Fighting poverty is one of the oldest charitable imperatives. This in turn often requires battling syndromes that lead to poverty—like family breakdown, alcohol and drug abuse, or unfair bias. Philanthropists often act to make their fellow citizens more prosperous, and to spread economic flourishing broadly among all Americans. Private donors were helping Indians, African-Americans, ethnic minorities, refugees, and women become educated and economically productive many decades before government agencies were committed to fair and equal opportunity. 

Donors have often been motivated by religious impulses in areas like aid to the poor, help for orphans and families, measures for racial fairness, prison reform, anti-addiction efforts, and the like. Many entries on the list below could just as easily have been filed on our forthcoming roster of Major Achievements in Religious Philanthropy. Likewise, many charities that might have been included here because of their success in spreading prosperity among Americans—like the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill Industries, etc.—will instead be found on our Religious Philanthropy list. 

As common as efforts to extend economic success to widening circles of citizens have been, interventions that encourage economic flourishing more generally have been almost as popular among philanthropists. Many donors believe that expanding our economic pie over the long run is the very best way to ensure that everyone eventually earns a generous slice. Gifts to economic research and the hard sciences, for example, are usually made in the hope of increasing general prosperity. Nearly a third of the funds available for science research at America’s top 50 universities currently come from private donations. Top lab directors like Eric Lander and Leroy Hood have energetically explained how important philanthropy is as a form of risk capital that lets scientists explore unconventional, unusually hard, or very-early-stage problems. Many technical breakthroughs that later bear economic fruit in abundance are powered by donations. Even defense-related innovations like artificial intelligence, rocketry, code-breaking, radar, and sonar that we think of as classic government responsibilities have been initiated by philanthropy. 

— Section research provided by Karl Zinsmeister, Scott Walter, Jo Kwong, Thomas Meyer

By 2017, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation had already donated more than $80 million to fix a problem the rest of the world was just becoming aware of: a large fraction of all scientific research today is badly flawed, impossible to reproduce, and inaccurate. When it comes to improving the quality of science, says science watchdog John Ioannidis, “the Arnold Foundation has been the Medici.”

One beneficiary has been the Reproducibility Project, launched by a University of Virginia professor to test how many of the studies published in top psychology journals could be repeated with the same experimental result by other scientists. Only about four out of ten, it turned out. With Arnold funding, this has led to new efforts to improve the quality and integrity of research by helping, and pressing, scientists to post their raw data for public study and otherwise be more open about their procedures and assumptions.

Similar critiques and reform projects supported by the foundation helped expose the arbitrary and incomplete nature of many of today’s scientific pronouncements on nutrition, and flaws in much of the research that produces pharmaceutical drugs. This single-handed work by the Arnolds helped convince a majority of scientists themselves that current research is plagued with biases and “reproducibility” flaws. A 2016 investigation by the journal Nature found that more than 70 percent of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments.

The Arnold Foundation has made long-term commitments to continue airing this problem, and funding potential solutions built on better and more open research methods, for decades to come.

Recognizing that there is a "world beyond the academy" where college students can and should learn important lessons that might be hard to internalize on campus, donor Andrew Davis gave $25 million to Colby College in Maine to create DavisConnects. The staff assigned to this new program will work with students starting in their first year to plan out a series of work experiences, internships, independent research, and travel abroad that can "complement their core academic program." In addition to providing the staff and campus building where this out-of-classroom learning can be mapped out, Davis's gift also provides all necessary funds for living stipends and travel costs so that students of modest incomes can partake of unpaid research or internships or study abroad just as higher-income students are able to.

When physician Gregory Rodchenkov, runner Yuliya Stepanov, and sports-training official Vitaly Stepanov told reporters about the massive program they had participated in to give Russian athletes an advantage in international competitions by feeding them steroid cocktails and other illegal performance aids, they made themselves unemployable. They also took their lives in their hands. The Russian government vilified them and accused them of treason, in a time when numerous dissenters and whistleblowers against the Russian government have mysteriously died.

To better support individuals from around the world who report illegal doping and other violations of fair play in international sports competitions, a new nonprofit was incorporated in the U.S. in 2017 with support from donors. The charity Fair Sport aims to raise around $4 million every year in voluntary contributions, plus pro bono legal hours donated by a range of law firms, so it can offer direct support to whistleblowers. Fair Sport will not conduct any investigations—instead referring those who come forward to national and international sports regulators—but it will lend legal assistance to those who hand over evidence, provide housing and immigration to informants who must go into hiding (as Rodchenkov and the Stepanovs did in the U.S.), and offer therapy, criminal defense, and practical help in starting a new life.

The new field of “data science” trains people in how to sift, clean, organize, and make practical use of the huge new mounds of information now being produced by computer networks. It involves not just analysis but also new techniques like machine learning and advanced visualization that help find the patterns in giant data dumps, and then turn them into understandings that can drive actions that will be useful to society. For instance: a data scientist might analyze the millions of requests for rides made by Uber users to discover the most efficient places to stage drivers, or build future roads, or establish mass transit pickups, or site new residences. An epidemiologist might use data science to find commonalities in patients experiencing a rare disease. The economic value of new insights and discoveries made through data science can be very large.

Like many new intellectual fields, data science is just starting to develop consistent understandings and ways of working, and its practitioners are fitfully separating themselves from related areas of knowledge like statistics, information technology, mathematics, and graphic arts. University programs are doing most of this exploration at the frontiers of today’s data explosion, and San Diego donor Taner Halicioglu is making the University of California, San Diego one of the leaders in this area.

A UCSD graduate himself, Halicioglu was the first full-time hire of Facebook when he joined the firm as a software engineer, and subsequently became wealthy as the firm mushroomed. After leaving Facebook and becoming a lecturer back at his alma mater, he made a $2 million gift to the UCSD computer department in 2015. Then in 2017 he announced a $75 million gift specifically focused on building up a data-science institute at the university that can become a leader in the field.

In 2015, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced that they will gradually give away 99 percent of their Facebook stock to “improve the world.” Their first moves were to set up an organization to invest in the improvement and reform of schools. Then in the fall of 2016 they drove down some stakes on a second priority: basic science research. They announced they would invest $3 billion over the next 10 years, with a particular emphasis on preventing, curing, or managing diseases.

An early $600 million was allocated to creating a “biohub” that will induce scientists from three local universities—Stanford, U. Cal Berkeley, and UCSF—to collaborate more in their separate, comparatively massive, biomedical research. Almost immediately, grants were made available to science faculty from the three universities for investigations likely to be considered too risky for government funding.

This same year, another computer pioneer, Paul Allen, pledged $100 million to create a new organization called the Frontiers Group that will similarly support bioscience deemed too new or too untested to attract grant money from government agencies like the National Institutes of Health. It will be managed as a third entity under the Allen Institute umbrella that earlier launched powerful research efforts in cell science (see nearby 2014 entry) and brain science (see 2003 entry on list of achievements in Medicine).

No donor had ever given a social-work school a gift as large as $60 million. The previous high was the $50 million that Constance and Martin Silver donated to New York University’s social-work school back in 2007. But what made 2016’s record-setting benefaction to the University of Southern California School of Social Work doubly surprising was that it came from someone who is a prominent social worker herself. “Wealthy social worker” is not a phrase that gets typed often in newsrooms. Yet in addition to her work within her main profession, Suzanne Dworak-Peck was able to accumulate a fortune through real-estate investments in southern California, and a consultancy that advised film and media producers on how to portray social problems in entertainment.

The USC social-work department to which she directed her gift is the largest such school in the world. It has an enrollment of 3,500 students, and produces one out of every 20 graduate-level social workers in the U.S. Among other things, it is known for its research in aging, its correlated nursing program, and an unusual specialty in military social work. (One professor in that last USC niche was Anthony Hassan, now director of the innovative mental-health network for veterans funded by philanthropist Steven Cohen—see 2016 entry on our list of Medicine achievements.)

Phil Knight has made some of the largest university donations in history. In 2016 he landed a whopping $500 million on his alma mater—the University of Oregon (which gave him a degree in business, and whose track coach he co-founded the Nike sportswear company with). The university plans to raise an equivalent amount from other philanthropists and use the sum to create a new center aimed at speeding translation of science discoveries into useable products. At the Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, 30 new researchers will be hired to lead investigations, and 550 students will work and experiment in three new buildings, with an initial emphasis on biomedical subjects. Businesses sparked by the center are expected to eventually employ 750 entrepreneurs and staff in a cluster around the incubator.

Not many donors have a fossil park named for them. Jean and Ric Edelman earned theirs with a $25 million gift that allowed Rowan University in New Jersey to purchase the best repository east of the Mississippi of Cretaceous Era animal remains, including dinosaur fossils. Rowan professor and prominent geologist Kenneth Lacovara is leading research at the site, which will also be used for popular science education of children and adult visitors, through construction of a museum, lab, visitor center, and paleontology-themed playground. The Edelmans started their philanthropic support of their alma mater with a million-dollar gift to fund the university’s planetarium and associated science-education programs. Their wealth derives from a financial-advisory company they jointly founded and expanded into the largest such independent firm in the country.

Led by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, about a half dozen living donors and another half dozen foundations have joined forces in a cooperative calling itself Blue Meridian Partners that will deliver major, long-term support to a limited number of proven charities serving children. The group intends to collectively donate at least a billion dollars over the next decade. With this large, reliable, long-term funding stream directed to organizations that have proven their ability to improve life courses, hundreds of thousands of youngsters may enjoy a better future.

As of 2017, eight supporters had pledged to spend at least $50 million each in this coordinated way: living donors Stanley Druckenmiller (who will chair the board), Steve Ballmer, Sergey Brin, Arthur Samberg, George Kaiser, and David Tepper, plus the Duke Endowment and Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. An interesting governance structure gives each of these “general partners” a vote on the dispersal of funds. The effort also has four “limited partners” who committed at least $10 million to the joint effort: the Hewlett, JPB, Packard, and Schusterman Family foundations. These contributors will not vote, but by riding on the effort’s coattails will benefit from its research, grantee assistance, technical assessment, and other services.

Six charities had been selected to receive the pooled funding as of 2017. Each will receive both money and assistance with planning and management. This will allow them to dramatically expand their successful programs.

The Nurse-Family Partnership (which brings nurses into the homes of low-income mothers as they bear their first child, almost always out of wedlock) will receive $33 million to expand its services, which have been demonstrated to improve both the development of children and the economic self-sufficiency of mothers.

The signature adoption-assistance program of the Dave Thomas Foundation, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, was promised $35 million over four years. That will fund the first phase of a 12-year plan to move many hard-to-place foster children (those with disabilities, siblings, advanced age, etc.) into families.

Youth Villages (which operates 11 group homes for teens and young adults with behavioral, emotional, and criminal problems) got a commitment from Blue Meridian Partners for $36 million over four years.

Year Up, an organization that shepherds poor youngsters into jobs and community colleges, will receive $40 million in expansion funding over four years. Two medical charities that will receive smaller grants complete the initial investments of the partnership.

Deciding which arrestees to keep in jail while they await trial is one of the more difficult and arbitrary tasks facing judges. Under-incarcerate arrestees and they may disappear, endanger witnesses or victims, or commit additional crimes that harm the community. Over-hold arrestees and you may cause innocent parties or minor offenders to lose their jobs, have a hard time preparing their defense, or endure unnecessary stress while locked up awaiting trial.

In 2015, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation rolled out a new tool to make this judgment easier, fairer, and more efficient. The tool was developed by studying the actual results of 1.5 million cases across the country, and it allows judges to enter the charge, criminal history, and age of the arrestee, then get a scientific, real-life assessment of the wisdom of either holding him or letting him remain at home until trial. This avoids subjective unfairness, jailing’s potentially toxic effects on people’s lives, and unnecessary taxpayer expense for housing inmates.

During the past 20 years the average stay for a jail inmate has grown from 14 days to more than three weeks. Pilot tests of the new Arnold tool show that it will reduce jail populations by about 20 percent. The foundation has offered to provide the tool for free to any city, county, or state that would like to have it available. In 2015 it was introduced in 29 jurisdictions—including three large cities (Chicago, Charlotte, and Phoenix) and three entire states (Arizona, Kentucky, and New Jersey).

Both local jail and federal prison populations have peaked—jail numbers started declining in 2008, and prison levels topped out in 2013. But a number of philanthropies have expressed interest in further speeding deincarceration. The John and Catherine MacArthur Foundation announced in 2015 that it was dedicating $75 million to help local jurisdictions find ways to reduce jail populations. It granted $150,000 to 16 counties, three cities, and one state to help them develop ideas for reducing jailing, with follow-up grants of up to $2 million promised so half of them can put their plans into action. The foundation also funded academic research on alternatives to sending people to jail.

In hard meritocracies like engineering and computer science, either you can solve a problem or you can’t—there is no credit for having a glitzy credential or a fancy label on your stationery. Harvard and other top universities that are not used to being also-rans have found over the past decade that their engineering, computer science, and applied science schools have fallen behind leading institutions like Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Cornell, and Stanford. In these fields where change is blindingly fast, improvement must be constant or one will be lapped by the rest of the field.

Back in 1996, Microsoft executives Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates gave Harvard $25 million for a new engineering building that they hoped would lift Harvard toward the upper tier in computing and engineering. But just from 2007 to 2014, undergraduate enrollment in engineering at Harvard tripled. By 2010, the facility provided by Ballmer and Gates was overcrowded and dated.

As the fastest-growing major at Harvard, computer science has particularly outstripped the university’s ability to keep up. So in 2014 Ballmer came back to his alma mater with a gift (rumored to be approximately $60 million) to increase the school’s computer-science faculty from 24 to 36 professors. This 50 percent expansion will allow a similar increase in student studies.

Just a few months later, in 2015, financier John Paulson emphatically put his own imprint on this effort to improve Harvard’s engineering programs. He provided $400 million—the university’s largest gift ever—to endow its school of engineering and applied sciences. This will allow the engineers to leap to an entirely new campus in Allston, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Harvard Yard, where they will occupy advanced new facilities next to the university’s innovation lab and business school. With engineers, entrepreneurs, and innovators placed together in an enterprise zone stocked with powerful tools, it is hoped that much useful scientific invention will follow.

In 2011, Howard Schultz (who turned a little Seattle coffee house called Starbucks into a business behemoth) visited West Point to talk to cadets. He came away struck by the competence, humility, and cooperative spirit of the future Army officers. He and his wife Sheri starting visiting military bases and medical centers, and learned that many soldiers were more concerned about the prospect of finding a job after the end of their military service than they were about deploying to war zones. Having built a company with 238,000 employees, work was a subject Schultz knew something about.

In 2014 he announced that he would donate $30 million to create a special job-training program for veterans. Through a mix of detailed career assessments, multi-week skill training, and job-search assistance, the new initiative plans to help 8,000 vets launch good careers every year, at a cost of between $1,600 per job placement for those who go through full training to $500 per placement for those placed directly into jobs. By the end of 2016, the program was up and running in nine regions of the U.S., offering four broad job tracks and 20 training pathways, with more expansion to come.

  • Thomas Meyer, Uniform Champions: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Excellent Assistance for Veterans (Philanthropy Roundtable, 2017)

The Turing Award is the highest prize in computer science. Since first being awarded in 1966 it has grown in importance along with its field. In 2007, it began to include a cash award of $250,000, thanks to corporate donations from Google and Intel. In 2014 Google sharply increased its support so the prize could be quadrupled to $1 million. That approximately matches the Nobel award, and puts Turing in the major league of scientific honors and incentives.

Human cells are complicated machines, and scientists have recently gathered lots of detail about their sub-elements. But “nobody studies how these entities function as complex systems, and how they interact to determine cellular behaviors. Instead, people focus on just a small, manageable part,” says biologist Rick Horwitz. This is mostly because of the way academic labs are structured (to support deep dives on narrow slices of a problem) and the way government research money is distributed (only to very tightly defined projects, not for exhaustive, boundary-breaking macro-examinations).

To understand the astonishing ways that cells transform themselves, signal each other, migrate, and take various kinds of “action,” however, microstudies of proteins and genes and chemicals are not enough. One must watch the whole sprawling “movie” of what the cell does over time, and identify patterns. That essentially is what former Microsoft co-founder and current multibillion-dollar philanthropist Paul Allen created a new cell-science institute to accomplish. He donated $100 million to start the work, and personally recruited Rick Horwitz from the University of Virginia to direct the effort.

The institute’s 70 researchers work as one interdisciplinary team rather than as independent investigators. They use induced pluripotent stem cells—a new creation that allows a common skin cell, for instance, to be converted into a stem cell after scientists use chemicals and other stimulations to turn off certain genetic switches. A stem cell is capable of growing into any other more specialized cell (bone, muscle, blood, etc.), depending on what the body needs. By taking long, complete sequences of microscope images of those stem cells transforming themselves into more specialized cells, the Allen Institute scientists believe they will gather tremendous amounts of big-picture information about cellular machinery.

The institute will advance the field by releasing to all interested researchers both the original “movies” and any conclusions the Allen investigators draw from them. This is a classic example of unconventional, highly speculative science that is almost never funded through traditional university and government channels, yet can be a forte of philanthropy.

In 2017 Paul Allen created another new center, at the University of Washington, to map the development of cells using a different fresh technology. Every creature starts as a single cell, yet ends up with (in the case of humans) trillions of cells doing very different things. How do subsequent generations of cells grow and specialize over time?

Allen’s Center for Cell Lineage Tracing will insert “recorders” into the cells of mice and zebrafish that will trace their lineage from ancestor cells, and show how they mutated to take on specific tasks. Using this information and lots of computing power, the Allen teams will map the development of organisms from one zygote to a working body made up of hundreds of billions of special-purpose cells. This work—which Paul Allen funded with an initial $10 million gift, expandable to $30 million over eight years if it is successful—could produce valuable insights into human development, cancer, cellular repair, and other fields.

The so-called Research Triangle in North Carolina is one of the nation’s centers for biological research, and pharmaceutical innovation in particular. And Fred Eshelman is one of the whirlwinds at the center of North Carolina pharma, having founded and built to huge success there two different drug-research firms. A graduate of the University of North Carolina School of Pharmacy, Eshelman started donating to his alma mater in 2003 and gave a total of $38 million over a decade.

In 2014 Eshelman noted that “in the past ten years the school has generated more than 130 patents and created 15 spinoff companies. Their success demonstrates the power and the future of drug discovery in academia, and it’s a future that I am eager and proud to support.” With that, he announced a new mega-gift: $100 million to create within the pharmacy school a center explicitly focused on creating valuable drug products that will “fuel innovation, create jobs, and spur economic development in the state.”

In addition to bulking up his region’s economic productivity, the Eshelman donations helped build the UNC School of Pharmacy into one of the largest and highest rated educational facilities of its sort, with about 750 students enrolled in one of its degree programs at any given time.

Bill Ahmanson has a long history of supporting high-quality colleges, particularly in his home region of southern California. But he noticed that young men and women with military experience were underrepresented on these campuses. Indeed, at institutions like Harvard, Duke, Princeton, and MIT, the number of veterans enrolled as undergrads today can be counted literally on one hand. On the other hand, young people just out of the military are doing superbly at excellent universities like Columbia, Georgetown, USC, and Syracuse, so it’s clear the problem is simply that some elite colleges have no idea how to enroll students who don’t follow the conventional “right out of high school” path to campus.

Ahmanson went to work to help fix this at colleges in his area. He even included campuses that didn’t seem like prime candidates to enroll veterans, like three art schools and a women’s college. He asked leaders at the 24 campuses he partnered with to simply pledge initially that they would enroll at least one more veteran every year than they had in their prior class. This allowed administrators to gradually discover how to make themselves more compatible with students from military backgrounds. Ahmanson offered each of the campuses an annual gift of $50,000 for scholarship aid and new programming that would make veterans a normal and permanent part of their student bodies. A number of schools found other donors willing to match the Ahmanson funds, or augmented the funds themselves.

After four years, Ahmanson had invested $5 million in this effort, and many of the participating colleges “blew the doors” off their modest pledges. Some schools ended up with hundreds of veterans enrolled as undergraduates. Across the country, other donors were providing funds at this same time for similar mixes of dedicated scholarships and new administrative efforts to support veterans on top campuses. For instance, a number of companies donated money to the Posse Foundation to support its new program to enroll vets at places like Vassar College, Wesleyan University, and Dartmouth College. Real-estate developer Conrad Prebys pledged $20 million in 2014 for scholarships aimed at veterans in his hometown of San Diego.

The effort spread not only to other colleges but to different kinds of degrees: In 2016, Eric Gleacher gave $10 million to the University of Chicago to help veterans get MBAs there, and brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta put $15 million into New York University for the same purpose. The next year, Peter Nolan followed suit with a $10 million commitment to support veterans at Cornell’s business school.

  • Thomas Meyer, Uniform Champions: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Excellent Assistance for Veterans (Philanthropy Roundtable, 2017)

The B612 Foundation was founded by an ex-NASA astronaut to study ways of deflecting or destroying asteroids with the potential to be dangerous if they strike Earth. Eventually, the nonprofit reached the conclusion that it was coming at the problem from the wrong end—because no one knows the location of every space rock big enough to do damage, and neither NASA nor any other government agency had a plan to map all of the asteroids that could endanger humans. So in 2012 the foundation shifted its mission: It would partner with space-imaging leader Ball Aerospace to design and launch its own space-based infrared telescope capable of scanning the solar system and identifying all objects whose size and orbit made them threats. Once that was done, deflection would be realistic.

The private spacecraft planned to do the job is priced at $450 million (about half what the government was going to spend in a failed project). Funding is being sought from hundreds of private donors, including leaders of major Silicon Valley companies, philanthropies like the William Bowes Foundation and, plus corporate matching funds from firms like Microsoft and Google. The project received a fresh boost in 2013 when a previously unknown meteor exploded over Russia and injured more than 1,200 people.

In 2012, two major philanthropists—oil-and-gas pioneer George Mitchell and Wall Street entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg—announced a joint effort by their foundations to encourage safe and efficient production of natural gas via shale fracking. They proposed to head off problems through “common-sense” state rules and voluntary adoption of best practices by the industry. The two foundations put up millions of dollars for efforts to improve fracking by minimizing water concerns, reducing methane leaks, optimizing well construction, disclosing chemical usage, and reducing local impacts on roads, land, and communities.

In 2013, a related collaboration of philanthropic organizations, oil and gas companies, and environmental groups established a Center for Sustainable Shale Development. It set 15 voluntary standards for improving shale-gas production in the Appalachian region, and encourages drilling companies to earn certificates of operational excellence by meeting criteria monitored by an independent auditor. It is working with states to encourage sensible rules that will avoid environmental problems which could damage public support for hydraulic fracturing. The significance of these philanthropic assists can be seen against the fact that fracking has become one of the most consequential economic, environmental, and national-security innovations of our time—turning the U.S. into the world’s largest gas producer in 2010, and the world’s largest oil producer in 2013.

