MacArthur’s Money Moves Left

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1978

Shortly before businessman John MacArthur died, as one of the two or three wealthiest men in America, the insurance and real-estate magnate created a foundation. He was a selfish and misanthropic man, however, and gave little thought to how its board would execute the philanthropy carried out in his name. “You people, after I’m dead, will have to learn how to spend it,” he told his lawyer. MacArthur’s son from the first of his two marriages, Rod, eventually launched a pitched battle for control of the trust, and won. Ever since, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has been one of America’s largest funders of left-of-center public causes.

The foundation is perhaps best known for its “genius grants,” which are no-strings-attached fellowships that pay $500,000 over five years, typically to artists, scientists, and political activists. Yet that makes up only a small portion of MacArthur’s overall giving. During the days of the Soviet Union, the foundation was a major financier of the arms-control movement, pouring money into groups such as the Arms Control Association, the Center for Defense Information, the Federation of American Scientists, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Other prominent recipients of MacArthur support include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the NAACP, and Planned Parenthood. In 2014, the foundation held assets exceeding $6.3 billion.

  • Nancy Kriplen, The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur (Amacom, 2008)