on learning. In the U.S. he is a long-time supporter of Catholic schools in New York City, and gave a $100 million donation to rejuvenate the New York Public Library. In 2014 he announced a major overseas foray into education philanthropy: the Schwarzman Scholars, a program modeled on the Rhodes scholarship, with an even bigger endowment.

Every year, the program will unite 200 top young college graduates from leading countries around the world. They will study together at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the alma mater for many of China’s elites. The large role that China will inevitably play in future global developments demands deeper personal ties and more mutual understanding among the next generation of Chinese and Western leaders, argues Schwarzman.

To supplement his $100 million gift, Schwarzman raised another $200 million in private matching funds toward the project. The first students enroll in 2016.

Philanthropists Lynn and Foster Friess began supporting the nonprofit Water Missions International in 2005, after a tsunami created a health crisis in south Asia. They have since visited the group’s projects in Haiti and Malawi, and supported other efforts in the 49 countries where WMI builds safe water and sanitation systems for poor residents or victims of natural disasters. In 2012, the Friesses gave the group its largest contribution ever, $1 million, and printed and distributed 20,000 copies of a book of photos of people aided by WMI, to encourage other givers to become involved. Since its founding in 2001, Water Missions International has brought healthy water to more than 2 million persons.

Other donor-supported groups focused on bringing drinkable water and healthy sanitation to poor countries include the Water Project,, charity:water, Water is Life, PureMadi, Miya, Three Avocados, and the Water Center at Columbia University. Social businesses created and incubated with philanthropic funds are also becoming active in sanitation and drinking water—for instance, Water Health International, and Sanergy, both of which approach villagers and slum dwellers as customers rather than donees.

“We had become a de-facto co-funder group: We were funding a lot of the same poverty-fighting organizations, had similar philosophies, and liked each other’s company.” That’s what a group of 12 funders with a special focus on the needs of the poor in developing countries discovered back in 2011. So they created an informal alliance they named Big Bang Philanthropy. The group is collegial, with a minimum of rules beyond the simple requirement of spending at least $1 million annually overseas, and having a desire to compare notes and collaborate with similar peers. The current 12 members donate more than $60 million per year to battle international poverty. They don’t pool their money, but there is heavy overlap in their funding decisions, and they share much useful information. The David Weekley, Segal, Mulago, and Peery Foundations are included among the members.

At present, 2.5 billion people in developing countries have no access to formal financial institutions like banks. They must rely on cash, tin-can savings, and other unsafe and inconvenient methods of managing their family finances. This also drags down national economic growth. Since its creation in 2004 by the founder of eBay, the Omidyar Network has made multimillion dollar donations to overcome that lack of financial infrastructure.

Almost 2 billion of those 2.5 billion people lacking banking services do, fortunately, have access to a mobile phone. Omidyar and other U.S. donors have thus made it a focus of their overseas work to support and expand methods of bill-paying and saving via mobile phone. In developing countries, platforms like MPeso and GCash now have millions of users of their reliable systems of financial exchange. Poor people rely on phone transactions to pay the school bills of their children, buy supplies for their small businesses, and purchase medical care.

With a $2 million grant in 2011, the Omidyar Network was one of the founders of Mobile Money for the Unbanked—a support group for firms providing financial services by cell phone that helps them connect to additional customers, encourages interoperability, and resists regulatory barriers by governments. Omidyar also supports efforts to bring other life-enhancing services and products to people in the developing world via their mobile phones.

Investor and U.S. immigrant Len Blavatnik made a major gift to Oxford University in 2010 to establish a brand new School of Government at the nearly 1,000-year-old college. The primary aim of his $117 million donation is to prepare students from all over the world to be more productive leaders in public service. The first students enrolled in 2012, and the master’s class of 2014 included 75 students from 48 different countries. The school places a heavy emphasis on development economics, and almost instantly became one of the most selective graduate programs at Oxford. A dramatic new headquarters building on the Oxford campus debuted in 2015.

Having done so for two centuries, America still dispatches more missionaries overseas each year than any other nation. Research by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity found that the U.S. sent 127,000 missionaries abroad in 2010, as many as the next six top-sending countries (Brazil, France, Spain, Italy, South Korea, U.K.) combined. U.S. givers are also by far the largest source of funding for missions, donating several billion dollars for overseas ministry every year (a figure that is growing fast). These days, about a thousand U.S. agencies with a religious mission carry out relief work overseas, according to the Mission Handbook.

In the 1960s, the argument that mission work is “imperialistic” burst forth. There are also counterviews. In a 2008 London Times essay, journalist Matthew Parris described himself as “a confirmed atheist” but argued that “I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular non-governmental organizations, government projects, and international aid efforts…. Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good…. Those who want Africa to walk tall amid twenty-first-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted…. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone, and the machete.”

The twentieth century has witnessed an explosion in the number of billionaires. Under the leadership of Bill Gates, a group of billionaires announced a “Giving Pledge” in 2010, through which the signee promises to give away at least half of his or her wealth to charitable causes. The first 40 pledgers committed an estimated $125 billion to charity in this way. A year and a half later, 81 billionaires had made the commitment. By 2015, 137 individuals or couples had signed the Giving Pledge, representing many hundreds of billions of dollars of donations.

In addition to lining up Americans, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have visited China, India, Saudi Arabia, and other countries to encourage moguls there to consider American-style philanthropy. Their initial 2010 meeting in China yielded zero signatures, and commitments from other countries have been sporadic, but the first Indian signee came on board, along with the first African pledger. As of 2015, the individuals who had taken the Giving Pledge came from a dozen countries, evidence that U.S.-style
long-term giving is gradually spreading abroad.

Philanthropist Warren Buffett is an adviser to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit led by former Senator Sam Nunn that seeks to reduce threats from atomic weapons. Working through the NTI, Buffett announced a $50 million pledge in 2010 toward the construction of the world’s first nuclear fuel bank—which would guarantee countries a supply of uranium to operate their nuclear power plants. This would allow the more than 30 countries considering building their first nuclear power plant to proceed without setting up their own uranium enrichment facilities. Enrichment facilities, once in place, can be used to create not just electricity-generating fuel but also bomb-grade fuel, worsening the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Buffett’s contribution represented the single largest philanthropic gift in the worldwide effort to slow nuclear proliferation. And it bore fruit in April 2015, when Kazakhstan signed an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency establishing the low-grade uranium fuel bank on its territory.

Ever since he learned details of the Holocaust as an eighth grader, John Montgomery has been haunted by the idea of genocide, and determined to do his part to prevent it in the future. As the Houston investment firm that Montgomery helped found began to thrive, he and his wife and their Bridgeway Foundation (which receives 50 percent of the after-tax profits of his firm) became generous givers to poor people around the globe, with a particular emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa. And the central priority of Montgomery’s philanthropy is overcoming genocidal dangers, a cause to which he has devoted tens of millions of dollars.

Montgomery has supported Rwandan widows and funded the healing of wounds from that country’s tribal terrors. More recently, 90 percent of his resources were focused on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan—areas where the murderous warlord Joseph Kony and his LRA terror group had rampaged for years, killing thousands and abducting children to serve as soldiers or sex slaves.

In addition to funding groups that publicize LRA violence (which helps generate international backlash), Montgomery became directly involved in stopping killings. In 2010 he suggested that imperiled villagers could be warned of impending attacks if a radio network were built in the remote region, so residents could flee before fighters arrived. Montgomery and Bridgeway equipped tribal chiefs in the area with radio transmitters, receivers, and towers, so information on the movements of Kony’s men could be quickly shared.

Thereafter, when militants approached villages, locals faded into the forest, saving many lives and avoiding the kidnapping of their children. The radio network also yielded intelligence which helped authorities track Kony, forcing him to be more reclusive. Rebel commanders began to defect and be killed. The U.S. detailed 100 soldiers to the area, and the LRA threat receded.

“There is a spiritual aspect to this to me,” Montgomery told Philanthropy magazine, “a life calling. There are people dying.”

U.S. hedge-fund pioneer Julian Robertson developed a deep affection for New Zealand after taking a sabbatical there with his family in 1978. He subsequently developed a few real-estate properties, and owns personal retreats in the country. He has also expressed his attachment through a series of philanthropic gifts. In 2009 Robertson pledged to the Auckland Art Gallery 15 modern artworks by Cezanne, Matisse, Mondrian, Picasso, and others, valued at more than $100 million—the largest gift ever made to an art gallery in Asia or Australia. In 2012 he made a $12 million gift to the Rhodes Scholarship program to add three annual awards for students from New Zealand. And, in 2012, he gave $5.3 million to create the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute.

It is estimated that tobacco use could kill a billion people globally during this century. One of the major initiatives of Bloomberg Philanthropies since 2007 has been an effort to create greater awareness overseas of tobacco risks, reducing consumption. The foundation promotes several strategies:  tracking tobacco use, creating smoke-free public places, launching community programs to help people quit smoking, posting warnings on tobacco’s health effects, banning advertising, and raising taxes on tobacco. The foundation invested more than $600 million in these efforts as of 2015.