In 2010, a new method of solving social problems was proposed in Britain. It called for putting up philanthropic or private investment funds to create programs that could head off bad future outcomes that would carry social costs. If the interventions were successful in avoiding future problems, then some of the public money that consequently didn’t have to be spent on things like law enforcement or welfare programs would be shared with the program funders. This is called “pay-for-performance” social investing (or sometimes described misleadingly as a “social-impact bond”). If proven and refined over time, this could become a way for not only donors but also for-profit investors to apply the power of capitalism to the amelioration of social problems in efficient ways.

Not long after the debut of this idea in Britain, American social entrepreneurs and philanthropists imported it to the U.S. and began much more extensive testing of the concept. In 2012, Goldman Sachs put up $10 million to offer nonprofit services to New York City juvenile delinquents exiting Rikers Island prison, aiming to avoid future lockups by offering them help in finishing their education, finding jobs, and managing their lives. Bloomberg Philanthropies provided a financial guarantee of the invested funds.

While that project was not successful, other pay-for-performance experiments are currently being set up around the U.S. These include a Utah effort, using money from United Way of Salt Lake, Goldman Sachs, and philanthropist J. B. Pritzker to reduce spending on special-ed and other remedial schooling later in life by educating children in high-quality preschools. It was the first pay-for-performance test to pay off for its investors, though there is disagreement on how successful it was because the effort failed to include a control group against whom outcomes could be compared. There are efforts in Massachusetts to get chronically homeless individuals off the street, and to reduce recidivism among young released convicts. In California, the James Irvine Foundation and REDF (see 1997 entry) joined in an effort to reduce joblessness, and another pilot was launched to try to cut the social costs of treating children with asthma by managing the problem earlier. In 2014, 15 states were in the process of testing pay-for-performance ventures in collaboration with philanthropists and corporate social investors.

“We need to look into this,” said GE chairman Jeff Immelt in 2012. He was bothered by the elevated rates of unemployment among young men and women just leaving the U.S. military. He knew many of them had valuable technical skills. He also knew that his company and many others were finding it hard to hire skilled workers—fully 82 percent of manufacturers now say they can’t find adequate employees for all of their skilled production positions. Over the next decade, it is projected that America will have 2.6 million jobs for which there will be a shortage of workers with the necessary talents.

Mixing corporate philanthropy with corporate business-interest, GE thus launched its “Get Skills to Work Initiative.” The assignment was to unkink the talent pipeline so that a social problem (unemployed veterans) could be fixed at the same time as an economic problem (trained labor shortages). GE began at its aviation business in Cincinnati, and other corporations in the area were invited to join in—including Alcoa, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing, plus nearly 30 of GE’s regional suppliers. The Manufacturing Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to improving U.S. factories, was brought in to connect veterans to the areas where these companies would be hiring in the near future.

A host of companies were subsequently recruited into the Get Skills to Work Coalition, which aims to take 100,000 veterans with useful technical abilities and certify them for civilian work, placing many of them immediately in jobs. Where needed skills are not already present among vets, training paths are being established between community colleges and manufacturers. Vets are being recruited to take part through social media and at a dedicated website. 

“Smart people should be building things,” says Andrew Yang. He believes far too many graduates of top colleges currently follow the crowd into finance and law and consulting, and that more of them should become entrepreneurs, manufacturers, and businesspeople who create tangible products and jobs for others. In 2011 Yang recruited a long roster of donors to launch a 501(c)(3) inspired by Teach For America. Venture for America, like TFA, now attracts some of the nation’s best and brightest young graduates, accepting only about 15 percent of applicants, training them, then plunging them into practical work and problem-solving. VFA members are sent not to cities that are already entrepreneurial hotspots but rather to locales that are struggling or have the advantage of being low-cost for new businessmakers—like Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Las Vegas, New Orleans, St. Louis, and San Antonio. In addition to introducing the young to business as a creative act, and invigorating struggling communities, VFA aims to “restore the culture of achievement” in the U.S. by supporting those who take economic risks in hopes of achieving common good and future rewards.

Individual donors like Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh ($1 million pledge), Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert ($1.5 million), Graham Weston of Rackspace in San Antonio, and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman are supporters, as are numerous philanthropies like the PricewaterhouseCoopers Foundation, the Abell Foundation, and the Blackstone Charitable Foundation. In its first four years VFA placed 318 fellows at 150 small companies in 15 cities. Another 111 high-ranked college graduates entered the program as its class of 2015. Yang’s goal is for the companies that VFA fellows are reinforcing to create 100,000 new jobs by 2025.

Since the mid-twentieth century, community colleges scattered all across America have filled an important role in training workers to fill positions in their regional economies (see also the 1960 entry later in this section). In the twenty-first century, philanthropic support for community colleges continues to be strong.

For instance, the Gates Foundation made a $17 million grant in 2009 to strengthen remedial programs and student retention at 15 community colleges. In 2010, the foundation unveiled a $35 million investment to increase course-completion and graduation rates. “These are the schools that enroll the majority of low-income students,” said Melinda Gates in announcing the effort. “Community colleges have untapped potential for getting students the credentials they need to earn a living wage.” The Gates Foundation has allotted nearly half a billion dollars for spending in this area during the next two decades.

Bill & Melinda Gates have many philanthropic colleagues in this work. The Bernard Osher Foundation, for example, announced a $70 million grant in 2008 to bolster community colleges in California. Noting that only about half of the students who enroll in two-year colleges today end up with a degree, the Lumina Foundation made a $75 million commitment, to which the Gates Foundation and other donors made supplemental pledges, to launch a ten-year effort to improve the community-college experience. They partnered with dozens of colleges to research students’ reasons for dropping out, reduce that rate, and strengthen the institutions. Since 2011 there has been a national prize, funded by the Lumina, Joyce, and Kresge foundations and Bank of America, administered by the Aspen Institute, which awards $1 million every second year to community colleges that have done the most to increase learning, graduation rates, and the hiring and earning levels of their students.

Fred Kavli intimately understood how scientific understanding could create economic bounty—he had earned hundreds of millions of dollars applying his knowledge of physics to make precision sensors for manufacturers. So when he established the Kavli Foundation in 2000 he used it to fund theoretical physics, astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience at 17 research institutes around the world, seeding each with at least $8 million, which he asked each recipient to match. “It is unrestricted funds, which is indispensable in discovery science,” noted the foundation president. In 2008 Kavli added prizes to his science philanthropy. Every other year, three prizes are awarded, each carrying a million-dollar purse. In total, the Kavli Foundation has now funneled a quarter of a billion dollars into basic scientific investigations, confident that this will yield long-term benefits as rich as those that accrued to physicist-turned-businessman Fred Kavli himself.

Business education has been an American specialty ever since Joseph Wharton’s gift launched a special school at the University of Pennsylvania (see 1881 entry in this same section). Philanthropy remains the lifeblood of these institutions.

The largest recent gift in this area was a $300 million donation to the University of Chicago graduate school of business by David Booth in 2008. He and Rex Sinquefield, both Chicago MBAs, founded a money-management company and built it into a $300 billion fund. Having served as a research assistant to Nobel-winning economist Eugene Fama at Chicago, Booth applied many academic techniques of analysis in building his firm. Wishing to express his gratitude to the university, he made his large benefaction to the business school right in the teeth of the economic turmoil of 2008, when universities were struggling with large endowment losses. Booth’s gift was not only the biggest ever received by the University of Chicago, but also the fattest given to any business school nationwide. Renamed the Booth School, Chicago’s program is now ranked among the top U.S. MBA programs.

Among many other large gifts to business schools to recent years, here are some illustrative examples: The $200 million that real-estate developer Stephen Ross has given to the University of Michigan. Fisk Johnson’s $150 million endowment for the Cornell school in 2017. Investor Robert King’s $150 million donation to Stanford to encourage entrepreneurship overseas. John and Marion Anderson’s $142 million of support for UCLA’s school of business (which allowed it to entirely cease dependence on state funds). Real-estate investor Ernest Rady’s $130 million to build up the MBA program at the University of California, San Diego. David Tepper’s two grants to Carnegie Mellon University, focused on its business school, totaling $122 million. Nike founder Phil Knight’s $105 million gift to the Stanford b-school. (Knight also made a huge $400 million gift to Stanford that was funneled through the graduate school of business, for a program to “train global leaders.”) Florida State named its business school after Jim Moran after his widow Jan donated $100 million in 2015. In 2010, Henry Kravis gave $100 million to the Columbia Business School, and Ron Perelman offered the same sum to the same campus in 2013. When Marion Anderson donated $100 million to UCLA’s business school in 2017, that brought her family giving to that institution to $142 million in total. Fully 44 gifts of $40 million or more have been made to graduate schools of business around the country just between 2000 and 2017.

A philanthropist named Jeff Sandefer donated not only money but his full time to create an entirely new MBA program called the Acton School of Business. It grants MBAs focused wholly on entrepreneurship, using an unconventional curriculum and school structure. Acton instructors are successful businessmen themselves, and there is no tenure. The program relies on actual business cases and hands-on experience. Instead of conventional courses in finance, marketing, accounting, etc., classes are on topics like “customers” and “raising money.” Students have to sell items door-to-door, over the phone, and through a website, and they have to negotiate a real discounted sale with some merchant, or they cannot graduate. The first portion of academic work is done online, then candidates come to the campus and work intensively on a compressed schedule. This allows MBAs to be earned in one year, and, along with philanthropy donations and the fact that some top professors draw no salary and rely instead on their entrepreneurial income, lets students acquire their MBAs for about $50,000 instead of the typical price of two or three times that. Afterward, Acton graduates enter commerce much differently: while only about 5 percent of students at a conventional top MBA program start their own business right away, a quarter of Acton students do so within two months, and another quarter say they will soon.

David Weekley was involved in character-building activities as a youth through Boy Scouts and church groups. After his success as a major home builder he decided to devote 50 percent of his income and his time to philanthropy, and character development was a key concern. It “is every bit as critical as economic aid or health care or education reform,” he told Philanthropy. Weekley was a longtime funder of Scouting, which reaches 20 or 25 percent of young people; sports, however, reaches around 75 percent. “I’m not personally a sports enthusiast but the country has become more focused athletically and more and more kids are involved,” said Weekley. So he set out looking for a charitable partner who could help children and their coaches build wholesome and productive values through athletics.

Weekley discovered there was no national organization doing this well, but his gaze eventually settled on a small northern California group called the Positive Coaching Alliance. Founded in 1998 and operating at just a handful of regional locations when Weekley discovered it, PCA trains parents in positive sportsmanship, teaches coaches how to offer constructive life lessons to their charges, and helps athletes become better teammates and citizens. Weekley offered the group grants to expand first to his hometown of Houston, and then to the rest of Texas, Boston, Chicago, and dozens of other cities. Believing that decentralized leadership and local boards “are critical” to grassroots success, Weekley worked with the group’s leaders to develop a model that would allow many other cities to start their own chapters. PCA also built strong links to existing groups like Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, and the Amateur Athletic Union.

Within a few years, 5 million young athletes had been touched by the PCA, and numerous other philanthropists had gotten involved, including the S. D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, which gave the group a $2 million grant in 2012. “There’s no reason that in 10-15 years PCA can’t become like the Boy Scouts or YMCA in every major city in the country,” says Weekley. “The need for character development, given the breakdown of the family and other challenges we face in our society, is not going away, and PCA has the potential to have a major impact.”

Even in the hungriest countries, fear of landmines left behind after nasty guerrilla conflicts causes much valuable farmland to be abandoned, just because the acreage cannot be cleared of hidden dangers in a cost-effective manner. National governments and international bureaus have tried. They hire men in bomb-suits to painstakingly sweep land with handheld metal detectors. Each metallic strike must be carefully dug up to find out if it’s a booby trap or a bobby pin. A civil servant can clear about a bedroom-size plot per day using that method. Meanwhile buried explosives continue to maim innocent people every year.

As a boy, Bart Weetjens kept rats as pets. As an adult, he became interested in their powerful scent-detection abilities, and how that might be put to good use for humanity. He founded a charity that trains rats to detect TNT and raises money to deploy the animals to minefields across the globe. His so-called Hero Rats don’t false-alert on bobby pins, shell casings, or empty sardine cans—they zero in

solely on high explosives. As a result, a rat and its handler can clear 20 bedroom-size plots of land per day rather than just one. And ordinary people can go to websites like to “adopt” a Hero Rat for an $84 annual donation. (The rats get paid in bananas and peanuts.)

The rats have also been trained to detect tuberculosis in human sputum by scent. This is much faster, cheaper, and (in developing nations) more accurate than traditional microscope diagnoses. This may open new avenues for finding and eliminating tuberculosis in poor countries, where it kills 1.7 million people every year.

Astronomical observations demonstrate that as much as a quarter of the universe is made up of some material which is invisible to conventional measurements. The gravitational effects of this invisible matter can be seen, even though the material itself cannot currently be detected. Until someone figures out how to observe, measure, and categorize what is currently referred to as dark matter, many of today’s most pressing uncertainties in physics and cosmology will remain unexplained.

Given the importance of this quest, it is interesting to note that today’s best research on dark matter is being carried out only because of the intervention of a private donor. The Homestake gold mine in South Dakota, which extends nearly a mile underground, is a perfect location for a dark-matter detector, because the overlaying rock shelters any instruments placed in the mine from false signals created by the cosmic radiation that surrounds us on the surface of the Earth. After the mine closed in 2003, various government agencies hoped to create a permanent physics lab in the underground site, but failed to find funding. In swooped philanthropist Denny Sanford, a Dakotan who made his fortune in banking and has given away more than a billion dollars. He put up $70 million to secure the site, pump water out of the shafts, and create the Sanford Underground Research Facility. This sparked the state of South Dakota to commit additional funds, and the U.S. Department of Energy to underwrite the cost of science experiments on the premises.

The first such experiment, known as the Large Underground Xenon detector, went into operation in 2013 and soon excited physicists by ruling out one favored theory on the nature of dark matter. The sensitivity of the detector was then increased for additional future runs. A second important experiment under way at Sanford, called the Majorana Demonstrator, is searching to explain differences between matter and anti-matter, which could rewrite today’s standard theory of physics. In 2014 Congress funded a third major particle-physics experiment to be conducted in the Sanford Lab. It will involve beaming a string of neutrinos right through the earth from Illinois to South Dakota to test the behavior of the particles and clear up some mysteries fundamental to the origins of the universe.

Three years into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, hedge-fund co-founder David Gelbaum walked into the California Community Foundation, put $105 million into a fund, and asked that it be funneled to troops and their families in ways that would help them cope with family separations, recover from injuries incurred in battle, or make successful transitions into civilian life after their military service. He later added another $138 million, and a few stipulations: He wanted all the money sent out the door within three years. He wanted it to go to direct service, not studies or institution-building. And he wanted to do it all anonymously (which he managed to achieve for several years).

$243 million is a lot of money to spend that quickly, particularly in veterans philanthropy, which at that point was a new and very lightly trafficked field. Gelbaum and his staff began by allying themselves with the blue-chip player in this arena—the foundation run by the Fisher family, which blazed the trail for veterans giving, starting two decades previous (see 1990 entry on our list of achievements in Medical philanthropy). Gelbaum’s fund gave $43 million to various projects launched by the Fishers. This led to three large accomplishments: It provided lead funding for the Center for the Intrepid, a groundbreaking rehabilitation center in San Antonio for military amputees and burn victims. It helped create the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, which researches, diagnoses, and treats traumatic stress and brain injuries. And it paid for the construction of eight new Fisher Houses (home-like no-cost housing for family members who are caring for injured servicemembers as they recover at medical centers).

The rest of Gelbaum’s money was distributed in scores of smaller grants. Some went to existing local organizations that offer veterans job training, counseling, and economic assistance. Some went to new ventures like the educational TV programs made by the creators of “Sesame Street” to help children adjust to the deployment of their military parents. One gift built up a group called TAPS (Tragedy Assistance for Survivors) that provides emotional support to grieving family members after a wartime loss.

Some of the money was also redistributed to other community foundations around the country serving areas with lots of military families. Foundations in Texas and Florida, for instance, each received $45 million to distribute for pressing war-related needs in their home regions. The Dallas Foundation used one allocation to set up some well-used mental-health counseling for families living around Fort Hood.

David Gelbaum’s gift was the largest single philanthropic measure benefiting those who served in the U.S. military after the 9/11 attacks. It opened entirely new doors to a population in need. As a result there is now a whole ecosystem of charities serving members of the military, their families, and veterans.

Real-estate developer Bill Butler, who describes philanthropy as “central to my purpose in life,” spearheaded establishment of the Life Learning Center in 2006. It has gone on to become one of the most successful nonprofits in the country at helping struggling people heal and get jobs so they can support themselves in independence and dignity. Forty percent of the people who come to the center have a criminal record. Many have had family or substance-abuse problems. Fifteen percent dropped out of high school, 35 percent earned a high-school diploma or GED, 25 percent have some college coursework, and 25 percent actually hold some college degree (showing that education alone does not guarantee life success). The center has a highly structured curriculum that runs for 16 weeks. They want to deal with the whole person—intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually—and nurture a commitment to long-term change. The training culminates with an employment-readiness component.

“The Life Learning Center is for the person who is ready to do something drastically different in all aspects of life,” says Butler. “The attitude we look for is ‘I don’t just need food or transitional housing. I need to change what I’m doing so that everything improves.’ The center strengthens individuals so they are ready for real and lasting change, and we only admit candidates who are willing and able to commit. One must rise above a state of mind, or addiction, or illness that prevents success. Programs are most effective where there is both an economic platform and a love-centered environment that provides support.”

The Life Learning Center does not accept government dollars, but it is generously supported by Butler and a range of philanthropists and businesses in northern Kentucky and southwest Ohio. In 2014, the group opened a new $3.2 million facility with expanded classrooms, computer labs, partner-agency offices, a child-care center, a 221-seat lecture hall, a fitness center, a cafeteria, a commercial training kitchen, a credit union, room for future on-site medical services, and more. The LLC’s growth and success with difficult populations have made it a national model. Sixty-two percent of its candidates are employed by the time they finish their program. One-on-one life coaching continues beyond completion of the curriculum, and people can stop back in at any point, especially if they hit a stumbling block in their

Harald Hess and Eric Betzig are both brilliant physicists. But both hate running in a bureaucratic herd, and both have a deep aversion to the timid, bureaucratic mechanisms that dole out government science funding. Betzig got so sick of the paper shuffling that he quit academic research, becoming a househusband for a while, then going to work at his dad’s machine-tool company in Michigan, manufacturing and selling parts for the auto industry. Around that same time, his friend Harald Hess also quit his job, for many of the same reasons, to move to a small startup business.

Eventually, Hess’s enterprise was bought out, and Betzig realized he wasn’t a good enough salesman to work in business. So the two friends began to take long walks together, discussing how they might get back into high science, without having to rely on government grant money (the thought of which “created nausea for both of us,” according to Hess).

They eventually came up with a new concept for a super-high-resolution microscope that could look deep into cells at the molecular level. The stumbling block was funding. Without grants from the NIH or other agency, who would pay for this microscope? The two men eventually decided to self-fund the project by putting up $25,000 each from their retirement savings. They essentially became science donors to their own project.

They set up a lab in Hess’s condominium in San Diego, and within a couple months they had created the first Photo-Activated Localization Microscope, right there in Harald’s living room. This device established Eric Betzig and Harald Hess as leaders at a new scientific frontier. It won them each directorship of a lab at Janelia Research Campus, the advanced bio-med facility created by one of today’s most effective medical philanthropies, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

And in 2014, the scientific breakthroughs produced by these self-donated gifts from Hess and Betzig earned Eric Betzig the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

A site near the geographic center of North Carolina that housed one of the world’s largest textile mills until it went bankrupt in 2003 has since had $781 million of donated money poured into it by David Murdock. Murdock made a fortune in real estate and then bought Dole Foods, the world’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables. Having both a professional stake and a deep personal fascination in nutrition, Murdock set up his own research institute to study issues at the intersection of food, agriculture, and human health. Then he invited eight North Carolina universities and numerous private corporations with nutritional interests to establish their own labs on the 350-acre campus. The curative and prophylactic effects of plant foods and healthy diets are a particular focus. Approximately 600 scientific investigators and support staff currently work on the campus, and Murdock has funded dozens of specific studies.

The most influential tool in astronomy and astrophysics over the last generation has been the Hubble Space Telescope. In 2014, construction began on a new instrument that will provide images 12 times sharper than Hubble’s. The Thirty Meter Telescope will have nine times the light-collecting power of the largest existing telescopes, and its new “adaptive optics”—making constant minute mirror adjustments to counteract turbulence in the earth’s atmosphere—will allow it to create images as sharp as those taken in space where there is no atmosphere to deflect incoming light. The potent instrument will initially be used to understand the formation of stars and planets and the evolution of galaxies, and is expected to have revolutionary effects on cosmology and fundamental physics.

The Thirty Meter Telescope is likely to work often in tandem with the James Webb Space Telescope—the successor to Hubble now being built by NASA for launch sometime in 2018 or 2019. The Webb telescope may locate targets that will then be studied in detail by the powerful spectrometers in the TMT. Interestingly, the Webb is a government-run, publicly funded project that currently is nine years late after beginning in 1996, with an expense overrun of four times the original plan, yielding a total cost of $9 billion. Meanwhile the TMT is a collaboration among U.S. universities and overseas science organizations, funded by private philanthropy, and its total cost will be about a billion and a half dollars by the time it opens its “eye” about a decade from the construction launch.

The trailblazing funder enabling the Thirty Meter Telescope is the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Endowed by the co-founder of Intel Corporation, the Moore Foundation has poured approximately $900 million into basic scientific research in recent years, in areas ranging from marine biology to physics to plant science. The Moores provided a seminal early investment of $50 million in 2003 to design the Thirty Meter Telescope, then pledged an additional $200 million in 2007 to complete the planning and initiate construction. By the end of 2013, Moore’s full quarter-billion dollar pledge had been delivered to project leaders at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California. Both universities launched campaigns to raise matching millions from other private donors, thus powering this landmark project almost entirely with philanthropic money.

There will never be as much instrument time on large telescopes as astronomers would like for conducting experiments, so a similar project—the Giant Magellan Telescope backed by a different group of universities and philanthropists—has been nearly as avidly supported. Oil and gas pioneer George Mitchell, father of the “fracking” process and a major science donor (see 2002 entry), gave $35 million to the Magellan project before his death in 2013. His donations through Texas A&M University starting in 2004 not only launched the telescope from concept to construction project, but also spurred major financial and scientific partners like the University of Texas at Austin, Harvard, and the University of Arizona to sign on as well. In 2014, the University of Arizona announced that entrepreneur Richard Caris had made a $20 million donation to Magellan. That same year, site preparation began. Initial operation of the telescope, which will have a lens 82 feet across, is expected in 2021.

