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.
- Sage’s Philanthropy Hall of Fame profile, philanthropyroundtable.org/almanac/great_men_and_women/hall_of_fame/margaret_olivia_sage
- 100-year history of Russell Sage Foundation, russellsage.org/sites/all/files/u137/Brief-History.pdf