The Omidyar Network, the philanthropy created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, is organized around five major initiatives. One is property rights. This dates back to 2007, when the Omidyars read Hernando de Soto’s book The Mystery of Capital. That seminal book explains both why insecure property rights are such a serious problem in the developing world, and how establishing private ownership can be a giant boon to economic growth and prosperity. (See 1989 entry.)

The Omidyars have taken this insight to heart. “A significant proportion of the world’s population,” their foundation notes, “has weak or nonexistent protections for their property and resources. This leaves people vulnerable to wrongful eviction and forced displacement—and it disempowers them and prevents them from engaging in the formal economy. Without formal recognition and protection of their property, people are unable to have ownership of goods, start and run a business, or be protected when buying, selling, and trading.” Extensive multiyear grantmaking by the Omidyar Network now helps poor residents of developing countries establish ownership of land and businesses, as the essential foundation for future prosperity.

In 2002, investment banker and entrepreneur Dale Dawson became interested in efforts to rebuild the war-torn east African nation of Rwanda. (See 2002 entry on our companion list of achievements in Religious philanthropy.) As Dawson began to spend half his time on charitable projects in Rwanda, he noticed that residents were in desperate need of places where they could safely save money, and where small-business creators could go for loans. He and the Christian nonprofit Opportunity International made plans to create such a bank, then joined with other faith-based partners to launch the Urwego Opportunity Bank in 2007. It operates as a business, but the founders reinvest all earnings back into the enterprise.

This microbank became a phenomenal success, soon growing to eight branches across the countryside, 225 employees, and 40,000 outstanding loans, in an average amount of $300. Only 1 percent of their loans become overdue by 30 days or more. The faith-inspired bank also offers small entrepreneurs insurance, safe money-transfer services, and financial education.

When Urwego opened, 95 percent of Rwandans had zero experience with a bank. Now 120,000 clients have savings accounts, in an average amount of about $60. To work around illiteracy, all accounts are tied to fingerprints. When small savers go to a teller window and press a digit on a reader pad, their account info pops open. The bank has helped Rwanda become one of the freest and fastest-growing economies in Africa.

Public health has been a hallmark of Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropy. In 2007, the Bloomberg Family Foundation donated $9 million for pilot programs promoting motorcycle helmet use in Vietnam and Mexico. The effort quickly recorded 20 percent reductions in both countries in head-injury fatalities. Following this success, Bloomberg established a standing program within his foundation to improve road safety broadly in poorer countries. More than $250 million has so far been donated to efforts to chip away at the 1.2 million annual deaths from traffic accidents across the globe—making the foundation the world’s leading advocate for road safety.

Since 1979, when he began his philanthropy, George Soros has donated large sums to international causes—more than $8 billion by 2015, with additional hundreds of millions being sent overseas with each passing year. His sharpest focal point, and the scene of his most effective work, was Eastern Europe amid the withering of communism (see 1984, 1991, and 1993 entries on this list). Soros’s other overseas giving has been a much more mixed bag.

For instance, in 2006 he donated $50 million as lead funder of the Millennium Villages Project, trumpeted by economist Jeffrey Sachs as the solution to poverty in Africa. In 2011 Soros promised the project another $27 million, and consideration of $20 million more beyond that, to “scale up” the effort. By 2015, extensive reporting, World Bank research, and other evidence made it clear that the five-year plans created by the MVP architects crashed into so many unanticipated cultural and economic obstacles that the Millennium Villages were not noticeably more successful than counterparts where no investment took place. Indeed they are actually less successful by some measures like child mortality.

Three quarters of the world’s poorest people gain their income and their food by farming small plots about the size of a football field. The Green Revolution (see 1943 entry) dramatically improved life for small farmers in Asia and Latin America. But for a variety of reasons the Green Revolution never rooted deeply in Africa. As a result, about 70 percent of Africans struggle with unproductive soil, plant diseases, pests, and weather problems.

In 2006 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began a concentrated effort to import the lessons and techniques of the Green Revolution to sub-Saharan Africa. They invested more than $2 billion in this effort just in their first eight years. Part of the initiative involves research and development seeking plant varieties that will have increased yields, better resistance to pests and weather stress, and enhanced nutritive value. Extensive resources also go into spreading information on effective farming techniques, expanding the access of small farmers to markets where they can sell their produce, and veterinary labors to upgrade the health and productivity of livestock.

Officially, education in most poor countries is provided by the government at no charge to parents. But in practice, these state-run schools are often terrible—with teachers appointed by nepotism rather than skill, who don’t show up, or require bribes—yielding miserable student results. In Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, 5 million elementary-age children don’t even have a school available to them at all.

In every land, though, parents are ambitious for their offspring, and seek out workarounds when offered lousy education. James Tooley, who was a teacher in Africa before he became a professor of education at Britain’s Newcastle University, began to hear about extremely low-cost private schools springing up in slums across the developing world. Though government officials denied that such schools existed, or that they were anything but exploitative if they did, Tooley decided to investigate for himself. In 2003, the John Templeton Foundation awarded him nearly $800,000 for in-depth research, and he set off to Old City Hyderabad in India, Makoko, Nigeria, and many other such shantytowns.

Tooley discovered a vast ecosystem of bare-bones private schools that charge parents $2 to $6 per month (about 5-10 percent of the salary of the poorest workers). These administer a heavily scripted curriculum, using energetic instructors hired from the same slum where the school is located, and generally produce test results so much better than the available government school that parents line up to enroll their children. “The fees make school and parent accountable to each other. The state schools lack that accountability,” reports U.S. philanthropist Steve Beck, who has been funding the expansion of such academies in Nairobi, Kenya.

Fully half of all schoolchildren in impoverished districts of south India turned out to be enrolled in low-cost private schools. In Hyderabad it was 65 percent. In the slums of Accra, Ghana it was 64 percent. In Lagos, Nigeria, 75 percent were in private schools. Across low-income districts of China, India, and Africa the results were the same.

In every single region Tooley studied, students from the super-cheap private schools significantly outscored their counterparts in government schools (after careful adjustment for demographic differences, IQ, and so forth) on both math and language skills. The private-school teachers were much more likely to actually be teaching when unannounced school visits were made, and the private schools were better equipped with toilets and drinking water. After accumulating test results from 24,000 children, Tooley concluded that academic results were dramatically better for the children attending private schools. To top it all off, all of this was achieved at just a fraction of the cost of the ineffective government schools.

When this research won a development prize in 2006, philanthropists realized they could accelerate and extend the successes of these low-cost private schools by offering loans or grants for expansion. The Orient Global Education Fund put up $100 million in 2007. Other philanthropies (Opportunity International, the IDP Foundation, Edify, etc.) began to provide microloans of $500 to $2,000 so educational entrepreneurs could open branches or install latrines or buy land for building.

Donors like Steve Beck, David Weekley, and many others have put $100 million of launch money into for-profit schools like Bridge International Academies. After starting in a Nairobi slum in 2009, Bridge now educates about 100,000 African children. It has been opening as many as 150 schools in a year, and is now popping up two private “schools in a box” every week across Africa and Asia.

When 25,000 high-schoolers in the African nation of Liberia took the annual exam for admission to the University of Liberia and not a single one passed, Liberian president Ellen Sirleaf pronounced her government’s education bureaucracy “a mess” and demanded a new approach. So in 2016, Bridge International Academies was brought in to provide the public education in schools educating more than 9,000 Liberian children. If this test succeeds, management of more schools will be transferred to Bridge and other philanthropically backed groups.

The world’s largest beverage company, Coca-Cola, has since the early 1990s made investments in water supply and sanitation one of the top priorities of its philanthropic arm, the Coca-Cola Foundation. In 2009, for instance, the foundation offered a $30 million grant to the Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN), aimed at bringing clean drinking water and sanitation to two million Africans over a five-year period. The foundation was created in 1984 when the company made a commitment to give away, every year, 1 percent of its prior year’s operating income. In 2013, Coca-Cola donated $143 million, across 122 countries.

Drawing from its long history of supporting international scholars, the Ford Foundation launched a freestanding International Fellowships Program with a $280 million grant in 2001—the largest single gift ever allotted by Ford—and operated the program through 2013. It provided study stipends to community leaders from regions of the world with little access to higher education, particularly targeting minorities and less successful populations, and “prioritizing social commitment” over academic potential.

More than 4,300 individuals from 22 countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Russia, and Latin America won fellowships. One third of them pursued degrees in the United States or Canada, another third studied in Europe, and the final third enrolled in institutions in their home regions. After completing their education, most participants returned to their homes to work. When last surveyed, 46 percent of alumni were living in their home community, an additional 36 percent were living in their home country, and 18 percent were living in a different country. The Ford International Fellowships Program was intended as a demonstration project to widen college access. The foundation’s total spending on the program over its 13-year life came to $355 million.

The arrival of microfinance—offering small loans to poor people so they can start businesses that help support their families—is one of the most important developments in overseas philanthropy over the past generation or two. (See 1976 entry.) As the wildly successful results of the first microloan experiments became clear, certain donors decided to make sure this new tool was understood, valued, and spread to as many poor communities overseas as possible.