Most of the other great telescope projects of our current age have also been catalyzed by private donors. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope—which every few weeks will photograph the entire sky in fine detail, using the largest digital camera ever constructed, so that changes over time can be detected—was stalled for years until Microsoft fathers Charles Simonyi ($20 million) and Bill Gates ($10 million) made gifts that allowed production to begin on the device’s enormous mirrors (which take more than five years to manufacture). In 2016, a new kind of telescope built to detect gravitational waves that could lend evidence on the origins and evolution of the universe was made possible by a $40 million grant from financier and philanthropist James Simons.

Texan George Mitchell spent his work days peering downward, deep into the earth, where he was one of the most successful men of his generation at finding valuable oil and gas, especially by the method of hydraulic fracturing that he largely invented. As a philanthropist, though, he often gazed at the heavens, where he loved to support astronomy and other basic sciences. Mitchell had considered becoming a physicist before majoring in petroleum engineering, and by the time he passed away in 2013 he had donated an estimated $360 million to major scientific efforts—like construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope (see 2003 item), and his 2002 creation of a “fundamental physics and astronomy” program at Texas A&M University. The $100 million he gave to A&M also endowed 13 academic chairs—several in physics, others in astronomy, three in marine sciences. He built the campus physics building and other structures, and endowed fellowships, lectures, and meetings related to astronomy and physics. Mitchell’s giving during the last decade of his life has been described as one of the greatest philanthropic campaigns in support of basic science ever.

Mauricio Miller’s bio states that more than two decades of working in social services left him “disenchanted with the social sector’s approach to fighting poverty” and wanting to try something new—encouraging low-income households to rely on families and neighbors and good financial habits to “create security…rather than assuring jobs and stability to the social workers and government bureaucrats who seek to help them.”

The nonprofit Miller set up, the Family Independence Initiative, did detailed research on the successes of immigrants who thrived after arriving very poor. It found they used mutual family support and disciplined saving to move into the middle class. Miller’s group then created models to help other poor people learn from these successes. Instead of dispatching professionals from the helping occupations to

educate struggling individuals, the Family Independence Initiative encourages the poor to connect themselves to relatives and neighbors and establish new daily disciplines learned from them, including saving money and focusing on stronger family bonds.

The initiative provides a series of small cash incentive awards to reinforce constructive behavior—making payments to families of several hundred dollars when they achieve goals like raising a child’s grades, completing a skills-training class, or saving money. Over two years, families following this course increased their savings by 240 percent on average, increased their earnings by 23 percent, and created or expanded 33 percent more small businesses. Almost 80 percent of children reported an improvement in grades, and families reduced their dependence on government subsidies, improved their health, and otherwise made progress. The success of this unusual anti-poverty model has attracted several million dollars of philanthropic support in recent years from donors like the Boston, Kresge, Levi Strauss, MacArthur, and Eos foundations.

Bill Daniels completed a couple years of junior college before serving as a fighter pilot in World War II, but never returned to campus or received a degree. He subsequently worked in the insurance business, as a roughneck in oil fields, as a short-order cook, and as a bellhop. He recognized business potential when he saw early cable-TV systems in the West, and he eventually built a large cable empire. But he understood that some people bloom late, and he never lost his sympathy for underdogs. So when he died, Daniels left $1.1 billion to establish a charitable fund to help residents of the Western states where he spent most of his life, with a special mandate to provide “second chances” to people in need.

The largest part of his money is dedicated to offering college scholarships to “diamonds in the rough”—young people who show grit and determination despite having been “knocked down a time or two.” In the population targeted by the Daniels Fund, only about a fifth of young people go to college. Many of the applicants lack strong academic credentials, but a process of recommendations and interviews allows the fund to identify a pool who are hungry for opportunity, able to lead, and willing to work. The program covers not only tuition, room, and board but also transportation, health care, and a computer. Students are required to hold a paying job for a few hours each week during the academic year, and they participate in special workshops on ethics, civics, business principles, leadership, critical thinking, patriotism, etiquette, and other topics.

In 2014, 244 Daniels Scholars were selected from four Western states. This brought the cumulative total of students who have been awarded scholarships to 3,006. More recently, the Daniels Fund launched its “Boundless Opportunity” scholarships, targeted at adults heading to college, GED recipients, youths coming out of foster care or reformatories, returning military, and other nontraditional populations.

The success of the Daniels Scholarship Program has inspired other efforts to assist students who might otherwise be overlooked. Fellow Denver residents Tim and Bernie Marquez donated $50 million in 2007 (which other donors supplemented with an additional $28 million of private giving) to fuel the Denver Scholarship Foundation. Echoing Bill Daniels, Tim Marquez explains that “we look for the hidden jewels, kids who maybe haven’t worked so hard because they didn’t think they could go to college, or who felt they had no reason to try. They are not in the top 10-15 percent of their class, but have natural abilities.” The Marquezes will support not only college attendance but also trade schools, community college classes, and studies to become accredited as an auto mechanic, child-care provider, or other trained worker. As Bernie Marquez puts it, “Whatever students choose to do beyond high school to further their education, we will help them do that.”

Gerald Chertavian co-founded one of England’s fastest-growing companies while living there in the early 1990s, then cashed out in 1999 at age 34 to devote the rest of his career to social entrepreneurship. He’d long participated in Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the troubles faced by his original Little Brother in a bad New York City neighborhood fed his concern about the human talent going to waste among poor children. In 2000 Chertavian devoted $500,000 to founding Year Up, his effort to help low-income, urban young adults. Enrollees must be ages 18-24 with a high-school diploma or GED, and “at-risk but not high-risk”—that is, not use drugs or have committed violent crime. Many are Spanish-speaking; their average high-school GPA is 1.9 and their average SAT is 780. The one-year program combines classroom training, college credit, and “behavior management.”

After two interviews and signing of an agreement that includes immediate expulsion for drug use and a lower stipend for being even one minute late to class, those accepted receive six months of training (mostly for computer-related jobs) before beginning a six-month internship at a corporate partner. Their “high-expectation, high-support” training also addresses social and emotional development, time management, personal finance, writing skills, conflict resolution, and even current affairs, so they will be at home in a corporate environment. They receive staff advisement on personal as well as professional issues, and are assigned a mentor from the business community. Students receive a weekly stipend of roughly $200, paid by the corporate partners, who also help Year Up itself defray roughly $2,000 out of the $11,000 annual cost per student.

In 2007 the philanthropic arm of Microsoft granted Year Up a multiyear $10 million grant that helped spread the program across the country. Current supporters of the program include more than 80 foundations, companies, and individual donors.

While government-funded job-training programs typically see no more than 50 to 55 percent of their graduates continuing in work after graduation, 84 percent of Year Up alumni are either working or attending college full time four months after graduation. Starting salaries average $30,000 per year, and a 2011 outside study found this was 30 percent more than a control group earned. “These are the most exciting evaluation results we’ve seen in youth employment in 20 or 30 years,” the study’s author remarked, “the first to show a really substantial earnings gain.”

By 2014, Year Up was serving over 2,000 students at 11 sites nationwide, and 91 percent of its 250-plus corporate and government partners say they would recommend the program. Chertavian launched a new program, the Professional Training Corps, modeled after college ROTC, in 2011. Based at community colleges, PTC helps at-risk young adults find jobs to support themselves while earning their associate’s degree. Chertavian aims to expand PTC to serve 100,000 students per year.

Former Intel co-founder Andrew Grove wanted to overturn the common assumption among educators, parents, and students that technical education is for less intelligent people. So he funded vocational-training scholarships at community colleges and nonprofit training groups. The value of the scholarships ranges from $500 to $5,000 per year, and “the people for whom we provide support are not those who intend to transfer to four-year universities,” as Grove puts it. These recipients intend to go right to work in a practical career.

Grove’s aim, in addition to helping individuals, was to raise the American estimate of vocational education to the level of respect it receives in European countries. In Germany there is a tradition of skilled apprenticeships that serve as rungs on the ladder into the middle class, and Grove believes the U.S. could benefit from similar mechanisms. He believes philanthropy must play a significant role in this, because government and market forces are not excelling at the task.

Over two decades, Grove distributed more than 100 scholarships per year. Then in 2005 he took more concentrated action to bolster technical education, announcing a $26 million donation to the City College, New York City’s low-cost institution of higher ed, to invigorate its school of engineering. This gift also provided for successive cohorts of Grove Scholars.

A group of Chattanooga, Tennessee, businessmen led by Hugh Maclellan, the chairman of his family’s foundation, sat down in 1997 to confront the hard facts about collapsing families in their city, and the resulting multigenerational poverty. Their city had a divorce rate 50 percent higher than the already elevated national average, and the fifth highest unwed birth rate among U.S. cities. With funding from Maclellan and other local groups and individuals they launched an effort called First Things First to link religious congregations, private social-service groups, and public agencies to help regional residents build stronger marriages and be good parents. The organization worked with churches to widen premarital preparation. It launched parenting classes for fathers and mothers. It created media campaigns to publicize the advantages of family intactness for children and adults. It went into city schools, and it set up “lunch-and-learn” seminars inside workplaces.

First Things First trained mental-health professionals on how to help marriages in danger of divorce. It partnered with hospitals to provide Boot Camp for New Dads, and helped programs like Early Head Start incorporate fathering material into their curricula. It assisted the county divorce court in a divorce mediation project—couples with minor children must now take a class where they learn about the effects of divorce on children and then develop a post-divorce parenting plan. Judges find that these two requirements often dissuade couples from divorcing at all, and that those who do are now far less likely to revisit the courts over custody and child support.

Within nine years the locality had seen a 28 percent drop in divorce filings. Teen out-of-wedlock pregnancies decreased 23 percent. These rates have since fallen further.

Sometimes informed and inspired by the success of First Things First and sometimes acting on their own, numerous other cities and funders launched similar efforts in other places. From Families Northwest in Washington and Oregon, to Healthy Marriages Grand Rapids, to special efforts targeting black families in Baltimore, new initiatives in areas like marriage preparation, pre-divorce intervention, parenting education, and fatherhood reinforcement have sprung up regionally and nationally. Major funders have included the WinShape Foundation (funded by the Cathy family), Terry and Mary Kohler (who have given more than $5 million in this area), the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the DeVos family, the Johnson Foundation, and others. A National Healthy Marriage Resource Center has arisen to coordinate efforts by such groups.

In the 1980s, Sister Falakah Fattah and her husband, David, used the House of Umoja, a neighborhood group they founded, to help Philadelphia’s gangs negotiate truces and reduce violence. Robert Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE), an “intermediary” that helps local nonprofits, documented the principles involved and prepared manuals, training programs, and other resources that could be used to set up similar “violence-free zones” in other strife-torn neighborhoods. The key to the system is to find young adults who grew up locally and overcame the same challenges that still face students in troubled neighborhoods. CNE puts these “youth advisers” through background checks (no abuse or sexual crimes) and drug, alcohol, and health testing, then trains them in identifying, mediating, and solving various types of conflicts. Once trained, the advisers are hired by local nonprofits and spend their days at schools focusing on the most troublesome students. The same students who lead disruption can, with coaching by advisers they respect, learn to turn their leadership skills in more productive directions.

In 1997, CNE and local sponsor the Alliance of Concerned Men, along with advisers they trained, negotiated a peace agreement in Washington, D.C., between two warring groups at the Benning Terrace public-housing development, where dozens of youths had been killed. The murders ended completely. Other locales where violence-free zones have been funded by private donors like the Bradley and Marcus Foundations and public agencies include Milwaukee, Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Richmond, and Prince George’s County in Maryland. Tracking studies done at Baylor University and elsewhere have found clear drops in attacks, increases in school attendance, and other positive effects from these interventions.

George Roberts was co-founder of the pioneering private-equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., and when he entered philanthropy he brought the mindset of an investor expecting returns, only this time measured in lives changed rather than dollars accumulated. His most inventive work has been in battling poverty, and his focus there has been consistent from the beginning: work (rather than social work) is the best anti-poverty strategy.

Today it is not unusual for successful business people to orient their philanthropy toward market-based solutions to social problems, but Roberts was a pioneer of such efforts. When he gave a million dollars to a nonprofit so it could set up a cabinetmaking shop where minorities could be trained, he insisted the organization take out a bank loan to cover the other half of the project’s costs—because their commitment to the bank would keep them focused on running the operation like a business rather than a giveaway.

In 1997, after several years of supporting nonprofits that tried to help homeless people get jobs, Roberts created REDF (the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund), a so-called venture philanthropy that supports groups with “equity-like grants and business assistance” so they can start sheltered businesses where “people facing the greatest barriers to work”—convicts, school dropouts, the mentally ill, alcoholics, etc. who would otherwise be living on government assistance or charity—can get a foot on the employment ladder. The groups REDF funds are expected to be business-like in their work, and to find revenue streams that can be reinvested into training and services for their employees.

Here are examples of some social enterprises that have recently been in REDF’s portfolio:

  • Chrysalis runs a maintenance and property-management service for buildings in the Skid Row section of Los Angeles, as well as street-cleaning crews who contract with merchants in the Fashion District.
  • Community Housing Partnership has a growing business providing lobby services to landlords in San Francisco.
  • The social enterprise 360 Solutions provides pest-control in southern California towns.
  • The Center for Employment Opportunities has maintenance contracts that keep its workers busy in several cities.

In 2004, REDF converted itself from a family foundation into an independent nonprofit so other donors could participate and expand its footprint and methods. The Roberts Foundation continues to be its biggest contributor with millions in annual contributions, but donors like the Kellogg and Weingart foundations now also fund the group.

From 1997 to 2015, REDF has supported 50 social enterprises that have employed more than 8,700 people with little previous success in the workforce. These individuals earned more than $140 million, and three quarters still held their jobs two years after starting. REDF’s goal is to expand enough to help create an additional 2,500 jobs in the near future.

When Dave Phillips reached his mid-50s as managing director of a large accounting firm, he retired early and joined his wife Liane in attacking poverty in his home town of Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1996 they launched a nonprofit called Cincinnati Works, built on a carefully researched model of the most effective ways to move people from poverty into work and then self-sufficiency free of public assistance. In addition to providing its “members” with practical things like job training, child care, and transportation help, CW offers specialty services to individuals with difficult backgrounds—including behavioral counseling, legal advocacy, mentoring, chaplain services, and an anti-violence program. A study by the University of Cincinnati concluded that being a CW member reduced an individual’s probability of felony indictment by almost 50 percent.

CW starts members in a required class which teaches work ethics, problem solving, personal budgeting, life values, self-confidence, employer expectations, and the techniques of applying and interviewing for jobs. “Soft skills and the overall culture of poverty is a big part of the challenge,” states president Peggy Zink. Then the nonprofit offers intensive job-search and placement help. After a member lands a job, CW staff stay in touch with both the worker and the employer for at least one year to help ensure job retention. “One Job, One Year” and “Call Before You Quit” blare posters in the group headquarters.

The fourth step in the CW process is advancement. Once the member has held the same job for a year, staffers create a plan to improve skills, education, or behavior such that the member can increase his or her earning power, with the goal being 200 percent of the poverty level, with health benefits. Between 70 and 80 percent of Cincinnati Works members retain their job for at least a year (much better than government job-training programs) and the average hourly pay of members is two dollars higher than the state minimum wage.

In addition to helping the jobless and underemployed, Cincinnati Works has been lauded by the Harvard Business Review for providing employers with a valuable source of stable entry-level workers—reducing the job turnover of some companies by half. And CW’s services are provided entirely free to both individuals and employers. The privately funded nonprofit relies on 106 volunteers plus donors who cover the salaries of 27 employees. The program has been studied widely and replicated in Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and other places.

Until recently, anyone hoping to slip the surly bonds of Earth needed to talk to a federal bureaucrat; there was no such thing as a private or nonprofit space effort. That began to change in 1996, when a group of donors led by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis announced they had formed the X Prize Foundation to reward the first non-governmental team that could successfully send a three-passenger vehicle at least 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks. The prize money was set at $10 million thanks to gifts from the Ansari family. The inspiration for the effort was the Orteig Prize—a $25,000 bounty offered in 1919 by a French hotel owner to the first aviator who could fly nonstop between Paris and New York City. Nine teams spent several hundred thousand dollars hoping to win the Orteig Prize, which was eventually claimed by Charles Lindbergh. (See 1919 entry.)

The X Prize had a similar effect. More than two dozen teams invested over $100 million in pursuit of the reward (and the companies created for the competition later received more than a billion dollars in additional private investment). A group bankrolled by philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was first to meet the requirements in 2004. That success inspired the X Prize Foundation to subsequently offer other prizes for achievements in rocketry, 100-mile-per-gallon vehicles, techniques for cleaning up oil spills, and other causes. Currently active is a $20 million X Prize for any private team that successfully lands a rover on the moon.

The deepest benefit of the Ansari X Prize was to dramatically accelerate non-governmental work on space transport. In 2012, one of the ventures formed amidst the excitement over the Ansari X Prize—the SpaceX organization funded by entrepreneur and philanthropist Elon Musk—became the first private entity to deliver a cargo payload to the International Space Station. With NASA experiencing serious design failures, cost overruns, and bureaucratic sclerosis, the SpaceX Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule have become crucial elements in U.S. plans for spaceflight over the next generation. And many other individuals, like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and entrepreneur Richard Branson, are also using personal wealth to subsidize creation of spacecraft that may become important in the future.

Recognizing that low-income workers in Manhattan were having trouble budgeting, saving, and staying out of debt, a former New York City school teacher raised $85,000 from donors including Atlantic Philanthropies to create the organization now known as Neighborhood Trust to provide financial services to residents in need. Most of these were immigrants, but one quarter of all American families who earn less than $25,000 per year have no bank account. These people end up relying on payday check cashers, high-interest lenders, and other unproductive channels outside the banking system. The typical client who initially came into the Neighborhood Trust program earned $18,000 per year, had less than a high-school education, and no banking relationship. He had average household debt of $14,000, poor credit scores, and was on track to spend $40,000 in his lifetime for exploitative check-cashing and credit services. Improving the financial knowledge and health of households like these helps stave off many social dysfunctions and work problems that flare up when families fall into insolvency.

The new organization began by offering financial counseling and courses teaching basic money management in Spanish and English. In 1997 a credit union was opened that quickly had thousands of account-holders at two branches—60 percent of whom had never previously had a bank account, and 75 percent of whom had never used a credit card. (Two thirds had used loan sharks, however.) The credit union also made small loans to this population to allow the establishment of businesses like livery cabs and family day-care services. As they proved themselves, clients were migrated to larger commercial banks.

In 2012, grants from the Robin Hood Foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and other donors helped create two new programs: The “Employer Solution” builds partnerships with companies that hire many low-income workers and embeds its services in their human resources departments so that, for instance, employees get their paychecks electronically deposited, and payroll savings becomes easy. Workers are offered no-cost meetings with financial advisers who help them prepare budgets, plan for emergencies, set goals, save money, and eliminate debt. The “Trust Card Program” is a second initiative that helps people who have run up credit-card backlogs pay these off by entering into a structured program offering personalized information, limits on household spending, and personal contracts pledging rapid pay-down of debt.

In its Upper Manhattan service area, 6,000 working families now rely on Neighborhood Trust to solve money problems and help them work their way up the economic ladder. Within months, most achieve substantial debt reductions, increased savings, and improved credit scores. Scores of donors have helped the program expand, including, in addition to Atlantic, the Robin Hood, Weinberg, and Altman foundations, the Carson Family Charitable Trust, a number of New York bank philanthropies, and many individual donors.

James Simons was a mathematician before he earned billions operating a hedge fund, and since he and his wife Marilyn established their charitable foundation in 1994 their philanthropy has focused on advancing mathematics and science research. Particular interests include physics, autism, genetic puzzles, quantitative biology (see 2000 entry on our list of achievements in Medicine), cosmology, esoteric math, and math education (see 2004 entry describing Math for America on the Education achievements list). Simons raised $13 million to allow completion of a major experiment on the particle accelerator of Brookhaven Lab after budget problems threatened an early shutdown. The Simons Foundation created a popular math museum in New York City, and a world science festival. Over a several-year period, Simons has donated more than $105 million to Stony Brook University to build up its math and physics departments. His foundation has so far

Alfred Sloan, son of a machinist, finished an electrical engineering degree at MIT in three years, graduating as the youngest member of his class. He later presided over the rise of General Motors into the world’s biggest auto manufacturer. So it is appropriate that his Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is focused on technology and science. In addition to funding for basic research and efforts to improve the teaching of science and math—areas where many other foundations are also active—Sloan has one unusual program that aims to help everyday Americans understand and appreciate technical achievements. One of its major undertakings is an effort to expand “Public Understanding of Science, Technology, & Economics.” Since 1993 it has supported more than 100 top authors as they researched and wrote a large span of science books that “aim to reach a wide, lay audience.” These have included works like physicist Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe, the personal reflections of biologist Francis Crick in What Mad Pursuit, Astronomer by Chance by Bernard Lovell, fractal-geometry creator Benoit Mandelbrot’s memoir, and analyses of scientific issues by writers like Jared Diamond, Kai Bird, and Richard Rhodes. In addition to supporting books, the program encourages plays, films, and radio and TV programming that open doors to wider understanding of science.

The first client of the Institute for Justice was Taalib-Din Uqdah, who with his wife wanted to earn a living braiding hair in Washington, D.C. The city demanded he become a licensed cosmetologist at a cost of thousands of dollars he didn’t have. The fledgling public-interest law firm got the regulation turned back, and it has since won many similar cases for humble entrepreneurs hoping to provide for their families as motel owners, taxi drivers, food-truck operators, tour guides, and interior designers. IJ attorneys note that most such regulations don’t protect the public but rather provide anticompetitive privileges to a business or interest group. “There is a profound difference between being pro-free enterprise and being pro-business,” co-founder Chip Mellor observes. Adam Smith warned that business interests will often try to control a free market, he notes, “but without government, they can’t do that for any length of time.”

In addition to fighting in court, the Institute for Justice has a legislative team that helps states and local governments reduce and eliminate burdensome and unneeded regulations that discourage citizens from supporting themselves and living independent lives. The group has grown to a staff of 80 spread across seven states, about half of them litigating in their four central mission areas: economic liberty, property rights, school choice, and protection of free speech.

Initial seed funding for the Institute for Justice came from industrialist Charles Koch in 1991. His brother David Koch has provided generous long-term funding to keep the group thriving. The Olin, Bradley, Sarah Scaife, Kirby, Donner and Lambe foundations were other early supporters, and investor Robert Wilson was a major donor. The Annie E. Casey Foundation provided sponsorship to help IJ build an ongoing legal clinic at the University of Chicago’s law school where small businesses can get legal help. Individual donors, though, now supply 85 percent of the contributions needed to meet the institute’s $19 million annual budget.

