Julius Rosenwald’s Timeless Legacy of Donor Intent

Few philanthropic figures have had a greater impact on the world of donor intent than Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck from 1908 until 1924. 

Rosenwald’s wide-ranging philanthropic interests included Jewish cultural and theological institutions, social service charities, and affordable housing in Chicago. He was the founding donor of the city’s Museum of Science and Industry and a patron of the University of Chicago. But he is most remembered for his outsized role in elevating the education available to African American children in the South during the Jim Crow era. 

A Hand up, not a Hand out

Rosenwald’s gifts were themselves extraordinary, but his continued influence among donors comes from how he practiced his philanthropy. Encouraging “a personal interest by the donor in all activities to which he contributes,” he gave his time and talent—plus his treasure—to the causes he favored. 

Opposed to handouts, Rosenwald believed that beneficiaries should be encouraged to help themselves. In his school-building program he required his donations to be matched by local residents—most of them poor black families—and state and county education authorities. He embraced a “give while you live” ethic, requiring his own foundation to close within 25 years of his death. He opposed perpetual endowments that distributed only a small percentage of their corpus each year, and gave so aggressively to his “Rosenwald Schools” that he made both an immediate and enduring impact.

An Enduring Legacy

While other donors of his era may have agreed with his principles—Andrew Carnegie, for example, famously writing “The man who dies rich, dies disgraced”—they stopped short of taking concrete steps to abide by them. Rosenwald believed that a wise donor should focus on his generation’s pressing problems, leaving future philanthropic decisions to the judgment of those who would follow. His legacy was a blueprint for giving that other donors might follow.

John M. Olin was one such donor. In his 2002 article, “Switching Off the Lights at the Olin Foundation”, then-president Jim Piereson wrote that Olin was “greatly influenced by Julius Rosenwald, an early advocate of the idea that foundations should spend their assets within a generation of their donor’s demise.”

Olin understood that he would achieve two goals by sunsetting: 

  • Ensure that his intent would be fulfilled by trustees who knew him personally and understood and respected his values; and
  • Concentrate his charitable gifts over a relatively short period of time to maximize impact on the conservative and libertarian causes he cherished.

When ‘Worry’ is good

Both Julius Rosenwald and John Olin worried about how their charitable dollars might be used after they were gone. But their concern didn’t immobilize them; it prompted them to practical action. Both carefully considered those who would serve on their foundation boards. Both understood that successor trustees might not carry out their wishes over the long term. Both tackled big and complex issues. And both strategized about maximum effectiveness and early impact. These priorities ultimately led each to limit the life of his foundation.