The Seattle-based nonprofit Unitus—created by four successful and generous businessmen with roots in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—was a leader. When Unitus launched their project to accelerate the spread of microfinance in 2001, the sector was dominated by very small and not especially efficient operations that were growing only slowly. By bringing new capital, management systems, and leaders into the field, Unitus strove to bring new microbanking options to hundreds of thousands of poor householders. In particular, Unitus aimed to turn microfinance into an attractive and self-supporting business so that for-profit firms would flood the field and greatly expand the number of loans made.

The initiative was successful in all of this. It set up partnerships with 22 organizations in underserved countries like Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, and India. These partners, as a group, grew in size by more than 100 percent per year for many years, eventually serving 12 million families. In 2010, Unitus announced that with microfinance having matured and become a professionally run, market-oriented business in many countries, it was ending its ten-year acceleration effort.

In sub-Saharan Africa, only 4 percent of the college-age population got a chance to enroll at a university when the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa kicked off. Believing that more college training was essential to progress in the poorest continent, the presidents of four U.S. foundations (Rockefeller, Ford, MacArthur, and the Carnegie Corporation) joined together in 2000 in a $100 million commitment to bolster African universities. They were later joined by the Hewlett, Andrew Mellon, and Kresge foundations and the effort was extended from five to ten years. Institutions in nine different African countries were helped to build up their faculties, develop new degree programs, improve facilities, and create long-term financing mechanisms. Over the course of the ten-year effort these donors poured a total of $440 million into African universities, substantially improving their functioning and visibility.

In 2000, six U.S. foundations joined together to form the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe. Its charge was to help build up the fragile elements of civil society in countries emerging from decades of communist rule. The foundations invested $66 million in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia to strengthen service organizations, journalism, watchdog groups, think tanks, and other private organizations and charities that could help sustain democratic governance. The trust completed its grantmaking at the end of 2012. By then its target countries were holding regular elections and integrating with other European nations to the west.

A signature international effort of the $6 billion Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is the Andes-Amazon Initiative. The Amazon River basin stretching from the Andes mountains to the south Atlantic holds one fifth of the world’s liquid fresh water. It also contains the globe’s highest diversity of birds and primates, one third of all freshwater fish species, and more than 60,000 plant species. To support this biological trove the Moore Foundation has invested more than $150 million in forest conservation and an additional $70 million in other forms of conservation. Moore’s efforts have helped restore a forested area about four times the size of California, while establishing sustainable business partnerships to mitigate local environmental degradation.

In 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation created the Gates Cambridge Trust with a $210 million endowment. This program brings college graduates to England’s Cambridge University for two or three years of post-graduate study, under an all-expenses-paid structure similar to Oxford’s Rhodes Scholarships. About 200 Gates scholars are in residence at Cambridge at any given time, and since the program’s founding they have come from almost 100 different countries. Recipients are selected by “academic excellence, leadership ability, and commitment to improving the lives of others.” That last criterion, says the program, is “fundamental and sets this program apart from others of its kind.”

Concerned over the energy and environmental impact of China’s breakneck industrial expansion, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation provided $22.2 million in 1999 to create the China Sustainable Energy Program. CSEP makes grants inside China for research, training, and policy formation to improve energy efficiency and reduce air pollution in the country. Universities, commercial firms, industry groups, and policy organizations can be eligible for support, and as of 2015, 1,560 projects had been funded at more than 440 different organizations. The program also holds workshops in China for entrepreneurs and public officials on topics like efficient transportation, improving electric utilities, appliance efficiency, green buildings, and so forth.

In 2002, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation became a funding partner with a contribution of $2 million directed at transportation initiatives. Other donors have joined as well, and cumulative grantmaking in China has exceeded $200 million. The effort is now known as Energy Foundation China.

Recognizing how easily foreign aid can encourage corruption and dependency in poor countries, an alternative movement has grown up which emphasizes international trade as a means of helping farmers, small manufacturers, and residents of developing countries. Paul Rice spent years organizing coffee farmers into cooperatives where they could improve their quality control and maximize their pricing leverage. In 1996 he founded the nonprofit now known as Fair Trade USA. With donations from scores of foundations, hundreds of individuals, and many corporations, the organization has become the largest third-party certifier of products produced and sold on terms that are generous to overseas workers. The group puts its stamp of approval on items like coffee, cocoa, produce, nuts, sugar, apparel, stitched sports balls, and many more—a total of 12,000 products exported from 70 countries. The nonprofit estimates that consumers who prefer certified products currently deliver an annual premium of about $40 million to producers in poor countries, and that figure is rising every year.

Dr. Sanduk Ruit grew up in a remote village of Nepal that was 15 days walking distance from the nearest school.  But after watching his sister died of tuberculosis he resolved to get an education and become a doctor—so he could reduce suffering from illness in his rural Himalayan homeland where medical care is scant. He became an eye surgeon, and developed a technique for conducting high-quality cataract surgeries quickly and at low cost, even in the most remote places. American opthalmologist Geoffrey Tabin started collaborating with Ruit, and in 1994 they established an American 501c3 called the Himalayan Cataract Project to raise funds, buy equipment, and organize donations of other surgeons' time so that individuals coping with blindness in poor countries could have their sight restored in same-day operations. Hundreds of thousands of persons have experienced life-altering restoration of their sight since then, thanks to this small nonprofit.

In 2015, the Himalayan Cataract Project raised $7 million in cash and in-kind donations. Supporters ranged from the Conrad Hilton Foundation and Chicago's Nancy Allison Perkins Foundation (each providing grants of a half-million dollars or more), to many hundreds of small donors from all across the U.S. With those contributions, the group performed more than 83,000 sight-restoring surgeries that year in seven extremely low-income countries. It also trained 79 local health professionals in its techniques, and donated equipment to them, so that they will be able to continue to repair cataracts in the future. The organization is also starting to take on other sources of blindness in the less-developed world.

So far, this charity has carried out more than 600,000 sight-restoring surgeries, many of them in places with no clean water or electricity. It is able to complete these in about ten minutes, at a cash cost of about $25 per surgery.

Bill Gates often explains in interviews how he decided to become a philanthropist: He was “exclusively focused” on Microsoft in the mid-1990s when his attention was captured by an article about how rotavirus kills half a million children per year by severe diarrhea. That mostly unreported misery seemed cruel and unnecessary, and inspired him to form his foundation in 1994 with an initial stock gift of $94 million. From the beginning his efforts were particularly devoted to improving health in poor countries overseas, because “every life has equal value.”

In 2008, Gates left Microsoft and became a full-time philanthropist. From its inception through 2014, his foundation gave away $34 billion, most of it for health-related work. Just in 2014, the $3.9 billion distributed by the Gates Foundation in direct grants included the following major health investments:

  • Eradicating polio, $442 million
  • Agricultural development, $442 million
  • Vaccinating people in poor countries, $327 million
  • Battling HIV/AIDS, $223 million
  • Battling malaria, $201 million
  • Battling tuberculosis, $145 million
  • Improving maternal and child health, $135 million
  • Battling enteric and diarrheal diseases, $100 million
  • Battling pneumonia, $100 million
  • Battling neglected diseases, $100 million
  • Improving sanitation and water hygiene, $96 million

    In a typical year, the Gates Foundation spends about as much as the World Health Organization on global health. It has been estimated that Gates directly saved 8 million lives in its first two decades, and headed off untold human misery, via its attacks on infectious diseases.

In 1992, Serbian forces encircled the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia. Their siege lasted until 1995 and killed more than 10,000 people, most of them unarmed civilians out on the street to find food and water. Aware of the city’s desperate condition thanks to the foundations he had set up across Eastern Europe to encourage the transformation of societies away from communism (see 1984 entry), philanthropist George Soros put up $50 million of emergency aid at a time when almost no other agency or person was helping, and asked his foundation staff to determine the most effective ways to save lives and alleviate suffering with the money. They consulted with nonprofits like Refugees International and the International Rescue Committee and brought into the tortured city Fred Cuny, an engineer who had founded his own charitable agency called Intertect Relief and Reconstruction. The fearless 240-pound Texan had deep experience in humanitarian disasters, and was famous for his view that no crisis was too overwhelming to handle.

Cuny decided the best way to help residents survive would be to restore water, gas, and electric service. After arranging that his transport planes would be on the ground only for minutes, to avoid being machine gunned, he flew in iron piping to restore the main gas lines. But only about 10 percent of households were connected to gas at that time, so Cuny bought miles of small plastic piping and Soros’s foundation enlisted 15,000 city residents to dig trenches to connect homes to the gas mains. Soon 60 percent of families had service. Cuny then designed a small gas-burning room heater that could be manufactured in Sarajevo and could be turned on its side to cook meals. These efforts rescued thousands of people from freezing and starving in the bitter Bosnian winters.