After Tom Owens retired from his successful career as an IT entrepreneur, inspiration from Mother Teresa led him to pour his energy and money into helping poor and homeless people become self-sufficient in his hometown of Chicago. He visited dozens of shelters, halfway houses, addiction groups, and job-training centers, studying what made some effective and others not. After some disappointing false starts he began to bottle lightning in 1995. He established a nonprofit named CARA that successfully mixed several services.

First comes serious assessment of each person’s needs. Then those accepted into the program undergo tough-minded life-skills training—typically four to six months of all-day classes—that builds competence and confidence in individuals who often lack both. Workshop topics include vital practical skills like conflict management, relationship-building, forgiveness, and anger control. Participants are required to start each day by speaking into a microphone to their group, which fosters public-speaking skills and self-esteem. This all grows out of studies showing that employment success is founded not just on economic skills but on psychological and spiritual abilities as well. CARA uses a variety of rituals and repetition to encourage good habits, elevate constructive role models, and reinforce a culture of work and independence.

Next, the organization puts graduates into its powerful job-placement network, which connects them to dozens of area employers who have learned to trust CARA referrals and hire them in substantial numbers. The toughest cases go to work in CARA’s own in-house enterprises (providing building and outdoor maintenance, for instance). Last, there is long-term follow-up that helps graduates hold onto their jobs and progress up the pay and responsibility ladder over time.

Following this system, CARA has placed into permanent employment more than 3,600 individuals who had been snarled in homelessness and other serious problems. The one-year job retention rate for CARA participants is 25 percentage points higher than the national average for entry-level jobs, despite the challenges of this particular population (for instance, the fact that 45 percent arrive with criminal records). In 2014, CARA graduates placed in permanent jobs earned $6.2 million and paid $2 million in taxes. Because they were working rather than drawing on welfare programs or being incarcerated, it is estimated that society saved $6.5 million that would otherwise have been spent managing them. And while 70 percent of the individuals who enter the program come in homeless, at 12 months, nine out of ten are in permanent housing.

Industrialist and philanthropist Charles Koch has spent years studying and promulgating what he calls “principled entrepreneurship”—the combination of “judgment, responsibility, initiative, economic, and critical thinking skills, and sense of urgency necessary to generate the greatest contribution.” To encourage those capacities in the next generation of Americans, he founded Youth Entrepreneurs in 1991 at Wichita High School North in his Kansas hometown. Initially an eight-week program, YE has since grown into a year-long entrepreneurship course, licensed by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, reaching more than 1,000 students each year at 36 high schools in Kansas and Missouri. All students are welcome, but at-risk students are YE’s target audience.

Youth Entrepreneurs teaches business basics via hands-on immersion. Every student writes a business plan, and YE encourages them to use their plans to launch real-life companies. The plans are judged in contests, with the prizes including scholarships and venture-capital funding. Students also visit working firms, learn from entrepreneur-mentors, and engage in sales competitions with their peers. Upon completion of the program they receive high-school credit and are eligible for community-college credit as well. “Instead of reading about being an entrepreneur, we got to do it,” says Crystal Lathrop, a 2000 YE alumna who currently owns her own small businesses in Wichita.

Ewing Kauffman was a congenital entrepreneur. After two years in his first corporate job he quit in disgust, vowing he would never again work for anyone else. He started his own firm in his basement and didn’t look back. He became wealthy enough to create the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation with a multibillion-dollar endowment, making it one of the larger grantmakers in the U.S. Its mission is “to help individuals attain economic independence by advancing educational achievement and entrepreneurial success, consistent with the aspirations of our founder.”

The foundation has conducted much research to advance “the science of entrepreneurship.” Its signature effort FastTrac is a practical training, networking, and mentoring program that helps men and women with ideas launch new businesses. More than 350,000 individuals have taken the course over the last two decades. In the words of former Kauffman president Carl Schramm, “every time we help an entrepreneur take the risk of starting a business, we strengthen the American economy.”

Among the ten largest cities in the U.S., the one with the highest poverty rate is Philadelphia, at 26 percent. Yet Philly has one of the lowest rates of homeless people per capita. That paradox can be explained to a considerable degree by the success of Project HOME, the Philadelphia charity that has helped get close to 9,000 people off the streets, in the process becoming one of the nation’s most influential and admired organizations for battling homelessness.

The organization was launched with a $100,000 check from the Connelly Foundation, after three daughters of foundation creator John Connelly went to visit a “feisty” nun and a newly minted MBA who they had been told were planning an attack on homelessness in their mutual hometown. Sister Mary Scullion and Joan Dawson went on to build an efficient and business-like charity with 370 employees, 650 volunteers, and a reputation for getting things done. Project HOME has recently collected some of the largest donations ever made to an organization aiding the homeless: $30 million from Philadelphians John and Leigh Middleton. Singer and philanthropist Jon Bon Jovi has also made multimillion-dollar contributions to the group, helping finance the latest of its 15 residential centers, which feature 55 efficiency apartments with support services in the areas of recovery, health care, education, and employment.

The Harlem Children’s Zone is a massive effort to bring 97 square blocks of the poorest neighborhoods in northern Manhattan to a positive “tipping point.” Beginning in 1989 the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation began to pour money into the expansion of pilot programs that meshed health, parenting, and early-childhood services. Its $34 million investment allowed the “zone” to quadruple in size. Another angel for the program is Stanley Druckenmiller, a hedge-fund founder and philanthropist who was a college friend of HCZ leader Geoffrey Canada. In 2006 Druckenmiller gave the program $25 million, and between 2009 and 2011 he gave twice that much more. Druckenmiller also convinced the Robin Hood Foundation, a major New York City anti-poverty crusader, to get involved in supporting the Harlem Children’s Zone to the tune of multimillions of dollars over the years.

The HCZ program starts with “Baby College”—a series of classes for parents of children under age four. The organization also offers all-day pre-kindergarten, and extended-day schooling for older children is available at its Promise Academy charter schools. Health care, recreation, anti-violence programs, and other social services are also provided. And when students reach college age there are programs to help them get onto campus and stay long enough to earn a degree.

The schools and companion services are funded by a combination of large-scale philanthropy and government grants, with philanthropy providing about seven out of ten dollars during the buildup of the program. About 10,000 youth and 8,000 adults are now served by the effort, which has contributed to the transformation of Harlem from dangerous and economically languishing to one of New York’s fastest rising neighborhoods. The HCZ health and social-service “wraparounds” add heavy expense to the program and get mixed reviews. The clear stars of the Harlem Children’s Zone are the charter schools, which produce results—measured in test scores, graduation rates, and college-attendance levels—much superior to those achieved in other schools in Harlem.

In the wake of the stock-market crash of 1987, a group of New York City hedge-fund savants led by Paul Tudor Jones came together to plan for what they anticipated would be a widespread economic meltdown. They created a nonprofit that would alleviate poverty in their home city using rigorous data tools. Although their gloomy expectations for the U.S. economy did not come to pass, the Robin Hood Foundation’s analytical method emerged as a potent new philanthropic model—wielding cost-benefit studies, analyses of return on dollars spent, and other business techniques to improve social outcomes.

In addition to new ways of doling out money, Robin Hood pioneered new ways of collecting it from donors. Its annual gala has turned into a spectacular fundraiser, setting records for single-event donations—for instance by raking in $101 million on one May 2015 evening. These successes have allowed Robin Hood to disburse more than $2 billion of poverty-fighting aid from 1988 to 2017. The foundation claims an average social return of $15 for every dollar in grants.

In 2015, the foundation announced a new venture to make charities more business-like. Its LeaderLink program will take finance professionals looking for a second career and train them to assume management positions at nonprofits.

Steve Mariotti owned an import-export business in New York when he was mugged by a gang of teenagers in 1981. He wondered what made young people act like that and decided to find the answer by selling his business and becoming a public-school teacher. He asked to work in “the worst schools in the worst neighborhoods,” and then he asked for “the troubled kids.” He believed teaching these children how to start a business would give them “a vision” that would motivate them to stay in school and learn. His first class was part of the typing department at Jane Addams Vocational High School in the South Bronx. In January 1987, the principal asked him to make it an all-day program for 16 of the most troubled students: “Try to save one student,” she told him. It worked much better than that.

The following year, New York Times reporters were shocked by the successes of students to whom Mariotti was teaching business, like Howard Stubbs, a 17-year-old who helped his mother expand a hot-dog stand into a six-cart operation. Mariotti wasn’t surprised: “The best entrepreneurs have had trouble in a structured environment.” In August, he and a colleague hand-wrote fundraising appeals to the entire Forbes 400 list. Ray Chambers, chairman of the private-equity firm Wesray Capital, called him at school and became his first donor, providing $200,000 in seed money to establish what became the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. The organization received additional financial lifelines from Chambers and the JM Foundation when expansion of the operation caused cash-flow struggles. After it launched programs to train teachers, the group began to grow exponentially.

By 2015, NFTE had 11 offices serving 18 states, plus licensed operations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The group has trained more than 500,000 young people in how to start and succeed in their own business. The eleventh edition of its curriculum, Entrepreneurship: Owning Your Future, won the 2010 Distinguished Achievement Award of the Association of Education Publishers for best high-school math curriculum. Research by scholars at Harvard, Brandeis, and the Koch Foundation shows that alumni are far more likely than control groups to have started a business, attended college, and increased their business knowledge.

Among hundreds of individuals, foundations, and companies that now support NFTE, to the tune of $18 million per year, leading recent funders have included the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, MasterCard, Ernst & Young, and the Seedlings Foundation.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, established by the head of Johnson & Johnson, has a special interest in health care and is one of America’s largest foundations. Big national foundations rarely consider grants to small local projects. When they do it is typically in a top-down way, recruiting locals to execute one of their national projects. But in 1987, RWJF inaugurated a new program, eventually known as Local Funding Partnerships, which gave grants in the $50,000-$500,000 range to local organizations who come with all the ideas on what problem to attack, and how to do it. “The best ideas for solving pressing community problems,” explains the foundation, “come from members of the communities themselves.” Local funders were required to provide a dollar-for-dollar match to each grant.

The program was instantly popular, and highly competitive, with just 6 percent of hundreds of annual proposals winning funds. Some sample awards:

  • Preventing teen pregnancies among Hmong refugees in Minnesota (1988)
  • Providing support services to frail elderly so they can remain in their homes in Maryland (1989)
  • Dental care for people with AIDS in Texas (1992)
  • A Los Angeles program to combat teenage obesity (1998)
  • An effort to reduce emergency-room visits by homeless adults in Georgia (1999)
  • A satellite clinic in Ohio for Amish children with rare genetic disorders (2002)

In addition to money, RWJF offered expertise and managerial guidance to its local grant winners.

In 2013, the last annual meeting of the LFP program was held. By then, pairing grants from a national donor with local ideas and local matching funding had become a philanthropic commonplace, and many of the experimental health interventions tried through the program were accepted practices. A total of 369 grants in 49 states were given during the 25-year life of the Local Funding Partnerships program. A 2002 outside evaluation found that fully 75 percent of the experimental projects launched by the partnership had become sustained and successful health-care programs.

The scientific telescopes that dethroned the Rockefeller-funded Hale reflector as the largest in the world (see 1928 entry) were also paid for by a private donor. In the mid-1980s the W. M. Keck Foundation (created by oilman William Keck) invested a total of $144 million to create two telescopes with 33-foot diameters, placed on the Mauna Kea mountaintop in Hawaii. The first imaging at the Keck Observatory began in 1993. These two devices have brought many profound scientific discoveries. They have helped train a generation of scientists. And their very creation required groundbreaking new technologies (including advances in “active optics” that constantly shift the mirror to compensate for distortions that would compromise image sharpness) that have been spun off into other industrial uses.

Sister Jennie Lechtenberg was a Catholic-school teacher who took a sabbatical to tutor low-achieving first- and second-graders in a poor Los Angeles barrio. Seeing that children whose parents lacked literacy skills struggled the most, she started an English class for the mothers and fathers. Two years later, in 1985, she formalized her swelling effort into the PUENTE Learning Center.

While serving on an education commission Lechtenberg met venture capitalist (and later L.A. mayor) Richard Riordan, who provided her school with a computer lab. Soon her classes for preschoolers, after-school children, and adults were bursting again. She took Riordan to see a potential building spot in the neighborhood, and he agreed to provide $2.1 million to buy it. PUENTE erected a high-tech building whose architecture aims to reflect not only the technology within but also the dignity of the people it serves—which explains why the neighborhood never allows it to be defaced with graffiti.

After the 1992 Rodney King riots, PUENTE was asked by the ARCO Foundation to set up a second campus in south central L.A. Double-wide-trailer classrooms were eventually replaced with another impressive building. English classes were offered on computers that also taught typing, providing a dual competency. Instruction in public speaking and in computer programming could also be taken.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation studied the effect of PUENTE’s preschool-readiness program and kindergarten charter school and found that “all of the students who entered preschool or kindergarten speaking little or no English ended the year functionally bilingual.” And 100 percent of their parents were either in adult classes or volunteering for PUENTE. Similarly, PUENTE’s high-school tutorials and SAT preparation course were found to yield above-average rates of high-school graduation, and boosts in SAT scores of as much as 240 points.

PUENTE also sees its multigenerational approach as a way to strengthen families, which are weakened when parents command less English than their children or can’t adequately support the family. Recently, PUENTE has responded to neighborhood needs by offering programs for unemployed and underemployed veterans. Many tens of thousands of southern California immigrants have now been eased into successful lives by the center.

In the early 1980s when New York City was at an economic and social nadir, winter cold killed several homeless people. In response, donors launched the Doe Fund, named for one of the women who froze to death, known only as “Mama Doe.” A single principle served as its lodestar: the homeless have “the potential to be contributing members of society.”

The fund employs one simple means—work—to help the homeless, the formerly incarcerated, and other strugglers achieve self-sufficiency. Not just the money but the daily structure and sense of accomplishment that work provides can have magical effects that extend far beyond the help offered by free welfare services. The Doe Fund prepares residents of its shelters for outside employment by first requiring that they work in its own enterprises. For instance, some prepare meals and learn cooking skills at the fund’s dormitories around the city. Its most famous in-house business is a contract to clean over 150 miles of New York streets.

The in-house businesses employing the homeless yield multiple benefits: The lives of the workers become much more orderly. Neighborhoods are cleaned up. And the nonprofit gains a steady revenue stream ($25 million in 2014) to pay for its services.

Other support comes from individuals and foundations who share the nonprofit’s philosophy that “work works,” and that special training for ex-offenders, substance abusers, school dropouts, and those suffering from mental or physical disabilities is crucial if the “demoralizing burden” of chronic unemployment is to be overcome. The fund’s “men in blue” are overwhelmingly minorities, nearly three quarters of them have a criminal record, and 85 percent have been substance abusers. Yet more than 60 percent of those who enter Doe’s “Ready, Willing & Able” training program graduate into independent life and employment. A 2010 Harvard study found ex-cons who graduated from the program were 60 percent less likely to have a felony conviction three years after leaving prison.

The Doe Fund has expanded into multiple locations, programs, and businesses, with an annual budget of $48 million in 2014. One graduate, a multiple felon now pursuing a college degree, highlights the fund’s guiding principle: “This was the first time that I was told what I could do for myself.”

Two Manhattan banker/donors disturbed by a chronic lack of employment among many inner-city residents. An East Harlem ex-convict and drug addict who got clean and then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. Put them together, and an unusual job-training program built on (very) tough love is born. It’s called STRIVE, and it is highly effective among difficult populations. One third of STRIVE clients are former prisoners, about a third have no high-school diploma or GED, yet two thirds of its graduates are placed in jobs, at pay averaging 150 percent of their state minimum wage, and more than 70 percent of these stick in their new employment—all figures that shatter typical results from government job programs. Meanwhile the average cost per job placement for STRIVE is less than $2,000, while the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Corps program, which serves similar persons, costs almost eight times as much, even though only 20 percent of its graduates were employed after six months.

One big difference, City Journal’s Kay Hymowitz has noted, is that STRIVE builds “the all-important ‘soft skills’”—respect, punctuality, initiative, honesty, reliability—and in an determinedly no-nonsense way. Uncooperative attitudes and excuses for failure are broken down by the STRIVE instructors, all of whom have themselves triumphed over corrosive street habits. The result of their strict demands, in-your-face intensity, and follow-up and support (graduates are monitored for at least two years after graduation and assisted as needed) is creation of a new “understanding of the manners and values of an alien mainstream work world.”

STRIVE’s successes have allowed it to spread to more than two dozen cities. Over 50,000 tough clients have been trained under its auspices. Since its founding, STRIVE has enjoyed philanthropic support from donors like the Clark, Abell, and Annie E. Casey foundations. The Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation has been a stalwart backer from early on, and current donors include Walmart, the Blackstone Group, and the Rudin Foundation. Each chapter is mostly funded by local philanthropists.

Bob Coté was clutching a vodka bottle one night when he saw three of his drinking buddies passed out on the street with urine stains on their trousers. Standing in Denver’s Skid Row, he realized he was only a step away from joining them; so he poured his bottle into the gutter and decided to spend the rest of his life helping save fellow addicts. The 6-foot-3 former Golden Gloves boxer started Step 13. His rehabilitation center applied three simple rules: 1) No drinking or drugs. The organization devotes thousands of dollars per year to testing, and requires residents to take Antabuse, a medicine that causes nausea if alcohol is consumed. 2) Get a job. Step 13 has placed thousands of residents in dozens of local businesses, as well as in its own three in-house enterprises, which include a busy car-detailing operation. 3) Your bunk is your property. Residents must pay a modest weekly amount for their stay, keep their area clean, cook their meals, do their dishes, and otherwise live up to civilized standards.

As residents progress, they move from a bunk in the basement to a room with a door, then to an upstairs studio apartment with a lock. Many shelters for homeless alcoholics and addicts ask nothing of their residents but limit their stays to prevent long-term dependence. Step 13, by contrast, expects a lot, including rent and employment, but has no time limit at all. The average stay is a year or more as residents shake off their destructive addictions. The program’s veterans produce “constructive envy” in newcomers, spurring them to believe that they too can turn their lives around.

The shelter offers high-quality dental and vision care to clients who have often gotten little attention in these areas. Volunteer doctors use equipment donated by philanthropies to provide checkups and corrections. Roughly 35 percent of the men who reside at Step 13 walk away from alcohol and drugs, a significantly better success rate than local government-run shelters. (Step 13 refuses all government funding.) Moral support and spiritual counseling is a big part of the program. Coté, who died in 2013, maintained that “without the chapel, my success rate would drop in half. Even once you get a job and a home, you still need a purpose.”

Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz was one of Step 13’s early backers. He walked uninvited into the shelter in its young days and wrote a check. A decade later it was Anschutz who provided a few hundred thousand dollars to help Coté buy the shelter’s property after Step 13 lost its rental lease.

Legal scholar Bruce Ackerman described the “law and economics” movement as “the most important thing in legal education since the birth of the Harvard Law School.” The movement’s roots go back to thinkers like Adam Smith in the eighteenth century, but the modern form arose at the University of Chicago law school in the 1950s, where legal and economic scholars began to mix in a fertile brew.

Businessman John Olin and his colleague William Simon came to the view that the movement offered a superb way to reduce prosperity-damaging actions in our courts and legislatures. So they made the John M. Olin Foundation’s largest investments in planting top practitioners of the law and economics movement across elite universities, spending more than $68 million for this purpose from 1977 to 2002. They funded scholars, conferences, books, graduate students, and new freestanding centers devoted to bringing economic lessons to bear on the development of the law—at the University of Chicago, the University of Miami, UCLA, then many of the nation’s most prestigious law schools, including Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, Virginia, Michigan, Columbia, and Cornell. The strategy assumed, correctly, that less prominent schools would feel the need to cover the field as well if it took root in top institutions.

The foundation gave grants to create fellowships for junior faculty and to endow chairs for established scholars. It funded the American Law and Economics Association, and its center at George Mason University began holding intensive seminars for judges that have now educated hundreds of jurists in economic issues, including Supreme Court members like William Rehnquist and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who have praised it for broadening their education. Paul Brest, longtime dean of Stanford Law School who went on to head the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, later held up Olin’s strategic grants as an example to philanthropists of the right way to “build fields and movements.” Observers agree that the law and economics movement has strengthened free markets through deregulation, expanded use of cost-benefit analysis, and antitrust reform, expanding economic opportunity in the process.

  • John Miller, A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America (Encounter, 2005)
  • Paul Brest and Hal Harvey, Money Well Spent (Bloomberg, 2008)

If any group of unfortunates would seem to need outside, professional assistance, it would be substance abusers. Yet the Oxford-House movement has produced an amazing story of self-help. In over 1,600 homes in 45 U.S. states, plus a few foreign countries, groups of recovering substance abusers support each other in sobriety.

The first house was established in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 1975 by a recovering alcoholic. The halfway house in which that man was living was about to close for financial reasons, so he and the other residents took over the lease and chose a group name to honor the Oxford Group, a religious organization that influenced the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Oxford-House movement teaches three primary rules: do not use drugs or alcohol or be disruptive, run the house democratically, and pay your share of rent, utilities, and other expenses. Weekly business meetings are held so every resident knows the house’s financial status, and officers (treasurer, chore coordinator) are elected on a rotating basis. Residents are encouraged to attend A.A. or N.A. meetings.

No one is ever forced to leave an Oxford House unless a majority of his peers vote to dismiss him for violating the rules. Those who leave in good standing are encouraged to become associate members and offer friendship to new members. Each house is to be self-supporting, though financially secure houses may, with the central office’s approval, provide new or needy houses with a loan for up to one year. In 1988, Congress encouraged states to set up a revolving fund to grant loans for a new house’s first-month rent and security deposit, to be repaid within two years, with those proceeds used to start additional houses. These funds have allowed dramatic expansion of Oxford Houses.

Researchers from DePaul University who have studied the movement over many years find the average stay is about 175 days, and recovery rates without relapse are over 80 percent. In 1989, Oxford World Services was established to help experienced residents teach others how to open and maintain houses.

After the fall of South Vietnam, two million people poured out of that country plus Laos and Cambodia, many of them taking desperate risks in fear of their lives, often leaving with nothing but their clothing. Half of those refugees have settled in the U.S. (which has historically sheltered as many displaced persons as all other countries combined). The first wave of “boat people” arrived in 1975, and the Indochina Migration and Refugee Act that was passed in 1975 relied on local voluntarism and small-scale philanthropy to make sure their resettlement was successful. It was mostly churches and some local community organizations that organized food, clothing, and apartments for families as they arrived across the U.S. Each arriving household was paired with one or more volunteer sponsor families, who helped with language and cultural navigation, guided work searches, assisted with driving lessons or procurement of a used car, and provided friendship and support. Many families and churches donated furniture and linens, and groceries for initial weeks and months. This resettlement was not only the largest refugee influx in U.S. history, but one of our most successful. Vietnamese Americans are employed, own homes, and become citizens at a rate higher than most other immigrant groups, partly thanks to the intimate person-to-person charity that was employed to welcome the new arrivals.

