John Rockefeller’s philanthropy long predates his wealth. By the time he made millions he already had years of giving under his belt, mostly to religious and educational causes. Baptist colleges and the American Baptist Home Mission Society (with which he worked to found the University of Chicago) were among his first large-scale philanthropic interests. But Rockefeller was also very supportive of education for younger people.
In 1902 he endowed the General Education Board with an initial $1 million; almost $325 million of his money eventually flowed through its books. These were the largest gifts in the U.S. during their day. The GEB’s earliest and longest focus was to build up the educational capital of the American South, which two decades after the end of the Civil War was still socially and economically depressed. The board first surveyed needs and then became a leader in promoting primary education for American blacks. By the board’s second decade it had helped build or improve more than 1,600 new high schools across the southern states.
Many other successes followed. The GEB insisted that schools at all levels keep clear, open, and honest accounting books. It required colleges to raise their own funds to match GEB grants, seeding today’s powerful campus fundraising operations. It spread knowledge of scientific agriculture in poor farming counties. It powered a methodical improvement of U.S. medical education (see 1910 entry on Medical list). It kept many colleges and schools from closing during the Depression.
More generally, the General Education Board helped usher in a new businesslike form of philanthropy. It brought expertise and spirit to the field that was energetic, creative, practical, and impatient for tangible results.