Because a large portion of the people killed by Serbian snipers were standing at wells drawing water, Cuny simultaneously used Soros money to restore municipal water service. He designed a 200-meter-long filtration system and had it manufactured in Texas, then flown into the city in pieces. He assembled it in an old road tunnel leading to the Miljacka River, where it was protected from shelling by the siege forces, and created a whole new piped water supply for the city. The Soros donation also increased local electric supplies by 30 percent, provided seeds with which residents could create gardens to feed themselves, and otherwise saved lives and reduced misery. Author Anna Porter concludes that the money Soros gifted to Bosnia “may have saved more lives than the combined efforts of the world leaders and United Nations.”

Soros’s Open Society Foundations also provided humanitarian assistance to Serbians on the other side of the civil war with Bosnia. International sanctions were clapped on Serbia’s government during the conflict, which had the undesirable side effect of preventing everyday Serbs from having access to lifesaving drugs and other medical supplies. Negotiating a humanitarian waiver with the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Open Society Foundations purchased millions of dollars of U.S. pharmaceutical supplies and distributed them across Serbia.

After the Berlin Wall fell, George Soros decided to found the first American-style university in Eastern Europe to help encourage the democratic transition of the region. The school, which offers only graduate degrees, opened in Budapest, Hungary, in 1991 with a charter from the State University of New York and full U.S. accreditation. Instruction is provided in English to 1,381 students from 93 countries, about half of them on a full scholarship. Thanks to the $880 million Soros provided to endow the university (instantly making it one of the wealthiest in the world), it is highly competitive. Its MBA, political science, and legal degrees are rated as some of the best in Europe. George Soros was chairman the CEU board for a decade and a half, and remains a trustee.

Late in 1988, a devastating earthquake struck Armenia, followed by months of aftershocks, killing more than 25,000 people and injuring 15,000 more. Factories and utilities were destroyed; roads and railways were wrecked. There were many American gifts of aid in the aftermath, but none as big as what Kirk Kerkorian delivered. The investor, a child of Armenian immigrants to the U.S., put up a billion dollars to help rebuild his ancestral homeland, repairing 261 miles of highway, constructing 3,700 new apartments, and rehabilitating countless homes, among other contributions. In 2005, Armenian president Robert Kocharian awarded his country’s highest honor to Kerkorian as thanks for this help.

Another donor who was vital to Armenia’s recovery was Jon Huntsman. One of the most generous Americans of his generation in his proportionate giving, Huntsman was moved by the suffering after the earthquake, and went to visit the country. It turned out to be the first of 46 trips he and his family made to Armenia after he adopted that land as a personal cause. In addition to immediate relief aid, Huntsman set up factories and businesses to supply building materials. He provided money to reconstruct schools and hospitals. He also provided scholarships which allowed Armenian college students to study in the U.S. In the 25 years after the earthquake Huntsman devoted about $50 million to Armenia, which not only helped it recover from the earthquake trauma but also allowed its business environment to develop faster than many of the other nations that were spun into freedom after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “Many individuals rendered huge aid to Armenia after the 1988 earthquake, but Jon Huntsman is one of those who have continued aid and even increased it,” summarized president Kocharian.

In 1981 a Peruvian economist named Hernando de Soto formed a nonprofit in his country called the Institute for Liberty and Democracy. He had become convinced that a lack of property rights was the ultimate problem dragging down economic production in most poor countries, not traditional bugaboos like the legacy of colonialism or exploitation by rich countries. His 1989 book, The Other Path, demonstrated that many of the world’s poor were forced to earn most of the income in the black market because entrepreneurship and private property were discriminated against by blockheaded governments.

By the late 1980s, private land-titling, recognition of small underground businesses, and other market-based reforms initiated by the ILD were being implemented across Peru, with dramatically positive results. This caught the attention of American donors like the Smith Richardson Foundation, Lilly Endowment, Omidyar Network, and John Templeton Foundation. They began to support the ILD and help it export its insights and practical reforms to dozens of other poor countries. They funded research, books, films, and other methods of spreading the message on the power of secure private ownership to bolster economic output.

De Soto’s work brought him into conflict with the violent Marxist group in Peru known as the Shining Path, which targeted the economist for death. Among its other contributions to his work, Smith Richardson paid for protection for de Soto. “The foundation is an old and loyal friend which, when the ILD was being bombed and shot at during the early 1990s, provided us with a bullet-proof vehicle, thus enabling us to continue with our work,” wrote de Soto in the acknowledgments to his 2000 book, The Mystery of Capital. De Soto is today considered one of the most important and influential analysts of developing-world poverty.

Ophelia Dahl, daughter of the late writer Roald Dahl, volunteered at an eye clinic in Haiti in the mid-1980s, where she met a medical student named Paul Farmer. A few years later, they and a few friends also interested in providing medical care to the destitute formed Partners In Health, a donor-supported organization which provides high-quality health services in Haiti and other poor countries. In 1993, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Farmer a MacArthur Fellowship, whose cash award helped expand Partners In Health. PIH was a pioneer in battling AIDS in Haiti. And in 2013 the group opened a major new hospital in Haiti, which not only provides extensive care but also trains medical residents.

  • Partners in Health website,

Private corporations have been key partners in certain philanthropic causes—particularly battles against diseases. Most of the major pharmaceutical companies now have charitable arms through which they give away free or heavily discounted drugs for use with poor populations, especially overseas. Billions of dollars worth of goods are donated in this way every year (see Chart 22 in this book’s Statistics section).

An example is the drug Mectizan. The firm Merck & Co. discovered that it was highly effective in treating onchocerciasis, commonly known as “river blindness,” a disease of low-income tropical countries that causes agonizing itching of the eyes and eventual loss of sight. In 1987 Merck created the first disease-specific drug-donation program in the world with an offer to supply the drug to any person needing it for as long as required. Administered once annually, Mectizan halts development of the infection, with minimal side effects.

In 1998 Merck announced it would be donating the same drug for use against another devastating developing-world plague—lymphatic filariasis, often called elephantiasis, a profoundly disfiguring syndrome caused by a parasitic worm. To stem elephantiasis, Mectizan is administered along with another drug donated by the GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical company. The two companies established a partnership to supply their life-changing compounds across Africa, in parts of Latin America, and in Yemen. By administering 140 million doses per year, the firms have made elimination of both of these diseases foreseeable within current lifetimes.

A second example of a major overseas drug donation program is Pfizer’s provision of Zithromax to stop trachoma, another infectious eye disease that causes blindness, currently afflicting 41 million people, particularly children. In its advanced stages a person’s eyelashes turn inward and scrape the cornea, an excruciating condition. Pfizer set a goal of eliminating blinding trachoma by 2020, and has so far donated more than 250 Zithromax doses in dozens of countries. Pfizer and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation jointly set up a nonprofit to carry out the treatments internationally. The Gates Foundation, Lions Clubs, and other private donors have become financial partners.

In 1986, the Christian charity World Vision invited popular rock musician Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, to visit some of their aid sites in Ethiopia. Moved by what he saw, he began a long involvement in African philanthropy. In 2002 he founded a charity that rang alarms over the AIDS epidemic ravaging the continent. He encouraged donors, companies, and governments to become involved, saying, “You can’t run businesses if 10 percent of employees are dying.” He helped convince all of those sectors to become involved in the subsequent decade’s massive effort to use donated resources to reduce transmission of the HIV virus, treat its victims, and search for cures.

In 1985, the fraternal organization Rotary International began a major project to battle polio. Since then, Rotarians have contributed more than $850 million plus hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours to eliminate the disease. The goal soon became global eradication of the polio virus by around 2018.

In 2008, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation started contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to Rotary’s efforts. With support from other donors and a few international agencies, a final mass-immunization effort was launched. It has reduced the number of children paralyzed by polio from more than a thousand a day back when Rotary’s effort began to much less than one case per day at present. Today, only two or three countries still harbor the wild polio virus, and a concerted effort is under way to render it extinct as soon as possible—which would end a scourge than has plagued humanity since at least the time of the Egyptian pharaohs.

Born in Hungary in 1930, George Soros endured Nazi occupation as a child and then communist oppression under Stalin. In 1947, he escaped to London and attended the London School of Economics, where Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies shaped his thinking. After his work as a financier made him one of the wealthiest men in the world, he took up philanthropy on a large scale, beginning in 1979.

Soros’s initial philanthropic crusade aimed at bringing down communism in Eastern Europe. In 1984, he created Hungary’s first foundation. It funded cultural exchanges with the West, supported individual scholars, underwrote youth groups, and encouraged independent journals—all of this in the face of resistance by the government. It distributed copying machines across the country to overcome censorship and circulate alternate points of view. Aid was provided to improve the lives of stunted social groups like Eastern Europe’s Roma people (gypsies).
The region’s first major new private university was created in Budapest (see nearby 1991 entry).

Open Society Foundations similar to the one in Hungary were created across the East-bloc countries, funded by hundreds of millions of dollars from Soros. These were eventually important in introducing a generation of opinion-makers in communist lands to democracy and Western views. The Solidarity movement, for instance, received Soros support when it was still illegal and underground, as did Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov. By some estimates, one out of ten members of the first post-communist Parliament in Hungary had some connection to Soros philanthropy.