In 1967, a program developed by a young Catholic priest in Spain to help married couples create a deeper and more honest relationship was presented as a weekend conference to seven couples and a few priests meeting at the University of Notre Dame. Almost immediately, the program now known as Marriage Encounter began to spread rapidly across the United States, and within quite different religious traditions. The weekends are open to all ages, and people of any (or no) faith. Alumni of the program lead most presentations, and follow-up conversations by couples are conducted privately in their own rooms.

The only cost for participants, who are housed and fed for the weekend as well as presented with ideas to discuss, is a $50-$100 registration fee. The approximately $600 per-couple cost has always been covered by donations—from groups like the New Hope Foundation, local churches, or in freewill gifts from participating couples who have been impressed by the program’s value. The best testimony to the effectiveness of this effort is the fact that with scant institutional structure it has spontaneously spread throughout the U.S. and more than 90 foreign countries, and into a variant that helps engaged couples.

In 1947, as the post-WWII boom in higher education was taking off, the President’s Commission on Higher Education urged the spread of community colleges to serve students of diverse abilities and interests for minimal cost. Then in 1960, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation initiated an even larger wave of expansion. Declaring community colleges and the practical occupational training they offer to be one of its top priorities, Kellogg made over $50 million in direct grants to community colleges between 1959 and 2001. In addition, the foundation worked with 12 universities—including Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, and UT Austin—to establish and fund centers to train two-year college leaders. These Kellogg Junior College Leadership Programs graduated hundreds of future deans and presidents, and became the centerpiece of Kellogg’s success in this area. The ’60s saw the opening of 457 community colleges across the U.S. (an increase of more than 100 percent). This allowed an enormous expansion of educational opportunity as the Baby Boomers reached college age. While less than 2 percent of college freshmen in 1920 were in two-year colleges, by the 1980s these schools served half of America’s collegians.

  • George Vaughan, The Community College Story, (Community College Press, 2006)
  • Arthur Cohen and Florence Brawer, The American Community College, (Jossey-Bass, 2008)

American cities were just beginning to fall apart in the middle of the twentieth century—a process accelerated by many of the technocratic efforts undertaken to “improve” them, like “urban renewal,” public housing, rent control, freeway construction, and architectural “modernism”—when a unknown scholar named Jane Jacobs came along and shouted “Stop!” A diminutive woman with a sharp pen and a beady eye for the way human nature and the physical world really interlink, Jacobs convinced the Rockefeller Foundation to fund her research and writing on the subtle factors that make city neighborhoods safe, efficient, and enjoyable, and how easily these evolved traits can be snuffed out by social engineers. Her resulting 1961 book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, became a classic that transformed views of architecture, city planning, and government administration. It helped birth a rebellion against modern design and planning, discredited the machine aesthetic, championed a return to human-scale buildings, accelerated historic preservation, and revived traditional architecture and traditional understandings of what makes a city thrive. It continues to echo loudly today in the offices of those who build and regulate cities, and American urban areas are now again growing rather than collapsing.

John Hertz was an immigrant to Chicago, from Slovakia, who made a good deal of money by creating transportation firms, including the car rental company bearing his name. During the Cold War he worried over the security of his adopted country and so established a foundation whose main work has been to support scientific exploration by young minds, especially in applied areas that can strengthen the U.S. economically and militarily.

From 1963 to 2015, the Hertz Foundation gave away $200 million to provide graduate education to 1,169 competitively selected fellows. In addition to $250,000 of stipend and tuition payments, the fellows gain extraordinary freedom to pursue their research ideas without funding limits or restrictions on subject matter. In return, John Hertz asked them to sign a pledge that they would “give back to the country in time of great need.”

Hertz fellows have so far included two Nobel winners, a Fields Medal recipient, a National Medal of Science awardee, more than 200 company founders, the registrants of over 3,000 patents, heads of universities, and senior military leaders.

In its first half-century of existence, the Rockefeller Foundation was a powerful supporter of basic research in the sciences, medicine, and technology—driving many breakthroughs that increased economic prosperity and human happiness. One nascent field where the foundation invested was machine intelligence. Rockefeller’s 1955 grant to mathematics professor and cognitive scientist John McCarthy initiated a vast and valuable new area of knowledge.

The $7,500 award funded a summer research group at Dartmouth College to investigate the theory that machines could be programmed to mimic features of human intelligence. It was in his proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation that McCarthy first coined the term “artificial intelligence.” The conference ended up being attended by nearly all of the early leading lights of machine learning, and would come to be regarded as the birth event of artificial intelligence.

While the group, which also included scientists from Bell Labs, Harvard, and IBM, did not create intelligent computers in the span of one summer, they definitively established a new and consequential field of research, with leading scientists adopting McCarthy’s term and main concepts. McCarthy went on to found the MIT Artificial Intelligence group in 1959 and the Stanford AI Laboratory in 1962, and artificial intelligence was established as a fully fledged course of academic study.

The RAND Corporation (the name is a truncation of “research and development”) began as a U.S. military project at World War II’s end. Air Force General “Hap” Arnold wanted to continue the scientific advances that had contributed to so many military successes. He gave the organization unusual freedom from government bureaucracy, and allowed its 200 researchers wide latitude in digging into subjects as far flung as math, economics, physics, aerodynamics, and psychology. By 1948 government authorities agreed RAND should be made even more independent by spinning it off as independent nonprofit. The Ford Foundation provided an interest-free loan and guaranteed a private bank loan, providing $1 million in operating capital. In 1952, Ford expanded the loan so RAND could diversify its research into new areas like the space industry, computers, industrial cost analysis, social problems, and much more.

RAND’s first report, issued in 1946, detailed the need for multi-stage rockets and for satellites to improve reconnaissance, weather forecasting, and communications. The government dawdled on satellites until embarrassed by the Soviets’ Sputnik launch. RAND’s theorists pioneered the building blocks of what would become the Internet, but government bureaucrats similarly dragged their feet on digital networks. RAND researchers spurred the Air Force to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, and helped pioneer magnetic-core memory, computer printers, and video recorders.

In the late 1960s RAND began shifting focus from technology studies toward policy analysis. It started a graduate school. Today the think tank is an active producer of ideas and research on a wide variety of subjects extending far beyond military matters.

John Dorr was an industrial chemist whose inventiveness allowed him to build a successful company, and then a charitable foundation which he eventually focused on practical solutions to everyday problems. One of his concerns was that when visibility became poor due to weather, and drivers were forced to hug the center stripe to make sure they stayed on the road, collisions became inevitable. If stripes could also be painted on the outer edge of every lane it would be easier for drivers to keep to the road without veering so close to oncoming traffic.

Dorr pressed the highway commissioner in his home state of Connecticut to test his idea, eventually getting New York and Connecticut to paint a right-hand stripe on a stretch of busy parkway. It immediately showed positive effects, but the highway bureaucracies continued to balk, arguing that it would cost $150 per mile to stripe all roads that way, and questioning the return. To answer this, the Dorr Foundation paid for an independent four-state study, which showed that additional lane-striping produced a 37 percent reduction in deaths and injuries. The foundation turned itself into a clearinghouse for studies on this topic, pressed safety groups and highway departments, and eventually was able to shame and cajol states into making right-side road-striping a standard practice, saving thousands of lives.

Jim Casey and his siblings lost their father when they were young, and were raised on very little income by their mother. To contribute to the family’s support, Jim launched a delivery service in Seattle in 1907. It grew into one of the largest companies in the nation—UPS. With some of his eventual proceeds, he created the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 1948, named for his mother, and aimed at helping kids weather difficult times, both through direct help and by advocating for expansion of public social-welfare programs.

Jim kept enlarging the foundation, and when he died in 1983 left a major bequest. One of Casey’s signature efforts has been Kids Count, a center for dispensing detailed data on child and family well-being to help policymakers and organizations identify needs, track trends, and measure successes. The foundation has also become involved in debates about crime, race, health-care programs, economic development, welfare spending, and other topics.

Today it is one of the largest private foundations in America, with assets of $2.9 billion in 2013. It provided $184 million in grants that year, in pursuit of its mission of “fostering public policies, human services, and community supports that more effectively meet the needs

Herbert Hall grew up in Maine, went into business, and eventually built in Kansas City, Missouri, the largest grain-exporting company in the U.S. He and his wife Linda Hall had no children, so before they died they decided that their wealth should be used to “build up an important cultural agency as a contribution to the city in which they made their home.” So Herbert, who passed away three years after his wife, left the family estate, on 20 acres in the heart of Kansas City, plus a $6 million endowment (worth $82 million in 2017 dollars) to create a “free library” named after his wife, with the type of library to be determined by his trustees.

Hall’s trusted associates decided a library of science, technology, and engineering might be the best contribution to the economic prosperity and culture of Kansas City, so the home was converted into reading rooms, and they went book-buying. Their first acquisition was an historic one: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences transferred its entire library (which had been begun by John Adams before he became U.S. President). In 1985, the Franklin Institute likewise consolidated all of its books and journals at the Linda Hall Library. In 1995, the Engineering Societies Library was a third huge acquisition.

Today, the Linda Hall Library contains more than 2 million items, including vast collections of journals and standard reference works, technical reports, patent information, rare science volumes dating back to the 1400s, and one of the world’s most comprehensive history of science collections. It is the world’s largest privately endowed library of science, and sits amidst a 14-acre arboretum open to the Kansas City public.

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 the initiative. The project created entirely new varieties of wheat, corn, and potatoes that were tolerant of stress. Farmers were taught to fertilize and irrigate. Crop yields improved dramatically, and Mexico 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.

By 1961, the Ford Foundation had joined forces with the Rockefeller Foundation to extend the so-called Green Revolution to Asia and Africa. Ford’s initial $7.2 million grant helped build a research station in the Philippines; stations in three other nations soon followed. Cross-trait varieties of many staple crops were developed, chemical fertilizers were introduced, and food shortages were alleviated all across the world. In India and Pakistan, wheat yields were doubled. Life in China and other parts of the east was transformed by high-yield, disease-resistant rice. Nations previously described as “basket cases” were now able to feed themselves without strain.

During its 50-year involvement, the Rockefeller Foundation invested $600 million in the Green Revolution. Its employee Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And it is estimated that, overall, the philanthropically led transfer of hybrid crops and modern farming techniques to the developing world may have saved up to a billion

humans from painful death by starvation.

Finding himself bored in the practice of law as a young man, Alfred Loomis returned to an earlier interest in scientific experimentation—befriending internationally prominent experimenters and conducting quite advanced investigations in garages and basements. Concluding that he needed a fortune to finance his deep scientific interests, the restless genius launched an investment firm with his brother-in-law.

Soon he was wealthy enough to build a state-of-the-art lab near his home, in Tuxedo Park, New York, where he installed advanced machinery superior to what was available at major universities, plus housing for visiting scientists, and a support staff.

Concluding in 1928 that stock prices were unsustainable, Loomis converted all of his firm’s assets to cash before the crash of 1929. He then purchased collapsed stocks at bargain prices, and made an additional $50 million in the first years of the Great Depression (the equivalent of more than $700 million today). In the early ’30s he was one of the richest men in America, and as influential on Wall Street as J. P. Morgan and John Rockefeller.

At age 45 Loomis retired from finance to put his full time and energy into his scientific research. Working with top scientists including Nobel winners, Loomis made many valuable discoveries in physics, biology, and scientific instrumentation—in areas ranging from brain-wave measurement to his invention of the global long-range navigation system that preceded and birthed GPS navigation. While visiting Berlin in 1938, Loomis was unsettled by the popularity of Hitler and the advanced state of German weaponry. After his return he provided funding to Ernest Lawrence for development of the cyclotron. Loomis likewise provided funding for Enrico Fermi and other investigators to explore the budding field of nuclear fission.

Then, in 1940, Loomis doubled the size of his personal laboratory and focused it on a brand-new field with profound military implications: radio-wave detection of moving objects. By early 1941 he had a working prototype radar set. When the U.S. entered World War II, Loomis was put in charge of the nation’s crucial effort to beat the Germans to military use of radar. He hand-picked scientists and used all of his entrepreneurial and finance skills, along with timely personal donations, to prevent military bureaucracy from slowing their work. By mid-1943 nearly 6,000 radar sets had been delivered to the Army and Navy and thousands more were on the way. Radar is considered to have won the war by neutralizing the German U-boat, bomber, and rocket threats, while giving Allied airplanes and ships in Europe and Asia remarkable new defensive and targeting powers.

One scientist described Loomis’s laboratory as “the greatest cooperative research establishment in the history of the world.” Nobelist Lawrence later stated, “If Alfred Loomis had not existed, radar development would have been retarded greatly, at an enormous cost in American lives…. He used his wealth very effectively…. He exercised his tact and diplomacy to overcome all obstacles…. He steers a mathematically straight course and succeeds in having his own way by force of logic and of being right.” Loomis’s organization was next copied for the secret Manhattan Project, and many of Loomis’s scientists were transferred to work on development of the world’s first atomic weapons. President Roosevelt subsequently lauded Loomis for doing more to win World War II than any civilian except Winston Churchill.

After the war, Loomis continued to financially support, and personally toil on, important scientific projects. He showed a lifelong gift for identifying men capable of transforming their fields. Alfred Loomis also produced a great-grandson who became a pioneer of the Internet—Netflix founder Reed Hastings, who similarly applied the riches from smashing business triumphs to highly influential philanthropy, namely the creation of charter schools. (See 2000, 2005, and 2006 entries on our companion list of achievements in Education philanthropy.)

  • Alfred Loomis entry in the Philanthropy Hall of Fame (see prior Almanac section)
  • Biographical essay,
  • Jennet Conant, Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II (Simon & Schuster, 2003)

In the teeth of the Great Depression, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons—created what has become America’s broadest private system of economic aid to persons in distress. The church began by matching unemployed members with farms that needed harvest labor. Then it distributed food and goods to church members, requiring them in turn to provide some service to another member of the congregation—say, some home repair for an elderly widow, or care of another family’s children. From the beginning the system was premised on mutual aid and helping people meet their own needs, and resources have always been distributed with the aim of getting recipients back into independent and healthy self-support.

There are three major elements to today’s Mormon welfare system. The first is tithing. Church members are expected to donate 10 percent of their income, and most get in the habit from an early age such that it becomes an automatic habit. Tithe offerings are used primarily to maintain and extend the church: erect buildings, plant new congregations, offer religious education, produce instructional literature, support the missions program that has made Mormonism one of the fastest growing faiths on the planet.

The second charitable element in the LDS church is the monthly fast offering. Congregants fast on one day each month, and are asked to donate about what they would have spent for two meals to fund the system of Bishop’s Storehouses. There is a massive main distribution center in Utah that contains food and other living supplies purchased with fast offerings, and a dedicated fleet of 100 tractor trailers to move goods among five regional storehouses and more than 200 local storehouses. When a member of the church (or sometimes an outsider) is in trouble, he or she goes privately to the local church bishop and asks for help. The bishop fills out an order which allows that person to “shop” free of charge at a local storehouse.

The bishop also sets into motion church-provided services to help the applicant get back on his feet. This could include job referrals or training, or employing him directly at one of the 40 church thrift stores. It could include help with family budgeting, marital counseling, addiction services, or whatever else is needed. This help is usually provided by church members themselves, many of whom are very successful in their professional lives and thus well positioned to assist. If “we wait for experts with specialized knowledge to solve specific problems,” warns church official Dieter Uchtdorf, “we deprive our neighbor of the service we could render and we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to serve.”

A third component of the Mormon welfare system is LDS Charities. This agency channels voluntary donations to millions of needy persons in 179 countries overseas. Donors offering funds here do so on top of their annual tithes and fast offerings.

Herbert Hoover, now remembered mainly as a President, was both a wealthy businessman and a prominent humanitarian and donor. Orphaned at an early age, he had a lifelong devotion to children’s causes. In 1936 he became chairman of the Boys Clubs of America, and he devoted time, treasure, and organizational expertise to turn it into one of the country’s largest charities by the time of his death a quarter-century later. He added hundreds of clubs to help city youths at risk of delinquency, offering them, in the words of one observer, “a place to play checkers and learn a trade, swim in a pool, and steal nothing more harmful than second base.” Today, Boys and Girls Clubs serve over four million children in over 4,000 autonomous local clubs that head off gang membership, crime, drug use, and violence by means of proven formulas: supportive adults, challenging activities, and a place where young people feel they belong.

In 1935, the board of the Carnegie Corporation expressed interest in “negro problems” in the United States, and the extent to which they could be reduced through education. This led to a decision to commission a study of the issue. For reasons of objectivity, the foundation sought a European scholar to conduct the work, settling in 1936 on Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, who had spent 1929 and 1930 in the U.S. as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, and who later went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics. The Carnegie Corporation arranged a two-month tour of the South for Myrdal, guided by a knowledgeable official of Rockefeller’s General Education Board. They gave Myrdal funds to commission 40 research memoranda from experts in different aspects of race issues. Beyond this, the foundation gave Myrdal wide latitude for his investigation.

Drawing from the 40 research papers and his own observations during his southern tour, Myrdal wrote a 1,500 page book called An American Dilemma that the Carnegie Corporation published in 1944. The book took a basically positive view of the potential of black Americans and the ability of U.S. society to transform itself to accommodate them as productive and equal citizens, and strongly influenced the public view of race relations. It sold over 100,000 copies, and its second edition published in 1965 influenced the civil rights activism of that time. The study was cited in five different Supreme Court opinions, including the Brown v. Board of Education case that ushered in full racial integration.

  • Joel Fleishman, The Foundation (PublicAffairs 2009) pp. 176-179

By the early 1930s, the Rockefeller Foundation had dramatically accelerated the fields of chemistry and physics through its grants. In 1932 the foundation hired mathematician Warren Weaver to create programs in other branches of science that would be equally productive. Weaver became convinced that “movement of really heroic dimensions” could be sparked in the field of biology, but that this would require bringing the new, precise tools of laboratory exploration into the life sciences, which were at that point lagging other fields. In 1933 Warren and the Rockefeller Foundation launched a large effort to find investigators around the globe with first-rate technical lab skills and convince them to tackle biological studies that could help unlock the mysteries of life.

In the beginning, Weaver called this the study of “vital essences.” Then he renamed it “experimental biology.” As new instruments and tools began to open up the smallest units of life, Weaver finally coined the term “molecular biology” for this new field. It stuck.

By visiting labs across the U.S. and Europe and then using fellowships and grants to cajole the best minds to transfer the techniques of chemistry and physics to the study of living things, the Rockefeller staff sparked many of the most prominent triumphs of mid-century science. Investigations done with Rockefeller funding included Linus Pauling’s work on the DNA helix and on chemical bonds, the Beadle-Tatum research on how genes govern metabolic processes, Dorothy Hodgkin’s X-ray crystallography, Norbert Wiener’s research on biofeedback, Albert Kuhn’s developmental biology, Boris Ephrussi’s studies on regulation of embryo development, and multiple-researcher work on photosynthesis, the function of vitamins, the effects of radiation on cancers, and so on.

Rockefeller’s molecular biology program ran until 1951. At that point the desired insights and techniques were being aggressively pursued in industry and public research, so the foundation shut down its pioneering instigations and shifted its natural-science efforts toward agriculture, where it saw need for practical solutions that could end hunger.

As fascism swept Europe, scholars, artists, scientists, and religious leaders began to come under serious official pressure. In Germany, and later the countries that Germany overran, some were discharged from their positions for political reasons. In 1933 the Rockefeller Foundation set up a Special Research Aid Fund for Deposed Scholars charged with relocating these deposed intellectuals to universities in the U.S., Canada, England, France, or the Netherlands, so their minds would not be lost to the cause of human accomplishment. In addition to helping the scholar flee with his family, the foundation typically paid half of his salary, for a time, at the new institution where he was placed.

By the end of the ’30s this effort had moved 214 deposed scholars (people like physicist Leo Szilard and novelist Thomas Mann) into new positions. In 1940, with German soldiers in Paris, it became clear that if Hitler prevailed in Europe, many individuals from disfavored races, religions, occupations, or political backgrounds would be in danger, especially if they were what the foundation described as “persons with capacity for independent leadership.” So that year, the foundation added an additional Emergency Program for European Scholars that even more aggressively whisked individuals out of Germany and conquered countries, mostly to the U.S.

The Rockefeller leadership knew they couldn’t carry out a mass refugee rescue in the middle of a war, so they focused on saving gifted thinkers in their productive years who held promise of producing breakthroughs that could benefit all people. Two foundation officers were permanently stationed in Europe to aid the endangered, and they showed great inventiveness in moving their charges to safety. Among those protected were twelve future or past Nobel Prize winners. As the war wound on, officials at the foundation realized they were making life and death decisions, which they found wrenching, and many began diverting other foundation funds, and even using their own money, to complete some of the relocations.

For most of history, the enormous repository of human knowledge represented by books was out of reach for the blind. Only a small percentage of persons with vision loss have ever mastered braille. So when it came to accessing literature, history, practical information, and everything else contained between hard covers, the blind were, literally, in the dark.

In 1932 two donors—the Carnegie Corporation, and Ada Moore, a generous patron of libraries and art—gave $15,000 to the American Foundation for the Blind to fund a crash program to bring books to the sightless in a practical audio form. Both donors followed up with additional grants, totaling $20,000 from each of them. With these funds the AFB went to work to see if a brand-new patent for what was being called a “long-playing record,” or LP, might work. LPs were much larger and slower-spinning than the 78-rpm records that existed then, and thus played more than four times as long on each side, making them practical for extended readings from books.

The foundation experimented with making discs out of various materials, seeking one durable enough to stand up to shipping from house to house among blind subscribers. It eventually settled on vinyl. The AFB also had to build players for the records, creating one that was electric and one that was hand-cranked, and struggled to make them cheap enough for mass purchase. This philanthropic product-development effort succeeded, and in 1934 “Talking Books” began to be shipped around the country, bringing literature to blind Americans everywhere, leaving them wide-eyed with wonder.

The LP record funded by Carnegie and Moore was enjoyed exclusively by the blind for the first 14 years of its existence, until CBS turned it into a popular medium for playing music among the general public in 1948. And while convalescing from a heart attack in 1955, President Eisenhower, not blind but bedridden, asked to use Talking Books and a Talking-Book machine. Audiobooks for the general public took a step forward. Thus did a charitable product for the sightless gradually become a big part of American pop culture.

Carnegie, meanwhile, developed a wider interest in bringing information to the blind. It made subsequent grants to develop a braille typewriter, new flexible records, and bibliographies of available recorded books. It also funded research on how to use Talking Books to educate blind children.

Robert Goddard was the world’s greatest genius in rocketry, which only existed in science fiction when he penned his first articles about it in high school. After he earned a doctorate in physics at Clark University in 1911, his rocketry research expenses overwhelmed his salary, and he began fundraising. Goddard received scant financial backing and little interest from government or his fellow scientists, and the media (especially the New York Times) attacked his ideas so mercilessly he shunned publicity. In 1929, though, he was befriended by famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, who persuaded philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim to provide Goddard with a $100,000 grant. For the next 11 years, the Guggenheim family were Goddard’s primary supporters, providing the salary, research funds, and materials with which Goddard created his many breakthroughs in rocket and jet propulsion.

Freed by these donations from the demands of fundraising or teaching, Goddard made bold progress on a range of problems and set the stage for the jet and rocket revolutions—and space exploration, including the multistage boosters that allowed the U.S. to be the first nation to land men on the moon. Subsequent Guggenheim-funded labs eventually yielded the Mars lander, and probes which traveled to Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond. “Today,” notes historian Claire Gaudiani, “all rockets and planes depend on some of Goddard’s 300 separate aeronautical inventions.” Indeed, the federal government (which had largely ignored Goddard’s work) agreed after his death to pay his widow and his philanthropic patrons at the Guggenheim Foundation $1 million for infringing on the master scientist’s 214 patents during World War II.

  • Claire Gaudiani, The Greater Good (Times Books, 2003) pp. 112-113
  • Milton Lehman, The Life of Robert H. Goddard (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1963)

The pioneering U.S.-based telescopes used by scientists to make fundamental scientific discoveries have been products of private philanthropy. The first modern mega-telescope was the 60-inch reflector, at that point the world’s biggest, built on Mount Wilson in California with a 1904 grant from the Carnegie Institution. This historic instrument allowed measurement of the size of our galaxy, and plotting of the position of our solar system within it. Carnegie also funded the 100-inch telescope that went into use on Mount Wilson a decade later. Edwin Hubble used it to show that there are many galaxies, and that the universe is continuing to expand.

In 1928, $6 million of Rockefeller funding (at that point the largest single grant they had ever awarded) paid for construction of the 200-inch Hale telescope on Mount Palomar. After years of work, the original mirror proved impossible to manufacture. Corning Glass of upstate New York was called in to create an enormous blank using their new Pyrex product, which was eventually transported across the country, polished, and finally opened to the heavens two decades after the initial Rockefeller gift. The Hale telescope was the world’s largest for 45 years (1948-1993), and is still a workhorse of modern astronomy, used nightly for a wide range of studies.

Harry Guggenheim served as one of America’s first naval pilots in the First World War. By 1925 he had interested his father, Daniel—the multimillionaire mining industrialist and philanthropist—in donating a half-million dollars to New York University to establish the nation’s earliest school of aeronautics. The family later established additional schools of aeronautical engineering at MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Harvard, Syracuse, Georgia Tech, the universities of Michigan and Washington, and other campuses.

Before commercial air travel existed, Harry Guggenheim established a Safe Aircraft Competition with $150,000 in prizes to spur innovation in ways of flying through fog, snow, rain and other adverse conditions. As a result, Jimmy Doolittle flew the first instrument-only flight in 1929, taking off, cruising, and landing a plane from a cockpit with its glass completely covered. The Guggenheims also bankrolled weather tracking and reporting services essential to flyers, and development of the first gyroscope compass. They made the equipment loans that allowed the first regularly scheduled commercial airline to set up operations in the U.S. They popularized air travel by touring famous aviators like Charles Lindbergh and the pilot who flew Commodore Byrd to the North Pole to scores of cities across the U.S.

The Guggenheims funded Theodore von Kármán, who invented the wind tunnel and designed an early helicopter and the DC-3. Right up into the 1960s, by which time nearly all of America’s senior aerospace engineers were graduates of Guggenheim-sponsored schools, they continued to endow professorships and establish additional research and development centers to make flying safer, more efficient, and more widespread. Aeronautics became a huge element in the U.S. economy and national defense.

The philanthropic foundation set up by the Harkness family with Standard Oil earnings was called the Commonwealth Fund. In 1925 Edward Harkness—one of the most active and most effective donors of the first half of the twentieth century—decided to create a kind of mirror image of the Rhodes Scholarships. Cecil Rhodes paid for promising Americans to go to Britain for advanced study. The Commonwealth Fund Scholarships reciprocated that, bringing bright Britons to U.S. universities for a meeting of minds. They did that successfully for the next 72 years (though they were renamed Harkness Fellowships in 1961). Many Harkness fellows went on to prominent success, like Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, composer Peter Maxwell Davies, architect Rem Koolhaas, and London School of Economics director Howard Davies. Some became Americans, such as physicist Freeman Dyson and journalists Andrew Sullivan and Alastair Cooke. In 1997 the Harkness Fellowships were narrowed into study awards for health-care specialists only.

Starting with $1,000, William Harmon built an immense real-estate development business active in dozens of cities across the U.S. After he died in 1928, journalists discovered that he was “Jedediah Tingle,” a secret donor who for years had made generous gifts under that pseudonym (which was actually his great-grandfather’s name). Tingle was particularly likely to bestow his surprise gifts on brave children, people who were suffering, heroes who saved others, and writers and artists who inspired others.

Harmon also created a foundation under his own name in 1922, and used it initially for a variety of causes—including building scores of playgrounds for children, especially in his native Ohio, sending urban youngsters to fresh-air camps, and supporting the Children’s Aid Society.

Then in the mid-1920s, Harmon focused his foundation on one unusual topic: recognizing and encouraging black creativity—in science, business, religion, and especially the arts. He started giving annual awards plus project and career grants. Harmon was white, but his father was an officer in a unit of black soldiers (the 10th Cavalry Regiment, known as the Buffalo soldiers) and growing up among these troopers made him interested in African Americans. His gifts were particularly important in fanning the art of the Harlem Renaissance and bringing to national attention painters, writers, and musicians like Hale Woodruff, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and others. When the Harmon foundation closed down in 1967, it dispersed a considerable collection of African-American art to the Smithsonian Institution and other museums.

The same philanthropic impulse that produced a slew of private scientific organizations in the 1920s to improve American governance (see 1919 entry on Public-Policy list) also created new expertise to help keep the government honest and informed on the economic front. The National Bureau of Economic Research was created in 1920 with $35,000 provided by the Commonwealth Fund. It was erected as a “private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works,” with its independence guaranteed by a diverse board of economists, businessmen, and workplace experts. The Carnegie Corporation kicked in an additional $95,000 during 1921 and 1922. Today the bureau continues to do valuable work—officially designating the beginning and end of every national recession, for instance, and producing a rich diet of economic papers and books on timely topics. A third of the U.S. economists who have won the Nobel Prize have put in a stint as a researcher at NBER, and 13 alumni have chaired the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

It wasn’t just foundations that strove to improve economic knowledge in the U.S. during the tumultuous early decades of the twentieth century. Individual donors like Alfred Cowles also got involved. Cowles was an investment adviser in Denver who decided to direct some of his wealth into supporting the most quantitatively gifted economists of his day, in the hope they could improve understanding of what was really happening in the American economy. Eventually he and some U.S. and European economists he had taken under his wing decided to make a systematic effort to encourage the application of advanced mathematics and statistics to the budding field of economics. Their Econometric Society was born in 1931, along with its research journal Econometrica—both funded by Cowles. The Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations later chipped in as well, and scholars fueled by these donated funds earned nine Nobel Prizes in subsequent years.

  • Joel Fleishman, The Foundation (Public Affairs, 2007) pp. 110-112
  • Claire Gaudiani, The Greater Good (Times Books, 2003) pp. 122-123

Raymond Orteig was a French immigrant to New York City who started as a hotel porter at age 12 and worked his way up to owning hotels. Impressed by the good that regularized air travel could do for international understanding, economic growth, and human exploration, Orteig created one of the first great philanthropic prizes in 1919. He donated $25,000 to be awarded to any aviator and team of engineers who succeeded in flying nonstop between New York and Paris.

That distance was twice as far as anyone had managed to stay airborne to date, but Orteig’s challenge spurred continual technological improvements. Six men died in various failed attempts over an eight-year period. Then in 1927, Charles Lindbergh lifted off from a Long Island airfield, buzzed across the gray Atlantic chop for 33 hours, and touched down outside Paris. Orteig happened to be vacationing in France and rushed to hand the pilot his check. It was estimated that Orteig’s $25,000 gift sparked 16 times that much investment in new technology, speeding America into the skies.

In its early years, Andrew Carnegie’s main foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, had a Republican board that was anxious to improve the quality of American governance without increasing the size of government. Toward this end, the Corporation began to make grants creating independent advisory groups that aimed to elevate the quality of information available to government officials. Beginning in 1919, Carnegie and allied funders set up a whole series of private research institutes and scientific councils that, as historian Ellen Lagemann puts it, “would be accessible to the federal government but not controlled by it.” The aim was to encourage an “associative state,” where experts supported by private philanthropy could improve the policymaking process and help solve national problems while preserving America’s traditionally limited sphere of government action.

Carnegie and Rockefeller funds led this effort by establishing the National Research Council during World War I. Drawing from numerous scientists, the Council brought the government many military advances, including nascent sonar systems for detecting submarines, intelligence tests used to classify army recruits, and range finders for airplanes. In 1919 the Carnegie Corporation donated $5 million to make the National Research Council a permanent adviser to government, under the wing of a revived National Academy of Sciences. A headquarters building and a permanent endowment were created with the Carnegie money.

Many other donors followed this with similar efforts to capitalize private think tanks and advisory organizations that could refine government policies and performance. Thanks to philanthropic money from Ford, Russell Sage, Rockefeller, Eastman, Rosenwald, and many others, independent organizations like the Brookings Institution, the RAND Corporation, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Council of Learned Societies began to appear to improve governance via better information.

  • Ellen Lagemann, The Politics of Knowledge: The Carnegie Corporation, Philanthropy, and Public Policy (University of Chicago Press, 1992)

With the aim of improving the financial security of instructors, and with direct prodding and involvement from Andrew Carnegie, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching researched, planned, and opened for operation a new Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association in 1918. The foundation seeded the new entity with a $1 million grant. In the years following, TIAA received an additional $7 million of donations from Carnegie, and during its first two decades the fund was given free office space, and had all of its administrative expenses paid by Carnegie. TIAA-CREF grew so large by 1937 that the foundation spun it off as an independent, self-supporting company. A conservative investment strategy allowed it to not only survive but flourish during the Great Depression. Then when inflation made traditional annuities less attractive during the 1950s, the organization created innovative stock-savings accounts under its College Retirement Equities Fund umbrella.

TIAA-CREF’s success and rapid growth allowed academics access to some of the best and most affordable financial services in the U.S. Carnegie’s example helped make retirement saving a common expectation among millions of middle-class workers in professions of all sorts. And the company itself became a model for other low-cost, high-quality, low-risk retirement and investment firms. By 2017, TIAA-CREF managed more than $907 billion of assets, and served more than five million individuals. Not only colleges but also many think tanks, community foundations, and other nonprofits rely on the company to manage the retirement plans of their employees.

George Fabyan was a classic entrepreneurial philanthropist—curious, quirky, full of passionate interests, deeply respectful of inventive thinking, distrustful of conventional wisdom and bureaucracy. Fabyan was a great believer in science, and with proceeds from his textile business he set up one of America’s early private research labs, Riverbank Laboratories, on his estate near Chicago. Becoming interested in genetics and plant growth, he brought in a promising Cornell student to study, among other things, the effects of moonlight on wheat maturation. William Friedman went on the payroll in 1915.

Fabyan was also fascinated by secret messages and cryptography, and soon Friedman was as well. Before long, Friedman and his wife were running the Riverbank Lab Department of Codes and Ciphers, and publishing a series of papers that established much of the mathematical basis for cryptanalysis. When World War I broke out, the U.S. military asked Riverbank Laboratories to train its personnel in the use of codes. Friedman became the principal instructor, and eventually an officer in the Army’s cryptography unit. Throughout the war, George Fabyan’s private lab was the center for all U.S. military code-making and -breaking.

William Friedman eventually ran signals intelligence for the Army. He headed the group that famously broke the Japanese diplomatic codes—one of the great technical breakthroughs of World War II. He helped create for America the most secure cipher machine used in the Second World War. The organization Friedman established evolved into today’s National Security Agency, the preeminent coding, surveillance, and information-security entity. The young geneticist who George Fabyan recruited into the world of ciphers is today described by the NSA as “the father of American cryptology.”

From modest beginnings, Frederick Goff rose as a lawyer at John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, then became president of the Cleveland Trust Company, where he experimented with theories on improving philanthropy. He invented “living trusts” that encouraged donors to give during their lifetime rather than just in bequests, and helped the city launch what became its community chest and United Way campaigns, to make giving easier and more common.

In 1914 Goff launched his most dramatic innovation: the nation’s first community foundation. Only about a dozen foundations of any kind existed at that time, and his Cleveland Foundation was quite novel in pooling the donations of many small givers into a common fund of real heft. During the years when the foundation was slowly building enough capital to permit giving, Goff personally covered expenses, which included surveys of recreation areas, schools, and other community assets which might benefit from enhancement. During the century since he launched the organization, the Cleveland Foundation has channeled $1.7 billion worth of gifts into local charitable causes.

This example inspired civic leaders in other places to copy the effort, so that small donors in their area could have easy ways to exercise their philanthropic impulses. Many large private foundations—including Ford, Mott, Wallace-Reader’s Digest, Kellogg, Packard, Irvine, Lilly, Kresge, Packard, and Knight—eventually made it a part of their mission to seed new community foundations. By handling grants, record-keeping, and investing, community foundations allow modest-income Americans to give money in efficient and lasting ways. Today there are more than 730 community foundations in the U.S., and an equal number of these distinctly American inventions have been established in other countries.

Founded in 1910 as part of an international movement, the Boy Scouts of America enrolled 2.4 million youth members in 2014, reached another 422,000 children receiving character education from the organization, and enjoyed nearly a million adult volunteers—making it one of the largest nonprofits in the U.S. The group’s mission is to train boys in responsible citizenship, character development, self-reliance, and individual hardiness.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, prominent Americans were concerned that the migration of our population from farms to cities was reducing the physical activity, communal identity, religious development, and social health of children. Some leaders worried that independence and patriotism were not being reinforced among the young. Former President Theodore Roosevelt complained about a decline in American manhood. Partly to address concerns like these, the Boy Scouts were founded with strong support from observers across the political and social spectrum. The BSA became one of just a small number of charitable organizations to be granted a Congressional charter.

The organization is supported by fees and donor pledges. In 2014, contributions and bequests totaled $59 million, and the organization’s endowment from previous gifts generated additional earnings of $35 million. The Boy Scouts partner with churches, fraternal clubs, PTAs, and other organizations that donate meeting space and basic oversight. The BSA provides leader training, activities, camping programs, insurance, and various forms of professional support.

Since the group’s birth, more than 110 million Americans have been members of the Boy Scouts. Two years after the organization’s creation a counterpart with similar aims for girls was founded. Girls Scouts of the USA currently enrolls 2 million girls and 800,000 adult volunteers.

Benjamin Franklin is most often thought of in connection to his adopted city of Philadelphia, but he was raised in Boston, and remembered his birth city at his death. His will included a provision providing that a thousand English pounds from his estate (about $60,000 in current funds) be invested for a hundred years and then gradually released to the city of Boston, with a particular aim of aiding “young workmen.” (An identical provision was made for the city of Philadelphia.) In 1908, Boston decided to use the money accumulated in its account (which ultimately totaled millions of dollars), supplemented with an additional donation from Andrew Carnegie, to create a technical school called the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. Inspired by Franklin’s maxim that good workmen make good citizens, it is now one of the oldest industrial training schools in the country, offering job-oriented education (mostly two-year associate degrees) to a student body with a large representation of low-income students and minorities.

When upstate New York financier and railroad builder Russell Sage died in 1906, he left his fortune to his wife, Olivia, who the very next year poured $10 million into a foundation in her husband’s honor, charging it to “take up the larger and more difficult problems” and then “aid in their solution.” One of the very first general-purpose foundations in the country, the Russell Sage Foundation took a diagnostic approach to social ills, aiming “to understand and alleviate the conditions that cause [problems], rather than providing direct assistance.” When Mrs. Sage directed the construction of a headquarters in New York City, it was decorated with carved panels in which Service was flanked by Study and Counsel. The Russell Sage Foundation created some of the first scientific surveys of living conditions, of opinion, of health, of school performance. It investigated problems in housing, loan-sharking, working conditions, and early childhood education, funding the first White House Conference on Children in 1909. It financed the development of Forest Hills Gardens to create a model of town design for working-class urbanites.

The foundation’s deepest influence was in professionalizing the social sciences, and raising standards in many professions that feed into that discipline—like social work, nursing, demography, and law. The pioneering social worker and child-welfare expert Mary Richmond was a long-time employee of the foundation, and published classic works that injected into her field important elements of science, psychology, and morals, careful measurement, and understanding of the influence of a person’s social environment. Out of her experiences, she counseled caseworkers to first look at individual behavior and family structure, then consider close influences like schools, churches, and jobs. Only after that should they look to the wider community and government for a problem’s origins or solutions.

In addition to focusing on child welfare and inventing modern social work, the Russell Sage Foundation strove over a period of decades to make other professionals more effective, in fields like medicine, mental health, economics, and statistics. Olivia Sage, who had been a teacher for 20 years before marrying, was a strong supporter of education, and gave generously from her personal funds to support Syracuse University, where she propelled a teacher college, along with many other schools. In 1916 she founded Russell Sage College for the education of women. The Russell Sage Foundation, meanwhile, eventually focused on the improvement of philanthropy itself, providing crucial support that created the Foundation Center and the Foundation Directory, two of today’s vital resources for making private giving intelligible and accessible.

During the period when Julius Rosenwald was building Sears, Roebuck into the nation’s biggest retailer, he was also pioneering many novel combinations of business and philanthropy. In 1907, just after selling its first public stock, the firm advanced $90,000 to older employees at Rosenwald’s impetus to help them buy shares so they could participate in the company’s success. At the same time, the company created a savings bank for employees that paid 5 percent interest.

The formal launch of the Sears, Roebuck Employees’ Savings and Profit Sharing Plan occurred in July 1916, and it was immediately the largest such plan in the country for including workers in the prosperity of their company. Participation was voluntary and open to any employee with three or more years seniority; enrollment required a deposit of 5 percent of salary. The company in turn added to the fund 5 percent of its net annual earnings. An employee was fully vested in the plan after ten years of service, at which point he could withdraw the full amount of his contributions plus the company’s. No other offering at the time came close to matching the Sears plan in generosity, which Rosenwald believed spurred both workers’ productivity and their habits of thrift.

Rosenwald also created one of the first corporate foundations in history, the Sears, Roebuck Foundation, and built it to substantial size. But his most unusual and bold philanthropic innovation was his willingness to pledge his own fortune (more than once) to protect Sears employees and even preserve the company during the periodic financial panics that wracked the U.S. in the early decades of the twentieth century. Most dramatically, when the sudden recession after World War I pushed Sears to the brink of bankruptcy, Rosenwald bailed out the firm by pledging $21 million of his personal wealth (the equivalent of $288 million today) in a combination of gifts and loans. This stunned Rosenwald’s fellow business executives, and deeply impressed the country. Business writer C. W. Barron, who later fathered Barron’s magazine, hailed the move as “business philanthropy.”

At the turn of the last century, years before he set up his namesake foundation, John D. Rockefeller and his son Junior began efforts to improve life in the former Confederate states. Rockefeller first endowed the General Education Board in 1902, which by its last grant in 1964 had distributed $325 million. Initially, it assisted local communities with planning and arranging public funding for roughly 800 high schools serving students of all races. The Board’s second initiative was to partner with the Department of Agriculture to educate hundreds of thousands of farmers on improved agricultural methods. One intended byproduct of this increased productivity was a stronger tax base to support the Rockefeller-seeded high schools.

Then in 1909, the board used a $1 million gift by Rockefeller to launch another public awareness and action campaign, this time against hookworm disease. The intestinal parasite, which caused pernicious anemia and sometimes death, was extremely common among the poor of the South, who usually acquired it by walking barefoot around unsanitary latrines. The anemia lowered cognitive functioning and strength, reinforcing stereotypes of low intelligence and laziness among the poor. The Rockefeller funds were used for sanitary surveys, educational demonstrations, and organizing. Local groups and governments would donate additional money and time for diagnosing and treating the sick, as well as explaining proper sanitation techniques.

After an intensive five-year campaign, hookworm disease was nearly eliminated in the South, and many doctors became more familiar with the use of microscopes in medicine. This successful advancement in public health led Rockefeller to expand the program overseas. He endowed the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913, and its first initiative was to create the International Health Commission, which took on hookworm and later malaria, typhus, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis. It also created many graduate schools of public health around the world.

George Eastman had no wife or children and believed in giving while living. One of the world’s richest men, he gave away more money ($2 billion in current dollars) than anyone of his era except John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, yet his personal giving and even his face were little known in his day because of his predilection for anonymous gifts.

He could not hide, however, his extraordinary generosity to what he always called his “fellow employees” at Kodak. In 1899, the company Eastman had created dominated the photography market and had great success with a stock offering. Eastman decided to give $178,000 of his personal profit to his nearly 3,000 employees worldwide in one of corporate history’s first bonuses. Each person’s check was calculated using a formula based on salary, position, and time at Kodak, and it came with a note: “This is a personal matter with Mr. Eastman and he requests that you not consider it as a gift but as extra pay for good work.”

For decades to come, Eastman continued to reward employees generously. In 1911, he created a safety committee to study accident prevention. The same year, long prior to workmen’s compensations laws, he used $1 million to create a benefit, accident, and pension fund for employees, 50 years before most firms evolved sick pay, disability benefits, pension, and hospital benefit plans. The following year, Kodak employees received their first wage dividend, a profit-sharing program that continued for the life of the company. Every employee began receiving a 2 percent dividend on his wages of the past five years.

In 1919 Eastman provided his biggest gift to fellow employees. He donated back to the company 10,000 shares of common stock, a third of his personal holdings, so that employees could buy these at just 17 percent of market value. He also had the company set aside a matching amount of unissued, company-held stock so employee sales could continue in the future. In addition, the million-dollar proceeds to the company from selling this stock were channeled into the company’s Welfare Fund, which was administered by the newly established Kodak Employees Association. They used it, among other things, to help employees buy homes. Though long suspicious that pensions encouraged improvidence, by the late 1920s Eastman changed his mind and set up his final gift for employees—a retirement annuity, life insurance, and disability benefits.

Ellis Island officially opened as America’s front door on January 1, 1892. A 17-year-old named Annie Moore from County Cork, Ireland, was the first immigrant to be processed at the red-brick depot sitting in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. But once the federal employees did their duty, it was volunteers from more than 40 charitable groups who did much of the real work of converting new arrivals to the U.S. into stable and productive citizens.