At the fall of the Soviet Union, Soros dramatically expanded his philanthropy in Eastern Europe. He poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Russia—more than the U.S. government in many years—in an attempt to encourage privatization of industries and liberalization of the economy. When anti-capitalist hardliners blocked free-market reforms, he eventually dropped most of his assistance there. Soros likewise shut down his three-year-old Chinese foundation in 1989 upon learning that instead of promoting tolerance of dissent and democratic governance, it was controlled by the Beijing security apparatus.

Archaeology was born thanks to private funding and passion. Then came a nationalistic phase where governments began to heavily regulate digs, and to fund them. In the past two or three decades, however, government funding in most places has fallen far short of what archaeologists hoped for. Private donors have filled the gap. Of the thousands of major digs around the world, more than half of the funding for American-led excavations now comes from private individuals and foundations, reported Jim Wiseman, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, in 2006.

Financier Leon Levy and his wife, Shelby White, were major donors to this effort. Every year since 1985 they have supported a massive dig at Ashkelon, Israel, one of the most important ancient seaports in the eastern Mediterranean, with a history extending from the Bronze Age to the Crusaders. Most years, Shelby White participates in the digs herself, along with students of the Harvard professors overseeing the project. White is also paying for the crucial publications analyzing what has been found at the site—an eventual ten-volume set. In addition, White gave $200 million to New York University in 2006 to establish an Institute for the Study of the Ancient World that supports scholarship in archaeology and anthropology dating to ancient times.

Another New York financier who has funded important overseas digs, and the follow-up scholarship needed to make sense of them, is Roger Hertog. Starting in 2005 he provided several hundred thousand dollars to make possible a four-year excavation in Jerusalem which discovered, using clues from the Bible, what is thought to be King David’s palace. Hertog described his support as “venture philanthropy—you have the opportunity for intellectual speculation, to fund something that is a work of great consequence.” In this case, showing “that the Bible reflects Jewish history.” Roger and Susan Hertog are also donating the resources for the Temple Mount Excavations Publication Project, a multi-volume work of scholarship sharing the findings of archaeologist Benjamin Mazar’s historic digs in the epicenter of Jerusalem.

Other enthusiastic donors like Leon Reinhart, Artemis Joukowsky, the Packard Foundation, and Charles Williams have likewise funded academics investigating the physical remains of Mayan, Inca, Greek, Nabataean, Roman, and other civilizations.

In 1982, Seattle lawyer and philanthropist Chi-Dooh “Skip” Li heard a guest speaker at his church suggest that helping poor Latin Americans buy the land that they were farming might be the best solution to the unrest and insurrections then sweeping that region. Li went to Guatemala to do some research and returned home convinced that rural people would always be vulnerable, economically and politically, until they owned their own land. He began to formulate a plan for a new nonprofit called Agros that would allow private donors to acquire farms, stabilize the title and pay off taxes, and then sell the plots to the low-income tenants through many small payments.

The first project in Guatemala survived guerrilla war and eventually thrived, and in 1995 a ceremony was held to transfer title to the residents. The process was then repeated in other villages in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico, and Honduras. Gradually, the effort added health services, agricultural training, help in selling produce, and other features, but the focus continued to be private ownership of the land, and the great stimulus to productivity and good citizenship that this provides. As of 2015, 10,000 people in 42 Latin American communities directly benefited from Agros. A third of those participants had already completed payment and earned full title to their own land, and the rest were on course to do the same.

When economist Muhammad Yunus returned to his native Bangladesh after studying in the U.S. as a Fulbright Scholar, he bored into the problem of South Asian poverty that then seemed so intractable. He eventually concluded that lack of access to capital was a major reason everyday people in his country were poor. He experimented with small loans ($27), and learned that they could spur an efflorescence of business activity.

Local commercial banks would not back Yunus’s idea of awarding small loans for business purposes to people without regular employment or collateral. The Ford Foundation had supported his academic research starting in 1976, so Yunus approached its office in Dhaka about the possibility of an $800,000 grant to help him roll out his microcredit operation. Ford approved the proposal in 1981. Additional donations followed Ford’s lead, and funds began to be lent, repaid, and then re-lent on short cycles at Yunus’s new Grameen (“Countryside”) Bank. Very soon, it had disbursed a cumulative total of more than $13 million, in tiny doses, to small business creators. The microbank eventually offered billions in loans, and achieved astonishingly high recovery rates of more than 98 percent.

By the time Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006—“for their efforts to create economic and social development from below”—tens of millions of poor people in scores of developing countries had become active capitalists and seen their lives transformed by microfinance. In places where government agencies and commercial lenders saw only want and risk, philanthropists demonstrated that they could spark extraordinarily productive behavior among the poorest citizens on the globe.

In the early 1970s, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation was searching for worthy candidates for its first international grants. The foundation’s namesake, heir to the Avon fortune, had recently doubled its endowment. Now Clark wanted a cause where the needs were palpable and clear progress possible.

Tropical diseases were then getting relatively little attention from research scientists, drug developers, governments, and philanthropists. In the heavily regulated, litigious, and extremely expensive world of pharmaceutical research, the high risks of drug development and low opportunities for economic payback on maladies afflicting only very poor residents of the equatorial regions created serious obstacles to battling the parasitic diseases of the developing world. It was estimated in the mid-1970s that the poor-nation afflictions representing 90 percent of the global disease burden got only 10 percent of global health-research spending. Only about 1 percent of all drugs approved for human use worldwide were specifically for tropical diseases.

And so in 1974, the Clark Foundation committed itself to a program of tropical disease research. Over the next 25 years, a small staff of three steered $90 million of grants into measures aimed at suppressing three particular chronic illnesses, each of which afflicts tens or hundreds of millions of people: schistosomiasis (snail fever), onchocerciasis (river blindness), and trachoma (a painful eye disease). For most of these diseases,  Clark was the largest funder, public or private, on the globe. 

Of the $32 million Clark spent against schistosomiasis from 1974 to 1994, an effort to find a vaccine consumed about half of the funding. That ended without success, yet the field had been advanced considerably when the foundation exited “schisto” research in 1994, and the baton was picked up by the Carter Center, the Gates Foundation, and others. Clark’s work against river blindness followed a very similar course: failure to find a vaccine, but major progress in scientific understanding and public-health countermeasures. For trachoma, Clark spurred some of the first systematic research ever conducted on the disease, and the foundation’s mantle was taken up by a promising drug-donation effort that aims to eliminate blinding trachoma by 2020. (See 1987 entry on this list for details.)

The Gates Foundation spent a billion dollars over a decade after picking up Clark's mantle to battle neglected tropical diseases. In 2017, Bill Gates pledged an additional $335 million over the next four years. Those funds will pay for more treatment, research new ways of battling these afflictions, and also be applied to attracting pharmaceutical companies to invest in fresh drugs and cures. "We need a broader, deeper bench of that by 2030 we can achieve the goal of reaching 90 percent of the people who need treatment," said Gates as he announced his pledge.

When the Rockefeller Foundation decided to extend the Green Revolution (see 1943 entry) to Asia and Africa, it went looking for philanthropic partners for the huge venture. To that point, the Ford Foundation had never funded agriculture or scientific research, but excited by Rockefeller’s breakthroughs it began supporting such work in 1956. Then in 1962 Ford made a large grant to join forces with Rockefeller in opening the International Rice Research Station in the Philippines. Agriculture research stations in three other nations soon followed.

Over the years, weather- and disease-resistant varieties of many staple crops were developed at these stations. Poor farmers were introduced to chemical fertilizers and other modern farming techniques. And food shortages began to disappear all across the world. In India and Pakistan, wheat yields doubled by 1980 and nearly doubled again by 2000. Life in China and other parts of the east was similarly transformed by high-yield, stress-resistant rice. Nations previously described as “basket cases” were now able to feed themselves without strain.

During its 50-year leadership of the Green Revolution, the Rockefeller Foundation invested $600 million in the effort. Ford and other foundations donated hundreds of millions more. Rockefeller employee Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Overall, the philanthropically led transfer of hybrid crops and modern farming techniques to the developing world is estimated to have saved up to a billion humans from painful death by starvation.

In the first two decades of its existence, the Ford Foundation was a conventional family philanthropy that mostly limited its donations to local projects in the Detroit region. As the Cold War between communism and market democracies became serious in the 1950s, however, Henry Ford II initiated an effort to redirect the foundation. It was decided that the foundation should take on national and international responsibilities to “advance democracy” in poor countries where pre-modern economics and communist politics threatened stability and progress.

Alarmed at the spread of totalitarianism, Ford launched overseas programs to build up universities, promote the values of individual liberty and market economics, create cultural and scholarly exchange programs, subsidize open media in other countries, and so forth. Ford opened offices in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, and launched what would cumulate to tens of billions of dollars of overseas grantmaking over the next half century. During the 1950s and 1960s, the overseas spending of the Ford Foundation grew to be larger than any other private organization, and larger than initiatives run by the United Nations.