As millions of newcomers from Europe and Asia first stepped onto American soil, immigrant-aid charities helped in hundreds of ways: translating, providing food and clothing, offering religious comfort, helping with paperwork and legal procedures, locating relatives who could take new arrivals under their wings, giving safe temporary housing to unaccompanied women and children, lending money for required fees and railroad tickets to inland destinations, finding jobs for men and women who stayed in the area, and laying out myriad other forms of constructive assistance, advice, and encouragement.

These charities included more than a dozen church groups, and organizations like the Traveler’s Aid Society, Italian Welfare League, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Irish Immigrant Society, the Salvation Army, the Lutheran Immigrant Society, the YMCA and YWCA, the Women’s Home Missionary Society, and the Red Cross. They comforted, bolstered, and propelled toward success literally millions of individuals, many of whom arrived from their countries of origin battered and beaten.

And it wasn’t just at early arrival that charities helped. During the decades of peak immigration to the U.S., a so-called “settlement house” movement grew up, funded by donors and staffed by volunteers, to help immigrants Americanize and prosper in their new land. Lots of practical assistance was available at these centers—there were labor bureaus that matched people to jobs, libraries and language classes, gyms and clubs where children could play, instruction in sanitation, cooking, sewing, and childcare, banks where immigrants could safely save money, and consultations with nurses and doctors.

These charitable operations also provided important mentoring and friendships, linking immigrants in need of advice, guidance, and kindness with middle-class volunteers who stepped up in large numbers to help assimilate the new arrivals. The mentors encouraged thrift, sobriety, industry, and family devotion. They brought their new friends to church and synagogue, and introduced them to neighbors and employers. The long-term message that newly arrived immigrants got from these charitable groups was simple:  Learn English. Take night classes to become educated and pick up job skills. And study civics so you can become a citizen.

Right to the present day, charities—particularly religious groups—continue to be the primary settlers of many immigrants to the U.S. For instance, refugees, most of whom were violently uprooted from their homes, tend to be especially stressed when they arrive in the U.S., and ill-prepared for a transition to a dramatically different environment. It’s church groups who do almost all the heavy lifting these days to set refugees on their feet. Religious volunteers typically meet the displaced families at the airport, locate apartments for them, furnish their residences and fill refrigerators and pantries, help locate jobs for the breadwinners, then follow up for many months with things like transportation to doctors, school assistance, family counseling, and offering driving lessons and used cars.

As of 2017, there were more than 40 million foreign-born individuals in America, with fresh arrivals streaming in every year. Many of these individuals need guidance, and an occasional boost, to become settled, successful, and happy in America. Much of that human service continues to come from philanthropic men and women motivated by patriotism, religious faith, and kindness.

Nathan Straus is little remembered today, though he is one of the most effective philanthropists in American history. He immigrated from Bavaria with his family as a small child in 1854. Following a typical path for many Jews of the era, the family pursued retailing, eventually coming to New York City. Nathan entered the family’s china and glassware business at 18, and in 1874 the family began operating the china and glassware departments of the Macy’s department store. The Straus family’s departments were so profitable that the family became partners with R. H. Macy’s heirs in both the Macy’s and Abraham & Straus stores, before taking over both concerns entirely. And still the family made gains, bringing numerous innovations to retailing that fueled Macy’s expansion. In 1902 the store became New York’s largest, and the family one of the city’s wealthiest. But their philanthropy had become prominent years before.

Nathan and his wife gave away the great bulk of their fortune during their lives, spreading their charity widely. Their efforts included everything from providing clean water to soldiers in the Spanish-American War, to constructing dozens of tuberculosis clinics across America, to building a health center in Jerusalem to aid persons of all races and creeds, to building a Catholic Church in New Jersey. The Strauses would have their greatest effect on human flourishing by crusading for pasteurized milk. It began as concern for their own six children. Like many affluent families, the Strauses kept cows to supply their home with milk, but one of the beasts abruptly died and was discovered to have tuberculosis. Recalling that Louis Pasteur’s method of heating milk killed most dangerous germs, Straus decided his children would drink only pasteurized milk. At the same time, he embarked on reforms to help poor children obtain safe milk. He established milk stations in poor neighborhoods to give away the pasteurized product and prove its value. “In 1891 fully 24 percent of babies born in New York City died before their first birthday. But of the 20,111 children fed on pasteurized milk supplied by Nathan Straus over a four-year period, only six died,” notes historian John Steele Gordon.

Straus donated pasteurization equipment to the city’s orphan asylum, an institution so gruesome that its children suffered a death rate four times worse than that of children in general. Forty-four percent of the children there died in 1897. The following year, with Straus’s milk the only change, the rate dropped to 20 percent. Straus’s philanthropic crusade saw him provide support for 297 milk stations in 36 cities, which dispensed more than 24 million glasses and bottles of milk over a quarter-century. Gordon reports that the U.S. infant mortality rate dropped from 125.1 per thousand in 1891 to 15.8 in 1925. Straus directly saved an estimated 445,800 children’s lives, and his crusade for mandatory pasteurization indirectly saved millions more lives.

In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Starr opened Hull House in Chicago, the nation’s first and most influential “settlement house”—a movement that aimed to link successful citizens to the poor, especially immigrants, in relationships of support, mentoring, and friendship. At first, Addams operated Hull House from her inheritance. Later, she received contributions from individuals such as Anita Blaine, Louise Bowen, Mary Smith, and other donors.

By 1907, Hull House had grown to 13 buildings covering most of a city block, with gym, theater, art gallery, boys’ club, cafeteria, residence for working women, libraries, and more; it served thousands of people each week. Among other efforts, Addams ran a labor bureau at Hull House to help residents find jobs, and opened a bank to encourage saving. By 1920, nearly 500 settlement houses existed nationally, and they played an important role in helping America assimilate millions of new arrivals during our decades of heaviest immigration.

Over the years, Addams shifted away from direct instruction and assistance to the poor, and increasingly focused on influencing public policies. She began to question the practice of “middle-class moralists” who urged on the lower classes “the specialized virtues of thrift, industry, and sobriety.” Historian Joel Schwartz describes this shift as “tragic” because it “discouraged poor people from practicing precisely the behaviors that are most likely to allow them to escape their poverty.” As dependency and the welfare state grew, the personal service to the poor that settlement houses had provided declined, and Hull House, after decades of powerful service, finally shut its doors.

  • Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (Empire, 2013),
  • Jean Bethke Elshtain (ed.), The Jane Addams Reader (Basic Books, 2001)

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitic riots in Russia and Eastern Europe killed many Jews, and caused hundreds of thousands of Jewish families to leave or be expelled from their homes. Many of these ended up on ships to the U.S., with meager resources and little help. In response, Jews in America banded together to form aid societies to help their immigrant brethren and relatives settle and prosper in America. The largest and oldest of these groups is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, whose roots go back to 1881 in New York City.

Nearly all of the early Jewish refugees arrived at Ellis Island. Some of them were severely malnourished because there was no kosher food available on their steamships. Others had lost all their property in pogroms. Most spoke no English, and all needed jobs. HIAS set up its own office at Ellis Island which provided translators, kosher food, and assistance toward becoming a legal entrant to the U.S. HIAS lent new arrivals money for their landing fees, or for railroad tickets that would take them to relatives in other places. The large numbers of Jewish immigrants who stayed in New York City were offered language classes, instruction in occupations like dressmaking, and, later, civic training that would allow the refugees to become U.S. citizens. Funding came from successful Jews who sponsored and donated funds.

The outbreak of World War I caused a new surge of refugees—140,000 Jews arrived in the first year of the war alone. The Russian Revolution killed about 50,000 more Jews and generated many additional refugees, some of whom made it to the U.S. During World War II, HIAS helped settle more Jewish refugees, and after the war the charity relocated a third of a million of Europe’s scattered and battered Jews. Later, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society helped co-religionists uprooted from Hungary, Egypt, and Cuba during upheavals and attacks of the 1950s, and assisted more than 400,000 Soviet Jews who immigrated to the U.S. in the later years of the Cold War. The Hebrew Bible has 36 different injunctions calling on believers to help strangers, and with most Jews now safely consolidated in the U.S. or Israel, HIAS has shifted much of its effort to assisting threatened refugees of other religions and ethnicities. The organization has foreign offices that help reunite families, resettle those in danger, and integrate the displaced into receiving countries, whether the U.S. or some other land. It is estimated that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has aided nearly 4.5 million people in its century and a quarter of charitable operations.

Clara Barton became famous as the “angel of the battlefield” during the Civil War. Afterward she raised significant sums from the public for other good works, such as efforts to account for missing soldiers. Exhausted by all this, she went to Switzerland to recuperate. There she met the founders of the new International Red Cross.

After returning to America, Barton organized an American version with a twist—the U.S. group would not only assist in wartime, but also help with peacetime disasters. She incorporated the American Association of the Red Cross in 1881. When a terrible fire left thousands of Michiganders homeless that year, Barton quickly raised $2,500 and a large supply of volunteers and donated goods, then raced to relieve the victims. Other early interventions in prominent crises included an 1893 hurricane that left 30,000 Georgians in need, and the group’s first wartime effort during the Spanish-American War of 1898. World War I brought tremendous growth to the Red Cross, with local chapters jumping from 107 to 3,864, and membership growing from the tens of thousands to the tens of millions. The Red Cross remains one of America’s ten largest charities.

  • Martin Morse Wooster, By Their Bootstraps: The Lives of Twelve Gilded Age Social Entrepreneurs (Manhattan Institute, 2002)
  • Clara Barton, The Red Cross in Peace and War (American Historical Press, 1910)

Writing to the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia metals manufacturer Joseph Wharton expressed disillusionment with the state of higher education. Citing his own experience in having to learn the ins and outs of business on the job, after leaving school at the age of sixteen, Wharton complained that there was no methodical training available for careers in commerce. He offered to begin to remedy this with a gift of $100,000 for the establishment of a “School of Finance and Economy.” And so in 1881, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania opened its doors—the first in the world of its kind.

In the coming years other donors followed Wharton’s lead. John Rockefeller gave several million dollars in 1898 to found the College of Commerce and Administration at the University of Chicago. New York University’s School of Commerce, Accounts, and Finance was started by a handful of New York businessmen who supplied not only funds but also instructional expertise. In 1900 the Amos Tuck School of Business Administration at Dartmouth was born of a family benefaction. Banker-industrialist George Baker gave $5 million to start Harvard’s graduate program in business administration. Like the philanthropists who preceded them in pushing scientific education into university curricula (notably Stephen Van Rensselaer—see 1824 entry), the donors to business education saw even before most academics did the need for new educational paradigms to meet the demands of an increasingly complex U.S. economy.

In the post-Civil War years, America’s cities and the popularity of Social Darwinism both grew. The increasing anonymity of city life perhaps made it easier for Social Darwinists to assume that all poor persons were doomed, and that charity toward them would thus be useless. Buffalo clergyman Stephen Gurteen rejected this fatalism and founded the Charity Organization Society in Buffalo in 1877. He argued against both the Social Darwinists’ indifference to the poor, and the failures of previous sentimental approaches to aiding the poor—which indiscriminately handed out relief that made givers feel good but undermined the character and independence of the receiver. Gurteen consciously emulated London’s Charity Organization Society, founded by hard-headed social reformer Octavia Hill, and Paris’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Five years later, Josephine Lowell founded another branch of the Charity Organization Society in New York City. She too attacked both callous indifference to the poor, and indiscriminate aid that “fails to save the recipient” because “no man can receive as a gift what he should earn by his own labor without a moral deterioration.” In her work Lowell used volunteers to “supply the precious element of human sympathy and tender personal interest which must often be lacking where the care [is] the means of livelihood of overtaxed officials.”

Both Gurteen and Lowell used work tests with the able-bodied poor, requiring tasks like wood chopping from men and sewing from women as a condition for aid. In addition to sustenance their organizations provided no-interest loans, job banks, and advice in home management. By 1894, historian Marvin Olasky reports, Gurteen’s group “was providing 6,286 days of work to men with families and 11,589 days of work to homeless men,” and the Charity Organization Society system had “caught on across the country.” Denver’s COS, established in 1887, is the precursor to the United Way.

Along with medical benefits and aid for orphaned children (see 1842 entry), another important socioeconomic protection provided to American workers by voluntary organizations was life insurance. For instance, the fraternal group known as the Ancient Order of United Workmen was founded in 1868 and offered life insurance to help attract members. It guaranteed a death benefit of $1,000, later increased to $2,000, which was funded by a $1 assessment on every member of the group. Membership expanded rapidly and by early in the twentieth century nearly half a million brothers were protecting each others’ families with life-insurance coverage. Hundreds of other fraternal organizations followed suit, and by 1908 the top 200 lodges had paid out more than $1 billion in death benefits. At that point, voluntary fraternal life-insurance societies had 8.5 million members, and they provided more protection than all commercial policies put together.

  • David Beito, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State (University of North Carolina, 2000) pp. 12-16.

At the end of the Civil War, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to resettle former slaves on empty plots, and otherwise help African Americans uprooted by the conflict. Though it was a poorly managed bureaucracy, the organization nonetheless carried out many crucial tasks—thanks primarily to its private donors. Though federal funding was only $1 million, Northern aid societies, wealthy individuals, black small donors from both the North and the South, and groups like the American Missionary Association collected the modern equivalent of several hundred million dollars for use by the Freedmen’s Bureau. These donations were used in many lifesaving and constructive ways. For instance, they helped reunite separated families, and purchased emergency rations. The donated funds supported 2,700 schools and 3,700 teachers where 150,000 illiterate black children learned to read and write over a five-year period. The giving underwrote legal assistance, helped slaves marry, encouraged the liberated to contract out their labor, and paid the salaries of agents who protected the newly freed from vengeful mobs.

  • Kathleen McCarthy, American Creed (University of Chicago, 2003) p. 198.

Once the Civil War began, charitable groups rushed to aid soldiers. The U.S. Sanitary Commission, a private relief agency founded in 1861 by a Unitarian minister, became nationally important. The Lincoln administration officially recognized the group, but many government officials were unhelpful or worse. The USSC plowed on regardless, preventing disease in camps and hospitals by providing expert advice on drainage, ventilation, and medical procedures. It created a hospital directory that allowed families to track their wounded and dead. Its critiques helped spur a much-needed reorganization of the federal Medical Bureau, and it provided vast amounts of food, medical supplies, and clothing to soldiers and to prisoners on both sides of the war. It later helped soldiers and kin negotiate the military bureaucracy to secure pensions and back pay.

The decentralized organization of the Sanitary Commission—it was composed of more than 7,000 local aid societies—often allowed it to provide supplies more quickly than the government could. By the time it disbanded the year after the war’s end, the USSC had raised $7 million in cash and $15 million of in-kind donations, provided over 1 million nights’ lodgings, and collected over $2.5 million in soldiers’ wages. Most of its volunteers were women, including novelist Louisa May Alcott, and a nurse named Clara Barton, who would later found the American Red Cross. In addition to raising medical standards and giving the field of public health a boost, the USSC received high praise from contemporary political observers such as the British statesman Gladstone. Philosopher John Stuart Mill lauded “the spontaneous self-devotion and organizing genius of a people, altogether independent of government.”

In 1856, Amos Kendall, who had made his fortune helping Samuel Morse commercialize his telegraph patents, was touched by the plight of several deaf and blind children in the nation’s capital. A neighbor had discovered the children cruelly neglected in a “school” for disabled children run by a con man who displayed them to raise money for himself. Kendall went to court to be appointed their guardian, and began teaching them himself. Then he donated two acres for housing and educating the children and got Congress to incorporate the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind. The first superintendent was Edward Gallaudet, whose father had founded and run one of North America’s first schools for the hard-of-hearing in 1817 (now the American School for the Deaf). Both Gallaudets pioneered the use of sign language for instruction. In 1864 a collegiate department was created—North America’s first institution of higher education for the deaf. When Amos Kendall died, the government purchased the remainder of his estate to keep the school together. Later the pre-college part was renamed the Kendall School, and the higher-education division became Gallaudet College.

Congregationalist minister Charles Loring Brace was emphatic that the thousands of miserable homeless children roaming the streets of nineteenth-century New York had the “same capacities” and the same importance “as the little ones in our own homes.” That was an essential part of his Christian creed. But Brace also believed that “habits of life and the inner forces which form character” ultimately drive success and happiness, so it is important for unformed children to be given both love and good examples. He didn’t like traditional orphanages, which he thought fostered passivity and dependence, so in 1853 Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society and began helping boys and girls leave the streets and enter lodging houses that required small payments from the children to remind them of their capacity to support themselves. The society offered workshops and industrial schools that taught trade skills.

Brace eventually came to the view that the “orphan trains” the society established later were the best long-term solution to abandonment. These transported tens of thousands of children to permanent new homes across the country, especially on the frontier. A precursor to the modern foster-care system, the placements had economic value to the receiving family as well as security and emotional value to the child. Successful results varied from mutual economic support to full-blown substitute-family bonds. These out-placements were a great improvement on traditional indentured servitude because either the child or the host family could end the arrangement at any time. To help ensure the children’s proper treatment, the Children’s Aid Society used local community leaders to guide and supervise placements.

Because his appeals to New York’s wealthy found willing ears, Brace was able to build his aid work to a very large scale. The Astors, Dodges, and Roosevelts all made regular and generous donations, but there was also a wide and faithful base of small-scale supporters who sustained the society’s work with gifts of money, clothing, supplies, and volunteer time.

A 1917 CAS annual report noted that the program’s alumni included two governors, two district attorneys, two sheriffs, two mayors, a justice of the Supreme Court, two college professors, 24 clergymen, and 97 teachers. Though its mission has changed, the society still exists as one of America’s largest child-welfare agencies. It created the first PTA, first visiting nurse service, first free school-lunch program, first free dental clinics, and first day schools for handicapped children.

  • Stephen O’Connor, Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed (University of Chicago Press, 2004)
  • Society website,

When the Panic of 1837 caused widespread economic dislocation, charitable organizations in America’s growing cities experienced sharply increased demand for their services. Many Christian philanthropists became concerned that the mushrooming charities sometimes did not distinguish between the “worthy poor” and the merely idle. In response, a group of New York donors decided to emulate the personalized anti-poverty program of Glasgow clergyman Thomas Chalmers.

Their organization, called the Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor, launched in 1843. The group disdained “gratuitous charity” that lumped the poor together without considering their individual needs, strengths, and weaknesses. They believed that person-to-person spiritual and moral aid would be, in the long run, more important than material assistance in turning around the fortunes of many households.

The donors first divided their city into manageable districts, to enable the one-on-one relationships between assisters and assisted that keep charity humane, differentiated, and efficient. They put an emphasis on willingness to work, and were willing to withdraw assistance if it seemed to be enervating the recipient. They relied heavily on the judgments and due diligence of volunteers, church members, and donor merchants. Recipients of aid were counseled, helped to plan ways of rebuilding their lives and their relationships, and urged to end destructive habits.

The society also worked to improve the physical surroundings in which the poor lived. It got landlords to repair plumbing, sanitation, and heating. It created inexpensive public baths for women and children.

Robert Hartley, the AICP’s secretary for more than 30 years, described the causes of poverty as “chiefly moral,” and thus “whatever subsidiary appliances may be used—they admit only moral remedies.” The AICP’s approach was influential across our young republic. AICP-inspired organizations popped up in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and other major cities. The Baltimore Association, for instance, had 2,000 volunteers making 8,227 visits to 4,025 families as of 1891. “It worked,” concluded scholar Marvin Olasky after studying the organization. “The crucial understanding was simple but profound: people got by when other people took a personal interest in them.”

  • Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion (Regnery, 1992)

Methodical work to end poverty, rather than just treating its symptoms, was begun in America when the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor was created by some of New York’s leading philanthropists in 1843. The group disdained “gratuitous charity” that lumped the poor together without considering their individual needs, strengths, and weaknesses. They believed that person-to-person spiritual and moral aid would be, in the long run, more important than material assistance in turning around the fortunes of many households. So they created a “districting” system that divided large areas into manageable precincts where volunteer “visitors” could befriend a few families, provide immediate but strictly temporary relief via grants of food, coal, clothing, etc., and then learn their deeper needs. Regular visitors encouraged and instructed families on the importance of work, caring properly for relatives, saving money, and abstaining from alcohol. The association stressed these personal relationships, admitting the “work is vast, complex, and difficult” but insisting it would make the sprawling, anonymous city more like the friendly countryside.

While bringing middle-class volunteers into daily face-to-face contact with struggling New Yorkers was the group’s central effort, it worked simultaneously on many related fronts. To leaders of all sorts it emphasized that overcrowding and unsanitary conditions killed people and made it hard for families to succeed. The association used donated funds to create public baths, and pressed public-health reforms and the creation of parks—culminating in Central Park—that could serve as the “lungs” of the city. It created a Working Men’s Home for African Americans, and promoted truancy laws and other mechanisms for redirecting troubled youths or placing them in good homes, schools, or reformatories.

By the 1850s, the association was the city’s most influential charity. It inspired similar societies in Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and many other places. The Baltimore Association, for instance, had 2,000 volunteers making 8,227 visits to 4,025 families as of 1891.

During the century prior to the outbreak of World War II, the most important sources of sick benefits and health insurance in the U.S. were fraternal charities. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows was a leading example. In 1819, the first U.S. branch of the British Odd Fellows lodge opened in Baltimore. Throughout the following decade the fraternal group spread across four states, and attracted more than 6,000 members drawn from all economic classes. In 1842 the American lodges formed their own fraternal order, the IOOF.

Like dozens of other fraternal organizations at that time, the Odd Fellows offered financial support to members who fell sick, and the IOOF made these offerings much more uniform and predictable. Any member who became too ill to work could claim a weekly stipend ranging between $3 and $6, paid by his fellow lodge members. Most other lodges referred to these mutual benefits as charitable relief, but the Odd Fellows called them benefits and treated them as “every Brother’s right, and paid to every one when sick, whether he be high or low, rich or poor.” There was accountability, however: payments were withheld in cases of habitual drunkenness, adultery, or anti-social behavior.

From 1830 to 1877, IOOF membership soared from 3,000 to 465,000. It and other fraternal orders dispensed many millions of dollars in sick benefits (as well as funeral benefits) to their participants. Lodges also provided charitable aid to thousands of orphans of deceased members. These valuable benefits were supported by a broad base of voluntary contributors—at least one third of all U.S. adult males age 20 or older belonged to one or more of the voluntary fraternal organizations in the early decades of the twentieth century.

  • David Beito, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State (University of North Carolina, 2000) pp. 10-16.

In the aftermath of the religious revival known as the “Second Great Awakening,” a web of evangelical Christian charities called the “Benevolent Empire” mobilized across America. Lewis Tappan was a major donor to this Protestant reform movement, which created scores of groups like the American Bible Society, American Missionary Association, American Anti-Slavery Society, and American Tract Society.