About a hundred other American foundations also funded overseas work as a contribution to the Cold War. Many worked with the State Department and the CIA on joint projects, like funding intellectuals and artists to make the moral case for democratic capitalism. The Rockefeller Foundation even explained its heavy funding of the Green Revolution (see 1943 entry) partly on the grounds that increased food security was “a valuable weapon in the struggle to contain communist expansion.”

In 1962, as the Kennedy Administration worked to contain the spread of Marxism, Ford launched its first programs in Latin America. “The crisis in the world today requires that democracy do more than restate its principles and ideals; they must be translated into action,” read a 1962 statement from Ford’s board of trustees. A billion dollars in donations to universities, agriculture programs, and other efforts followed. In Chile, for instance, Ford offered $10 million in 1965 to strengthen the University of Chile and the Catholic University of Chile and to create an exchange program to bring Chilean academics to the U.S. for training. The goal was to infuse modern concepts of economic development and individual rights into Latin American higher education as alternatives to radicalism.

These sorts of efforts had clear effects. One historian writes that as a result of Ford’s grants to Chilean faculty and curriculum, “Santiago probably had a higher concentration of intellectual talent in the social sciences than any other capital in Latin America.” One dramatic result: A group of economists at the Catholic University of Chile who had been funded by Ford became known as the “Chicago Boys” because they absorbed ideas on economic liberalization and development at the University of Chicago. These intellectuals became crucial in turning Chile into a free-market paragon, one of the fastest growing economies on the globe, and, after a period of instability, a great democratic success.

  • Jacquelyn Holmes, From Modernization and Development to Neoliberal Democracy: A History of the Ford Foundation in Latin America (Bates College Honors Thesis, 2013)

W. L. Mellon, grandnephew of business titan Andrew Mellon, grew up in privileged circumstances in Pittsburgh, dropped out of college to work in the family bank, and endured an unsuccessful society marriage. Adrift and seeking a more meaningful life, he read reports on the devoted missionary work of Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa. He wrote asking how he might do something similarly useful, and received a long handwritten letter back from Schweitzer encouraging him to take up medical mission work.

“Larry” Mellon promptly uprooted himself and went back to college to complete first an undergraduate degree and then an M.D. at Tulane University. Upon receiving his medical degree in 1954 at age 44 he set off for Haiti. Two years later he opened a brand new hospital there, named for his idol Albert Schweitzer, which he equipped to the level of an American counterpart using family money. Dr. Mellon practiced medicine and also became active in community development—building roads, water supply, and attending to other desperate needs in the rural Artibonite Valley where he now lived with 150,000 Haitians.

With continuing support from American philanthropists including the Mellon family, the Gates Foundation, and others, the Albert Schweitzer Hospital still provides lifesaving services in the most unhealthy and impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere. It is the only hospital serving a current population of 350,000. From the beginning, the Mellons invested in medical training for Haitians so that local people could assume positions at the hospital, and today 98 percent of its employees are Haitians. Due to the nation’s gross misgovernance, the hospital must provide its own infrastructure—producing all of its electricity, water, and transport linkages itself.

In the year when Israel was reborn as a modern state, 1948, American Jews donated $150 million to the infant nation—four times the total amount raised by the American Red Cross that same year. Just in the last few years of the 1940s, more than half a billion dollars of desperately needed aid arrived from American donors. Without this voluntary giving it is quite possible Israel would not exist today.

During World War II it had become clear that Jews were in mortal danger in many European countries, and efforts revved up to relocate families to what was then the British territory of Palestine. Donations from America in particular allowed a million refugees to be settled in Israel in just a few years. Nearly all of those relocated arrived penniless and utterly dependent upon outside charity.

And then the fighting began. Within days of Israel’s founding, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq dispatched military forces to crush the new state. The only reason Jews were able to defend themselves was because U.S. donors had foreseen this and begun to arm Israelis. Just two months after Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered, 18 wealthy American Jews gathered in New York and created the Sonneborn Institute to import military and non-military supplies for Israel’s pioneer settlers. This included smuggling in surplus World War II weapons and sending experienced American fighters. In nearly a year of fighting after Israel’s declaration of independence, 6,400 Jews were killed—about 1 percent of the population—but the new state was preserved.

U.S. philanthropists then began to build up Israeli society. The U.S. Jewish women’s group Hadassah, for instance, raised billions of dollars over a period of decades to build many of the medical facilities in the country. Israeli schools and universities thrived with support from American angels, and thanks to great universities like the Israel Institute of Technology and the Weizmann Institute, half of Israel’s exports are now from high-tech industries.

Israel continues to receive upwards of $3 billion every year from overseas donors. In a normal year one out of every three U.S. Jews will contribute money to some cause in Israel. During crises, that giving surges higher. It is this philanthropy that has allowed the state of Israel to burgeon and thrive.

A Midwestern farmer named Dan West was ladling out milk to youngsters on a Church of the Brethren relief mission when he realized, “these children don’t need a cup, they need a cow.” The Christian nonprofit that grew out of this idea shipped its first group of 17 heifers to Puerto Rico in 1944. The idea of giving malnourished and poor people long-term sources of food and economic means to support themselves, instead of just short-term relief, caught on.

Today, Heifer International ships not only cows but goats, chickens, pigs, llamas, fish, honeybees, seeds, irrigation pumps, and more, plus extensive agricultural training and husbandry instruction. This helps poor farmers both to feed themselves and to produce food products (and animal offspring) they can sell to support themselves. “The goal of every Heifer project is to help families achieve self-reliance,” the group reports. “We do this by providing them the tools they need to sustain themselves.”

All of this is funded almost exclusively by thousands of small donors. In 2014 Heifer International raised $102 million in contributions. This allows the group to operate in 30 countries, where every year it helps about 2 million families become producers. Since the group’s founding it has assisted 23 million poor families in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

In the early 1940s, disease was destroying half of the wheat harvest in Mexico, and the country’s farmers (like many others in the developing world) were unable to produce enough food to meet demand in their own country. The trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation became interested in the problem, which they considered a logical extension of their existing large efforts in international public health and the biological sciences.

In 1943, the Rockefeller Foundation gave $20,000 for an initial survey of Mexican agriculture; the following year they spent $192,800 to construct and equip a research lab in the country. In 1944 they hired DuPont scientist Norman Borlaug and others to staff a new initiative to improve agriculture in the developing world. Entirely new varieties of wheat, corn, and potatoes were created. Farmers were taught to fertilize and irrigate. Soon, crop production rocketed upwards in Mexico (per acre yields for wheat quadrupled), and the country became a net exporter of food.

In 1954, when stem rust devastated American wheat production, Borlaug’s research was modified to rescue American agriculture as well. But the most dramatic effects came when the so-called Green Revolution spread across the developing world, saving hundreds of millions of lives and transforming global economics. (See companion 1962 and 2006 entries.)

Charles Hall, a son of overseas missionaries, worked in a shed behind his family home in Oberlin, Ohio, to develop a smelting process that eventually reduced the cost of aluminum to just a two-hundredth of its previous price. He eventually founded the ALCOA company and became quite wealthy. In his will he left nearly all of his money to charity.

Hall shared the Protestant missionary zeal for promoting education in the less Christianized regions of the world, and stipulated that a third of his funds (about $235 million in current dollars) should be used to promote college education in Asia. The trustees of his estate eventually created an independent charitable trust closely connected to Harvard University and affiliated with China’s Yenching University. The Harvard-Yenching Institute developed the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, created an Asian-language library, launched a Journal of Asiatic Studies, helped Yenching University expand its teaching of humanities, and built up five other colleges in China plus one in India.

More recently, the institute has supported Asian students and faculty with fellowships and sent American scholars overseas to study Asian culture at Asian universities. Hall’s institute has supported major translation projects, funded conferences, and published new works in China, Vietnam, and other countries. It has endured for most of a century as one of the premier academic organizations established with a single donation.

International exchanges of scholars and leaders—which have had a large role in fostering peace, freedom, and economic liberalism across the globe—were invented by American philanthropic organizations. One early exchange program was the Roosevelt Partnership linking Harvard University and the University of Berlin, which was established with a $50,000 gift from James Speyer in 1905. Philanthropically supported exchanges were formed at the University of Wisconsin in 1911 and at Cornell University in 1913.

The Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation both sponsored early international exchanges, academic fellowships, and organizations promoting cross-cultural understanding. In 1919 Carnegie established the Institute of International Education. Today it is the largest student and faculty exchange program in the world, administering almost 700 programs on behalf of thousands of donors. Between 1918 and 1934, the Rockefeller Foundation spent $15 million on scholarly exchanges between overseas nations and the U.S. Many other Rockefeller ventures in this area followed, for instance the Asian Cultural Program created in 1967 specifically to build wider linkages and understanding between the U.S. and the Orient.

Finally recognizing the value of exchanges as a form of public diplomacy, the U.S. government started supporting international visits and study after World War II. Today a wide mix of private, public, and dual-funded exchanges exist, involving a panoply of countries. If anything, philanthropic innovation in this area has accelerated over the past two decades. A few examples follow.