Tappan’s dealings with officers in these organizations, along with his many business contacts, gave him keen insight into the character of the men leading America. Recognizing that there were economic ramifications to honesty, trustworthiness, and other aspects of character, Tappan created the nation’s first credit-rating business—the Mercantile Agency—in 1841. Agents across the states, many of them attorneys (including Abraham Lincoln), reported to the agency on the sobriety and payment histories of small entrepreneurs. Subscribers to the agency paid to be able to check the backgrounds of these businessmen as they sought credit—which in such a vast, fast-growing, and mobile country, where cash was often scarce, was crucial to commerce.

By 1846 Tappan had over 700 agents and his financial reports were earning $15,000 a year, which he used to continue his large donations to religious and anti-slavery causes (see 1830 entry on our list of Religious philanthropy). But inventing credit ratings wasn’t just a way for Tappan to fund his philosophical goals—he believed his ingenious agency, which became today’s Dun & Bradstreet, was itself an important boost to the nation’s morals: “It checks knavery, and purifies the mercantile air.” Historians agree that Tappan’s innovation, which “blended business and moral agendas,” was critical to the development of the American economy. As Ronald Walters observes, it gave “economic preference to virtue.”

  • Kathleen McCarthy, American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society (University of Chicago Press, 2005)
  • Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (LSU Press, 1997)

America’s 106 historically black colleges played a major role in improving the status and social contributions of our black citizens. The very first of these, Pennsylvania’s Cheyney University, was launched by the philanthropy of Quaker Richard Humphreys. At his death he bequeathed $10,000 and asked 13 of his fellow Quakers to use it to “instruct the descendants of the African race in school learning, in the various branches of the mechanic arts, trades, and agriculture, in order to prepare and fit and qualify them to act as teachers.” The school opened in Philadelphia offering a classical higher education for free.

To agitate against slavery and “create a fund to aid colored persons in distress,” a group of abolitionists established the Vigilant Association in Philadelphia in 1837. The association had a secret arm, the Vigilant Committee, that raised money to assist runaway slaves by giving them shelter, food, clothes, medical care, transportation, and legal assistance while they were in or passing through Pennsylvania. Because aiding fugitive slaves was illegal and dangerous, this had to be done entirely privately and apart from the courts or other apparatuses of government. To fund this work, members of the association were asked to pay dues of 75 cents annually, and a member of the committee was designated to conduct fundraising among non-members on a confidential basis so as to protect donors from reprisals by slave owners. (Gerrit Smith was a major donor.) Just the same, mobs sometimes threatened contributors. Over a period of three decades, though, the organization and sister groups in New York City, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Boston erected many of the procedures and stopping places of the Underground Railroad that ultimately channeled thousands of escapees to freedom in Canada and other northern locations.

America’s first school for the disabled sprang from a cocktail combining a Boston Brahmin with two quite different visionaries. John Fisher first envisioned a school for the blind after visiting Paris, where the National Institution for Blind Youth inspired him. Having helped found Massachusetts General Hospital, he was able to persuade the state legislature in 1829 to incorporate the New England Asylum for the Blind and award it $6,000. As headmaster, Dr. Fisher chose fellow visionary and Harvard Medical School alum Samuel Gridley Howe, who was as fiery as Fisher was quiet. Howe studied European schools for the blind and returned convinced they were wrong to separate students into two different tracks—to receive either industrial training or academic education. He combined curricula so students could gain “both the ability to think and the skills to support themselves.” He also stressed physical exercise and manners.

The school quickly showed progress but outran its funds and outgrew its rooms in the house of Howe’s father. Enter trustee Thomas Perkins—an aristocratic millionaire trader whose own eyes were failing. Perkins donated his mansion to be used by students on condition the school raise matching funds. Six years later, continued expansion required even more space, and Perkins let his mansion be sold to purchase new facilities. In tribute, the school became the Perkins Institution for the Blind. Its most famous alumnae are Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Dr. Howe went on to pioneer the Braille system, and helped replicate across the nation many schools similar to the Boston original. Today Perkins is active in 67 countries, thanks in part to tens of millions in Hilton Foundation support.

Until 1825, it was standard practice to lock up delinquent children with adult criminals. As a New York Times report put it, this often served only to make the youthful offenders “adepts in vice” by the time they were discharged from prison. To address this problem, a group of concerned citizens in New York, primarily Quakers, formed the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism and Crime. The 1823 report they commissioned suggested that young petty offenders needed their own system of adjudication, counseling, and incarceration. They proposed a “House of Refuge” that pioneered the concept of juvenile reformatories.

The society took up a subscription that raised $20,000 (philanthropist Thomas Eddy was one prominent giver), and these donations were used to renovate a donated military arsenal and set it up to receive and redirect underage offenders. The organization changed its name to the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, and assumed management of the House of Refuge. It operated as a privately managed facility to which statewide courts could commit juveniles. The facility received not only those who had already committed crimes but also young people who were vagrant and destitute and deemed by authorities to be on a path to delinquency. Within ten years 1,678 inmates resided there, spending their days in supervised labor.

“Typically, male inmates produced brushes, cane chairs, brass nails, and shoes. The female inmates made uniforms, worked in the laundry, and performed other domestic work,” according to state archives. Both sexes received instruction in literacy and religion, and they could be bound into apprenticeships with outside employers who promised to supervise them. The boys tended to be sent to farms, the girls to homes in need of domestic laborers. The system drew considerable praise over time. In the 1830s and 1840s, such visitors as Alexis de Tocqueville, Frances Trollope, and Charles Dickens cited it favorably. By 1840, this successful example had been copied in 25 other cities, and the desirability of a separate track for administering justice to juveniles had been established.

Born in 1758, Thomas Eddy was a paragon of entrepreneurial ingenuity in both business and philanthropy. The scrappy Quaker founded the first mutual insurance company in New York City, helped devise the Erie Canal, pioneered prison reform (see 1825 entry), and much more. But most observers agree his greatest philanthropic achievement was the founding of the Savings Bank of New York. Eddy admired similar institutions in Boston and Philadelphia, which helped the working poor by providing a safe place to deposit small savings, and by paying interest that helped the poor accumulate wealth. Historian Kathleen McCarthy notes that the bank “was designed as a philanthropic venture in its techniques, as well as its aims.” Directors like Eddy volunteered their time; no paid staff were engaged. And profits were channeled to pay interest to depositors rather than dividends to investors.

When the state legislature resisted incorporating the proposed bank, the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, an earlier Eddy endeavor, launched the Bank as its own project. Just a half-decade after opening, it was serving 9,000 depositors who had entrusted it with $1.4 million in funds. The bank further helped working Americans by investing much of its capital in the Erie Canal, which, as McCarthy put it, “provided the backbone for the market revolution by helping to speed the movement of money and goods across the hinterland.”

When the War of 1812 broke out, the U.S. Navy possessed a total of seven frigates and less than a dozen other seagoing ships. The British Navy at that same moment numbered a thousand warships—including 175 double-gundeck “ships of the line,” of which the United States had none. The comparison by firepower was even starker: the U.S. Navy carried 450 cannons; the Royal Navy 27,800.

So how did America avoid being obliterated by the English juggernaut? Individually funded, decentralized warfighting—in the form of privateers. Typical records of the day from Marblehead, Massachusetts, showed that 900 local men volunteered for service during the 1812 conflict—120 of them in the Navy, 57 as soldiers, and 726 as privateersmen. Not long after hostilities were declared, there were 517 private corsairs defending the U.S. “Let every individual contribute his mite, in the best way he can to distress and harass the enemy, and compel him to peace,” urged Thomas Jefferson in 1812. These small privateers proved enormously effective—providing the lion’s share of military punishment during the three-year struggle. Over the course of the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy captured or sunk about 300 enemy ships. Privateers captured or sunk around 2,000. Maritime insurance for British traders became three times more expensive than when all of Europe was at war in the Napoleonic era.

“Privateers contributed more than the regular navy to bring about a disposition for peace in the British classes most responsible for the war,” concluded Henry Adams in his history of this era. The American merchants and ordinary sailors who organized themselves into fighting units ultimately got everything they hoped for: no more impressment of U.S. seamen, a restoration of free trading, and deep respect for the ability of America’s small colonies—weak of government but strong of civil society—to defend their interests.

  • Michael Rutstein, The Privateering Stroke (, 2012)
  • Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812 (G. P. Putnam, 1882)

The New York Orphan Asylum Society was established in 1806 by a group of concerned women. (These included the recently widowed Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, who was then caring for six children whose mothers and fathers had died.) The women raised private funds and received a donation of land so that children would not have to resort to the local government-run almshouse. In 1807 the cornerstone was laid for a permanent orphanage in Greenwich Village. As they grew up, boys were apprenticed to mechanics or farmers, while girls either entered trades like hatmaking or became servants in private homes. The society cared for more than the children’s material well-being: “They must have religious instruction, moral example, and habits of industry inculcated on their minds,” stated one contemporary maxim. Staying afloat during its early decades through bequests and skilled investing, the society and its successor organizations have now served

  • Joanna Mathews, A Short History of the Orphan Asylum Society (A.D.F. Randolph & Co., 1893)

Robert Randall, a founder of the Chamber of Commerce and heir to a maritime fortune, signed a remarkable will that left his property as a bequest to establish America’s first secular charity—benefiting aged sailors. It took decades to defend the will against family members trying to break it, but by then the original estate was producing enormous rental income. Once the legal challenges were fended off the trustees purchased a 130-acre farm on Staten Island overlooking the sea and erected a main building and two dormitories, leaving other land for farming that would provide the sailors’ food. The complex known as Snug Harbor grew quickly until by century’s end over 55 major buildings served 1,000 retired seamen. They enjoyed hospitals, churches, and a music hall in an operation that presaged modern-day elder care. From the start, the harbor served sailors of any race, religion, or background.

In 1976 the trustees moved the retirement home to a new facility in North Carolina. The endowment now assists elderly individuals who served at least ten years at sea with “living needs” that public programs don’t cover. The original campus and Greek Revival buildings are a historic landmark district and city park now considered the “crown jewel” of Staten Island.

  • Gerald Barry, The Sailors’ Snug Harbor: A History, 1801-2001 (Fordham University Press, 2000)
  • Snug Harbor Trust,

In the late 1700s, when the newborn U.S. was exchanging blows with Barbary pirates and fighting repeated engagements against revolutionary France, private donors joined together to build fighting ships for the nation. Boston, Baltimore, Salem, New York, Philadelphia, and other towns took up subscriptions. Salem, for instance (with a population of less than 10,000 but a proud seafaring tradition), built the famous 32-gun frigate Essex, which wrought repeated retribution on behalf of its nation over two decades following its 1799 launch. In donations ranging from $10 given by Edmund Gale to $10,000 each from Elias Derby and William Gray, citizens of Salem contributed a total of $74,700 to create their warship for the common defense.

The donors didn’t just provide cash; they honed the weapon. Subscribers met at the Salem courthouse and voted on the exact kind of vessel they would build. Residents who couldn’t donate funds were asked to supply building materials. This newspaper advertisement ran in the Salem Gazette:

True lovers of the liberty of your country, step forth and give your assistance in building the frigate to oppose French insolence and piracy. Let every man in possession of a white oak tree…hurry down the timber to Salem…to maintain your rights upon the seas and make the name of American respected among the nations of the world. Your largest and longest trees are wanted. 

Later, locals selected the captain who would command the ship when she was presented to the U.S. Navy three months after being launched.

  • Frances Robotti and James Vescovi, The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy (Adams Media, 1999)

In 1797, devoted Presbyterian Isabella Graham and future nun Elizabeth Seton founded the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children in order to provide food and financial assistance to needy widows in New York City. It was one of the first private charitable organizations in the country, and its work bore many marks of the faith and devotion of its two founders. Subscribers were recruited to make regular donations. Volunteers provided physical resources like food and coal, plus moral encouragement, to women and children in difficult straits. In its first year, the society assisted 98 widows and 223 children. By 1800, that had increased to 152 widows and 420 children.

A hallmark of the society’s work was caution in the distribution of aid. The volunteers took great pains to determine the special needs and situation of all recipients, and how they might best be lifted up. They looked for alcohol problems, and located relatives who could be helpful. To keep families out of the almshouse the society sought to match women with jobs, started its own program providing sewing work that allowed widows to earn regular income, and distributed spinning wheels and cloth. The society also operated schools for fatherless children, and hired some of the mothers to run schools across the city.

Isabella Graham was born in Scotland to a comfortable family of strict Presbyterian beliefs. After she moved to the New World, her husband died just before the birth of their fifth child. Destitute, she returned to Scotland, lived in poverty for some years, and slowly revived her finances through schools she founded. She then returned to America, succeeded with another school, and in retirement devoted herself to philanthropy. With some friends and relatives she founded and led the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, one of the nation’s earliest charities and also one of the first notable enterprises in America to be led by women.

In its first winter, the society helped 98 widows with 223 children, and in three years it was serving 150 widows with 420 young children. The group was supported by voluntary subscriptions, and sought widows who “would rather eat their own bread, hardly earned, than that of others with idleness.” The aid it provided was nearly all in kind: food, coal, as well as cloth and spinning wheels that could be used for the family’s needs and to generate income. Volunteers investigated potential clients to see if alcohol problems existed and if the widows had family members who could be assisting them. The Society also helped widows find employment.

  • David Schneider, The History of Public Welfare in New York State, 1609-1866 (Patterson Smith, 1969)
  • Kathleen McCarthy, American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Kidnapping black residents (both free and slave) and selling them into bondage in other places was common enough in 1785 to inspire some of New York City’s most influential citizens and wealthiest donors to join together and fight back. Individuals like Alexander Hamilton, George Clinton, and John Jay organized not only to battle kidnappings but also to protect slaves generally, to preserve the rights of free blacks, and ultimately to “liberate” slaves and ban the ownership of one human by another. They eventually helped push through the 1799 law that established manumission across New York State, and sped the 1808 law that abolished the trade in slaves.

Prior to that, in 1787, the New York Manumission Society created the New York African Free School. Members donated and raised funds to pay for teachers, supplies, and a series of buildings. The school began with 40 students, many of them children of slaves. By 1820 there were 500 students enrolled, several teachers, and two substantial buildings, all paid for by donors.

The school day ran from 9 to 12, broke for lunch, then resumed from 2 to 5. Instruction was provided not only in academic subjects but also in practical occupational skills like mapmaking, ship navigation, and sewing. Both boys and girls could attend. Graduates became visible in a variety of fields. Alumnus Ira Aldridge became one of the most famous African-American actors of the nineteenth century, known for his Shakespearean roles and other performances. Another school product, James McCune Smith, was the first black American to earn a medical degree and to run a pharmacy.

The war that created America depended heavily on private action and philanthropy. In present terms, it cost billions of dollars to equip Washington’s Continental Army, arm our new Navy, and fund the deliberations of Congress. Financiers Robert Morris and Haym Salomon borrowed or raised for their country nearly all of the necessary money, working for free, battling for low interest rates, and repeatedly donating their own funds.

The unsung Salomon, for instance, gave money over and over to help key members of the Continental Congress come to Philadelphia to deliberate. He personally bought vital supplies, and used his connections to get the best possible terms for the nation as it borrowed funds in turbulent money markets. When Washington trapped British General Cornwallis near Yorktown but lacked the means to move and supply his army for the final battle of the Revolution, he cried “Send for Haym Salomon”—who quickly scratched together $20,000 under great pressure.

Having joined the Sons of Liberty early on, Salomon was twice imprisoned by the British as a spy. The second time he escaped on the day before his execution. He gave his own money to many men he considered unrecognized heroes of the war, like senior Army surgeon Bodo Otto, who had bankrupted himself buying medical supplies for his soldier patients.

Salomon was an active philanthropist in several sectors before he died at age 44 of tuberculosis (contracted while he was in prison). And his repeated contributions in wartime left his widow and four children penniless, because the hundreds of thousands of dollars of Continental debt he bought with his own fortune were worth only about 10 cents on the dollar at the time of his passing.

Robert Morris, who personally bought much of the ammunition used by Washington’s army, was likewise damaged financially by his giving and his work without pay during the Revolution. James Swan, a financier who was wounded twice at Bunker Hill, then rose to command the Massachusetts militia, sold millions of acres of western land he owned to pay the military expenses of Massachusetts soldiers and equip several privateers to operate against the British. He later assumed the U.S. debt to France run up during the Revolution.

Englishmen living in New York City founded a group in 1770, named the St. George’s Society, for Britain’s patron saint, to provide relief to any of their fellow countrymen who fell into distress. Over the years, the organization offered help to the needy in many forms: a bag of coal or pile of wood during the cold months, a winter coat, payment of a hospital stay, even ship fare to return to England for someone whose dreams had not panned out. The society continues to operate today as one of New York’s oldest charities, offering scholarships, medical assistance, monthly stipends, even interment in one of the nonprofit’s cemetery plots.

In 1743, Benjamin Franklin brought into being an idea originally hatched by his friend John Bartram, one of the colonies’ most distinguished naturalists. Their joint vision was a “society to be formed of Virtuosi or ingenious Men residing in the several Colonies, to be called the American Philosophical Society.” Members would correspond among themselves and with international peers, especially in other British colonies, to share discoveries that could benefit the empire or “Mankind in general.” Franklin’s intent was to focus on ways to improve practical things like animal husbandry, mining, beer brewing, mapmaking, and the like.

Some years after getting it off the ground, Franklin grew disappointed in the society, and it became inactive. Then in the 1760s younger members keen to strengthen America’s economy reinvigorated the group. They created six committees, divided by subject matter, and earned international acclaim when they charted the Transit of Venus from the Philadelphia State House yard in 1769. They also plotted possible canal routes which decades later would be used by diggers.

Another moribund period occurred during the American Revolution. The Society was re-energized in 1785, though, after Franklin returned from his ambassadorship in Paris. His European connections strengthened the group, as did his proposal—which he generously supported with a contribution and a loan—to build a headquarters.

Philosophical Hall still stands, and the society’s roughly 1,000 American and international members oversee its library of nearly 200,000 volumes and over 6 million manuscripts, including Franklin’s personal books, the journals of Lewis and Clark, and Darwin’s letters. Its membership over the centuries makes the society’s influence clear, beginning with individuals like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who was simultaneously president of the society and President of the United States), and continuing through the Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, Tadeusz Ko´sciuszko, Louis Pasteur, Charles Darwin, John James Audubon, Thomas Edison, Linus Pauling, and Robert Frost. The society continues to award the nation’s oldest scientific prize, the Magellanic Premium, and also runs several grant and fellowship programs for scholars.

The original impetus for creating the colony of Georgia was philanthropic. Founder James Oglethorpe was horrified by suffering of men thrown into prisons in England for debts, and proposed to give these unfortunates a fresh start in a new land. By the time the first group of settlers was pulled together, this theme had faded, and only a small number of languishing debtors ever relocated to Georgia.

Yet there remained, in the settling of Georgia, a heavy commitment to helping “unfortunates”—particularly persons who had been persecuted because of their religion. These included Salzburgers oppressed by Austrian Catholics, Moravians from Germany, Swiss religious dissenters, and Scottish Presbyterians.

A private bequest of 5,000 English pounds, numerous private donations, and funds from the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge paid for 800 foreign Protestants to be relocated to Georgia and provided with tools, seed, and land. Their religious liberties were explicitly protected in the colony’s charter. In 1733, 42 Jews arrived—the largest group of Jewish settlers in the New World to that point, instantly becoming about a fifth of the total population of Savannah. Others seeking religious toleration followed.

In the colony’s early years, both John and Charles Wesley did mission work there. Fellow Methodist reformer George Whitefield founded an orphanage in Georgia in 1740, and made it a top charitable priority for many years.

In 1766, a group of Quaker merchants formed the Committee to Alleviate the Miseries of the Poor and won a charter to take over operation of Philadelphia’s miserable almshouse from the city government. They combined private donations, public poor-relief funds, and income earned by the inmates to make improvements. The operation was moved into better facilities, and its name was changed to the more hopeful Philadelphia Bettering House. To teach skills and self-improvement, the new operators set up residents in useful work picking oakum, cobbling shoes, and producing cloth and nails. This pioneering effort made the House (though never a cheery place) a more humane effort to care for the unfortunate at a time when, as one historian of social relief puts it, “most public action...depended upon private energy and private funds.”

  • Charles Lawrence, History of the Philadelphia Almshouses and Hospitals (Charles Lawrence, 1905)

In 1727, just 21 years old and cut off from his own family, Ben Franklin began his first experiment in voluntary association, thereby helping deepen America’s most distinctive characteristic. He called together a circle of 12 “Leather-Apron Men” into what he later described as “a club of mutual improvement.” One member was an affluent gentleman, but the rest like Franklin worked with their hands in such trades as glazier, cobbler, bartender, clerk, and cabinetmaker. Called “Junto,” after the Spanish word for “meeting,” the club “was distinguished by its novel blend of self-help and civic aims, and by the relatively humble status of its members,” observes historian Kathleen McCarthy. Historian Gordon Wood notes that the Junto refuted the then-common notion that “servile” men could not engage in public service.

Meeting Friday evenings for dinner and discussion, the Junto followed rules drawn up by Franklin that required discussion of academic questions but also practical topics, such as how they could assist each other’s success, and what could be done to help the community at large. The group proved fertile in both dimensions. It lent Franklin, for instance, the money he needed to set up as editor of the Gazette. It also gave birth to such community projects as the Library Company of Philadelphia, one of America’s first public book collections (see 1737 entry on list of achievements in Education philanthropy). It spawned the colonies’ first learned group, the American Philosophical Society (see 1743 entry). It produced the city’s first volunteer fire brigade.

The Junto met for more than three decades. Instead of enlarging its original circle Franklin urged each member to start his own group. This bequeathed a template for building in Philadelphia and other parts of America the communal linkages and trust that enable individuals to work together in ways that help both themselves and the larger society. After the Junto set up its fire company, Franklin similarly encouraged others to copy the effort and bring it to new places. He also birthed the first tax incentive for philanthropy when he persuaded town officials to offer property tax abatement to persons who participated in volunteer fire companies.

When 28 “Scottish men” signed the “Laws, Rules, and Order of the Poor Boxes Society” in Boston on January 6, 1657, they formed one of America’s first charities, and one that still exists in its fourth century. Their Scots’ Charitable Society aimed at relieving fellow countrymen who were struggling in America, particularly those who had been captured by Oliver Cromwell in battles in 1650 and 1651 and sold as indentured servants to labor in iron works and other production facilities in the American colonies. Some of these Scots fell into bad straits after their indentures expired.

The Scots’ Charitable Society prefigured many future American philanthropic efforts that built their benevolence on a foundation of ethnic ties. Within a few years the society faced mismanagement and declining membership, but a reorganization in 1684 turned matters around with reforms like the careful investment of assets, and financial controls (a lockbox that required two keys). The group also suffered a crisis during the Revolutionary War because of divided political loyalties, but it has never wavered from its aim of serving the poor and having a minimum of administrative expenses. It currently focuses on “providing academic scholarships and limited financial support for individuals and families in need.”

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.