The Freeman Foundation, created from the fortune of Mansfield Freeman, who was both a co-founder of the AIG insurance company and a longtime resident of Asia and a China scholar, has donated millions of dollars since 1994 to support academic exchanges with Asian countries. From 2001 to 2013 the Ford Foundation spent $355 million to provide higher education to 4,300 leaders from poor countries, mostly at Western universities, through its International Fellowships Program (see 2001 entry). The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has already devoted $210 million to its Gates Cambridge Scholars program which brings people from around the world together for graduate study (see 2000 entry). The Open Society Foundations pour large sums every year into educational and cultural exchanges benefiting persons living in countries with “repressive governance.” Financier Stephen Schwarzmann recently pulled together $300 million to create a program that unites at China’s Tsinghua University 200 top college graduates from China and Western countries (see 2014 entry). The aim of many of these efforts is to build mutual understanding among national leaders of the next generation.

As part of a jihad launched by Muslim authorities in Ottoman Turkey to exterminate Christian minorities, up to 1.5 million Armenian Christians were destroyed, starting in 1915, through systematic killings, forced relocations into the desert, and starvation. Hundreds of thousands of others were forcibly expelled and became refugees. At the time, the U.S. government did little, but everyday Americans, missionaries, and philanthropists appalled by the atrocities quickly sprang to offer both immediate relief and long-term rebuilding aid to Armenians.

James Barton, the secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (one of the leading Christian missionary groups in the U.S.—see 1810 entry on our list of Religious achievements), had been a missionary in the Near East and was alarmed by initial reports out of Armenia. He quickly convened a meeting of New York businessmen and religious leaders. The host, mining mogul Cleveland Dodge, had a daughter in school in Constantinople and a son at the American University of Beirut and instantly understood the import of the genocide. Barton and Dodge formed the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief in 1915, which subsequently raised over $100 million in donations through public rallies, church collections, and contributions from charitable foundations and private individuals.

By the end of the 1920s, a total of $120 million in voluntary donations had been offered up by Americans. (Adjusted for inflation that is more than $1.6 billion in 2015 dollars.)

Missionaries in the region were used to distribute food, clothing, and other aid purchased with the donated funds. From 1915 to 1930, the committee saved over a million refugees and took responsibility for 130,000 orphans. Simultaneously, nearly 1,000 Americans volunteered to go to the region to build orphanages and assist refugees. Thousands more cared for dislocated Armenians when they made their way to the U.S.

The committee for Armenian relief still exists today, having evolved into the Near East Foundation, a charity which aids economic development in the Levant and Africa, in partnership with Syracuse University.

In 1863, John Rockefeller introduced kerosene to China as part of the expansion of his thriving oil business. To lend a practical boost to its romantic marketing slogan “oil for the lamps of China,” Standard Oil donated more than 8 million kerosene lights to residents of China, then built a commercial and cultural relationship that formed a foundation for Sino-American relations into the next century. In addition to weaving strong business connections, Rockefeller became a major philanthropic donor in China.

Rockefeller’s gifts to the Chinese for education and medical care were unprecedented. After an expert commission reported that China’s need for medical modernization was “great beyond any anticipation,” the Rockefeller Foundation established its China Medical Commission in 1914. The first task was to visit hospitals throughout the country and study the health of the nation’s population and the quality of medical practice. Then the commission set out to help make improvements, at a time when China had the highest mortality rate in the world.

One recommendation was to build up a potent medical school in China’s capital. The Rockefeller Foundation assumed all financial responsibility for the Peking Union Medical College, which had been created in 1906 by six Christian missionary societies. Steady effort transformed the college into an advanced institution, subsequently known as “the cradle of modern medicine in China.” One journalist described PUMC after Rockefeller’s beneficence as “an airplane college in a wheelbarrow country.”

In 1928, Rockefeller provided an endowment and set up a freestanding China Medical Board to continue this work as an independent American foundation. With the arrival of the communist government, the board withdrew from China and the Peking medical school in 1950. In 1980, the CMB was invited to return to China, where it has expanded its support of medical education and research to more than a dozen universities.

When World War I broke out in 1914, about 60,000 Jews were living in Palestine under the rule of the Turks (who sided with Germany). The outbreak of hostilities left these Jews, many of them recent immigrants from Europe who depended upon assistance from Jews in other countries, isolated and destitute. When U.S. ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau discovered their misery he sent an urgent telegram to Jewish philanthropist Jacob Schiff in New York City: “Palestinian Jews facing terrible crisis…belligerent countries stopping their assistance…serious destruction threatens thriving colonies…$50,000 needed.” The U.S. ambassador, in other words, was begging private donors to rescue this vulnerable population.

Three U.S. Jewish charities quickly set up what they called the Joint Distribution Committee to raise the necessary money from individuals, synagogues, and community philanthropies, then dispatch it abroad. As World War I dragged on, and pogroms in Russia flared up and other threats appeared, the JDC found plenty to do. Between 1914 and 1925 the committee collected $59 million and sent it overseas to aid besieged foreign Jews in a variety of lands. When World War II arrived, the group began operating secretly in Nazi-occupied Europe, helping hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate, smuggling aid into prison camps, and financing the Warsaw ghetto uprising. After the war, the committee mobilized to sustain surviving Jews in refugee camps, to relocate many to Israel or other havens, and to provide emergency aid during the difficult early years of the Israeli state.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee still operates today as a thriving nonprofit. In 2015 it spent $339 million to aid poor and threatened Jews overseas. Fully 42 percent of that was spent in the former Soviet republics, and 38 percent in Israel.

The Rockefeller Foundation was at the center of the global effort to control diseases in the first half of the twentieth century. That was its very goal when the foundation established the International Health Commission—the first philanthropic organization dedicated to that cause—with a $25,000 gift in 1913. The smashing success of Rockefeller’s initiative to control hookworm in the American South had encouraged the foundation trustees to extend new health efforts beyond the borders of the U.S. Many of the structures and procedures that worked against hookworm were copied for the IHC. In this fashion, Rockefeller created many of the practices and protocols that became the new discipline of “public health.”

Hookworm was a major cause of high mortality among blacks in the West Indies, so Rockefeller’s trustees directed many of their first international grants to the Caribbean and Latin America. Throughout, the intention was to train and equip medical professionals in each country so they could sustain public-health improvements after the foundation departed. The international hookworm program quickly began to succeed as its U.S. predecessor had, so the commission next initiated campaigns against deadly yellow fever in 1914, and malaria (“the heaviest handicap on the welfare and economic efficiency of the human race”) in 1915. The board used pilot projects against both diseases in the U.S. to inform its treatment and research agendas overseas.

All three of these initial programs made great strides in meliorating cruel epidemics. In time, the entity eventually renamed as the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation was operating in more than 80 foreign countries. Rockefeller thereby became hugely influential on the ways that world health plagues were attacked in the future.

Andrew Carnegie was deeply utopian on the question of international peace. (See the 1910 entry on our list of achievements in Public-Policy philanthropy.) He was enthralled by the declarations and treaties promising world amity that flowed out of the conventions held in 1899 and then 1907 in The Hague, Holland’s capital. Carnegie was asked to build a “temple” to peace at the Hague, and ultimately provided $1.5 million to erect the “Peace Palace” that opened in 1913. In the strife-filled century since its construction, the ornate administrative building has been home base for many high-minded organizations. It currently houses the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Hague Academy of International Law, and the Peace Palace Library.

The American missionary movement reached its peak influence in the late 1800s, when thousands of Christians funded by donors and churches back home were in service overseas. After the U.S. annexed the Philippines in 1898 as a consequence of the Spanish-American War, leaders of the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist churches met in New York to discuss how they could best aid the indigenous populations of those islands. The Spaniards had imposed Catholicism as a state religion, and as that was ended U.S. missionaries in the Philippines created an Evangelical Union in 1901 to allocate regions of responsibility to specific denominations and mission groups. More than 200 Protestant groups were active in the islands at one point. Most of the population remained Catholic, but Protestant missionaries founded many of the schools, universities, and hospitals in the country, and cultivated a new generation of leaders, including many who ultimately led the nationalist movement that brought the Philippines independence in 1946.

Andrew Carnegie, one of the fathers of modern philanthropy, was born in Scotland. When industrialization crippled his father’s handloom business, the Carnegie family emigrated to America in search of a better future. Andrew emphatically found that future, starting in a mill job at age 13 and controlling 20 percent of U.S. iron and steel production by the time he was in his 50s.

When Carnegie devoted himself entirely to philanthropy after retiring in 1901, he made provisions for the people and communities of Scotland as well as for Americans. Among other actions, he created the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland with an unprecedented gift of $10 million. The Scottish universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St. Andrews were to use funds from the trust to expand their scientific research capabilities, and build libraries, academic facilities, and residences.

Carnegie later created additional trusts in the United Kingdom to underwrite worthy projects in education and culture. These still rank among the largest grant-giving organizations in that country. And Carnegie’s legendary library-building program extended beyond U.S. borders to the British Isles—where he funded the construction of 660 public libraries.

Through human history, leprosy has been one of the most supremely feared diseases, sometimes known as “the death before death.” When the affliction reached the Hawaiian Islands, every victim was forced to relocate to a remote and completely wild peninsula where he or she was dumped with some seeds and a few tools and ever thereafter cut off from the outside world. Many of these quarantined persons were starving, filthy, and living in squalid huts made of nothing but branches when a Catholic priest named Joseph Damien de Veuster volunteered to serve the eight-year-old leper colony in 1873. He provided medical care, pressed lepers to plant gardens, built public structures, rescued orphans, fought off anti-social residents, and saw to it that people who died were properly buried (1,600 funerals and handmade animal-proof coffins in his first six years).

Damien energetically dispatched fundraising letters that pulled in the donations that funded his improvements, first from church parishioners, then from citizens who read his accounts in newspapers, eventually from the Hawaiian royal family, and from people in many lands inspired by his story. He also attracted other volunteer priests and nuns from America. At the age of 49, Father Damien died of complications from leprosy.

Calvin Mateer and his wife, Julia, were missionaries sent to China by the Presbyterian Church in 1864. They were charged with opening a free school for boys in what is today Shandong province. They set to work as soon as they arrived and, despite significant obstacles, planted China’s first Christian school for children. They and their funders back in the States provided the students with food, clothing, medical care, and supplies, in addition to an education. Both Christians and non-Christians were welcomed, and the school filled quickly.

Calvin used his language skills to produce and translate many Chinese materials for instruction and use in missions. He was the first American to publish primers on the Chinese language. And he presided over translation of the Bible into Mandarin. He and his wife gradually expanded their Tengchow School with financial support from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and summoned additional missionaries.

Eventually, the Mateers added college-level instruction, establishing Tengchow College as the first modern institution of higher education in China. They particularly emphasized science, and taught classes themselves in astronomy and mathematics. Their students played an important role across north China as teachers in early schools. Tengchow College grew into what is today Shandong University, a major national institution with more than 50,000 students.

The growing popularity of overseas missions spurred significant private giving by Americans in the later 1800s. These gifts exported American-style schools, colleges, hospitals, and public works overseas, and sustained the many thousands of missionaries who manned these projects. The first American-style overseas college created in this way was Robert College, set up in Istanbul in 1863. It was named for New York philanthropist Christopher Robert, who poured $600,000 into it, and run by missionary Cyrus Hamlin. Other New York donors like the Dodge and Huntington families also supported the school, allowing it to add degrees and serve both male and female students, a groundbreaking practice at that time and place.

With organizing help from groups like the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, other similar institutions followed—like Syrian Protestant College founded in 1866 with a substantial endowment provided by U.S. donors. Its medical school was planned from the beginning to be one of its central features. It is now known as the American University of Beirut. These institutions produced many important alumni over the years.

American trader and large-scale philanthropist George Peabody relocated to London—from which much of his business originated—in mid-life. He was moved by the plight of that city’s poor, and over the years mulled various schemes for helping everyday families, including a water purification plant that would pipe pure drinking water to public fountains, and various forms of education aid. He finally settled on a plan to address the problem that was then most urgent in London—the horrendous slums into which many families crowded unhealthily.

With a gift of $2.5 million in 1862, Peabody created the Peabody Donation Fund. He appointed American and English trustees, and charged the charity with creating decent housing for “the labouring poor.” The first block opened in 1864, a handsome building with every two apartments sharing their own full bathroom. Many additional model properties followed. The charity still operates today as a housing and urban regeneration charity, now known as the Peabody Trust, and owns 27,000 properties that it rents at moderate rates. It also offers assisted living for people needing help, and various efforts to promote home ownership and healthy living.

Potato blight ravaged crops all across Europe in the 1840s, but in 1846 three quarters of Ireland’s harvest was lost, leading to massive hunger and rampant disease. Amid shocking government incompetence, from a population of eight million a million people perished, and another million or so fled to the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. When it became evident that state authorities were not going to fend off the starvation, the Quakers in Dublin sent out a call for philanthropic action in November 1846. This, along with harrowing reports like those of starving dogs clawing up shallow graves and consuming the dead, got heavy play in U.S. newspapers. The result was more American giving for the Great Famine in Ireland than to any other cause in the first half of the nineteenth century. Donations poured in not just from Irish immigrants but from Protestants, Jews, Quakers, African Americans, and citizens of all stripes, mostly in small amounts but large numbers.

American aid “evoked a great national response in Ireland,” notes historian Merle Curti, and “encouraged emigrants and would-be emigrants to think of America as a place of refuge, as offering a chance to share in an abundant society. The Irish relief campaign also fixed fairly well the main pattern of American giving for the relief of a disaster abroad.”

The 1821 outbreak of the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Turks stirred deep sympathies among Americans, for whom the struggle for liberty and democracy in a fabled land recalled their own revolution not so long before. A May 1821 letter to John Quincy Adams by one of the Greek leaders sought American support as “friends, co-patriots and brothers, because you are fair, philanthropic, and brave.” While the American government insisted on a position of neutrality during the war, local civic groups encouraged giving. Volunteers traveled to Greece—like Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, who after completing his degree at Harvard Medical School served as chief surgeon of the nascent Greek Navy. Howe and many other such American volunteers spoke at fundraising gatherings in cities like Albany, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. West Point cadets raised $515, while Yale and Rutgers students raised $500 and $177, respectively. Many modest donations were bundled together and dispatched across the globe, the first American effort to provide emergency relief to a foreign people.

The first Christian missionaries to land in Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands) were funded by donations to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. A group of men, women, and children from Massachusetts—a mix of Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Dutch Reformists—arrived to begin their service after spending a grueling 164 days at sea. They began building schools and churches, provided medical care that was avidly appreciated by natives, taught farming, home building, and sewing, established the first written form of the Hawaiian language, and printed materials in the native tongue, including classic Hawaiian tales.

The ruling families of Hawaii began to send their children to mission schools, and to convert to Christianity in the 1820s and 1830s. An 1839 Edict of Toleration from King Kamehameha III established religious liberty in the islands.

When whalers began to frequent Hawaiian ports in the 1820s, the missionaries intervened to protect natives from exploitation, weathering threats for their trouble. The missionaries also agitated against native practices like widespread infanticide and occasional human sacrifice. Every few years, ships brought additional small groups of missionary families; some became permanent residents while others rotated home. The actions of the American missionaries were crucial in linking Hawaii to the U.S. and eventual statehood.

  • Orramel and Ann Gulick, The Pilgrims of Hawaii (Revell, 1918)

The ABCFM was founded during the Second Great Awakening by several students from Williams College, with the intention of helping to spread Christianity worldwide. The organization was supported by individual donations and financial apportionments from the Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Dutch Reformed denominations. It was America’s first charity focused on needy persons in other lands. The group’s first fundraising appeal produced $1,000. Then a $30,000 bequest from the widow of a wealthy Massachusetts merchant allowed the board to plan its first mission to India, which commenced in 1812. Rising popular support and individual donations added missions to Ceylon, China, Singapore, Siam, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Persia, western Africa, southern Africa, and the Sandwich Islands.

All missionaries were trained and ordained, often from colleges like Middlebury, Amherst, and Williams where evangelical feeling then burned bright. Many of them translated the Bible into new, sometimes previously unwritten, languages. They built schools and health facilities. Lots ended up advising local governments, and advocating for human rights. More than 1,250 missionaries were sent afield in the organization’s first 50 years, almost always in married couples.

The ABCFM also developed a strong emphasis on missions to American Indians. They first ministered to Cherokees in Tennessee, and then followed displaced southeastern tribes to Michigan, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Oregon. During Indian uprisings, missionaries attended to Indians in jail or sent on exile. They produced Bibles, dictionaries, and schoolbooks in Dakota and Ojibwe when there were no print versions of these languages. They trained indigenous preachers and leaders.

Another religiously driven, philanthropically funded missionary society that had major effects on America and overseas countries during the nineteenth century was the American Missionary Association. For more information on that group, see the 1846 entry on the companion list of achievements in Public-Policy Reform.

Arts & Culture

Private philanthropy has created and continues to sustain America’s culturally rich and artistic activities.


More philanthropic donations are channeled to education than any other sector except religion.

Local Projects

An overwhelming percentage of American philanthropy takes place locally – bounty sharing among neighbors.

Medicine & Health

Medical philanthropy has a long history, from charity hospitals to the development of life-saving therapies.

Nature, Animals & Parks

National parks, urban green spaces, zoos and aquariums, and wildlife protections have been created by private givers.


Americans have built a reputation as charitable neighbors, providing assistance beyond their own borders.


Fighting poverty is one of the oldest charitable imperatives and requires tackling the sources that lead to it.

Public-Policy Reform

Donating money to modify public thinking and government policy has become a constructive branch of philanthropy.


Religious giving is a pillar of belief and conformity with divine intentions, expanding faith and bringing enlightenment.