A Century of Philanthropy: Carnegie Corporation of New York

Strategic nurturing “to try to make the world in some way better than you found it”

September 13, 2011


In 1911, Andrew Carnegie created his last and largest philanthropic institution, Carnegie Corporation of New York, to promote international peace and advance education and knowledge. While staying true to these goals, the foundation time and again has risen to the evolving challenges of the past 100 years.

The father of American philanthropy, Carnegie, a poor Scottish immigrant who spent much of his adult life getting rich in the steel industry, later turned his attention to giving his fortune away. But not through random acts of charity: Carnegie developed the approach now known as “strategic philanthropy,” an organized system of providing financial support to carefully chosen projects to attain specific ends.

While others of his time made generous donations to various causes, Carnegie broke new ground with his assertion that the rich have a moral obligation to give away their fortunes. Today, people still quote his maxim, “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” But he did not, in fact, hold with charity. He considered grantmaking an investment meant to bring about lasting, long-term results.

Of the more than 20 institutions he established, Carnegie Corporation has become one of the most enduring and iconic in the field of philanthropy. The foundation can claim credit for such diverse achievements as establishing the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (now TIAA-CREF) to provide financial security for educators, funding the laboratory where insulin was discovered, and underwriting the venerable Brookings Institution. Corporation funds helped launch the Chronicle of Higher Education, National Public Radio, the Educational Testing Service, PBS’s Nova, and made possible the Children’s Defense Fund, the Jefferson Science Fellows, the Civic Mission of Schools, and the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission.

From backing organizations that fueled the civil rights and women’s movements in the United States and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, to the promotion of campaign reform and nuclear nonproliferation, the corporation’s history tells the story of some of the 20th century’s most important advancements in international affairs, education, and U.S. democracy. Over time, the corporation has developed an approach to grantmaking that emphasizes partnerships and catalytic funding—helping grantees launch critical projects and plan for long-term sustainability—setting standards other philanthropic institutions have adopted.

Carnegie believed people had a duty to “try to make the world in some way better than you found it.” Realizing that this duty would inevitably mean different things at different times, he gave his trustees the authority to change policy as they saw fit, asserting that “they shall best conform to my wishes by using their own judgment.” Thus, Carnegie aimed high, but left room for future generations to figure out their own goals and strategies. A century of accomplishment in every sphere testifies to the wisdom and foresight of his design.

A love for libraries

Andrew Carnegie’s name is deeply connected to the creation of libraries. From 1886 on, the corporation and its founder spent well over $50 million on 1,681 public libraries in nearly as many communities across the United States, along with over 800 libraries in other parts of the world. Up until the early 1940s, the corporation spent an average of about $830,000 per year enhancing public libraries and strengthening librarianship. Academic libraries have also received millions in support.

The love of libraries came early to Carnegie. He was working as a messenger boy in Pittsburgh when a Colonel James Anderson “announced that he would open his library of four hundred volumes to boys,” Carnegie wrote in his autobiography. “Books which it would have been impossible for me to obtain elsewhere were, by his wise generosity, placed within my reach; and to him I owe a taste for literature which I would not exchange for all the millions that were ever amassed by man.”

Although the corporation does not now have a library program in the United States, special-initiative grants still go to domestic public libraries—for instance, a $4.5-million grant to New York City libraries in memory of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. To recognize the vital role librarians play in their communities, Carnegie Corporation partners with the New York Times and the American Library Association in the “I Love My Librarian” awards. Thousands of patrons nominate their favorite librarians every year, and each of the 10 winners receives a $5,000 prize. Overseas, libraries in Commonwealth sub-Saharan countries first received funding in 1928, and under current Carnegie Corporation President Vartan Gregorian, millions more have gone to build and equip public and university libraries in several other African countries.

Advancing education

Carnegie Corporation’s efforts to improve education have benefited students of all ages and stages, beginning with early childhood. Corporation-supported work in cognitive development influenced the launching of Head Start in 1965 for preschool children of low-income families. One of the corporation’s highest-profile ventures made possible the 1969 debut of Sesame Street. Based on her corporation-funded study of whether television could be used to educate young children, producer Joan Ganz Cooney proposed a new kind of children’s program and, with further corporation support, formed the Children’s Television Workshop to bring it to life. Within two months, more than 6 million children were watching.

To determine what America’s students in grades 4, 8, and 12 know and can do in various subject areas, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called “the nation’s report card,” was begun with a grant in 1964. Students are tested periodically in mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography and U.S. history. Today, this program is still the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of educational progress.

In 2009, the report, The Opportunity Equation, called for the United States to “do school differently” so that all students—not just a select few, or those fortunate enough to attend certain schools—achieve much higher levels of math and science learning. The report was the product of a partnership between Carnegie Corporation and the Institute for Advanced Study, which resulted in the joint Commission on Mathematics and Science Education, established to mobilize the country to achieve excellence in these subjects—an initiative that has been supported by educators and policymakers in the field as well as state and national education officials.

Other high points include the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education’s landmark efforts leading to the institution of Pell Grants and Perkins Loans, and the corporation’s role as the first funder of Teach for America. The corporation helped to create the influential Aspen Institute Congressional Program, one branch of which focuses on education. And a new grant supports Ashoka, an organization developing cutting-edge programs aimed at spurring innovative solutions that advance learning in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in U.S. public schools, especially the highest-need schools.

Advancing justice and democracy

An immigrant himself, Carnegie understood the challenges faced by the country’s newcomers. He favored assimilation (then termed Americanization) and left a legacy of concern for immigrant integration as an essential part of a flourishing democracy. Today—with immigrants making up one in eight U.S. residents and almost one-quarter of all children—promoting citizenship, civic integration, and civic participation is a corporation priority, with major grants going to organizations that work for federal legislation with a pathway to citizenship, as well as state and local policies that support legal integration of immigrant populations and increased tolerance for pluralism.

Today the corporation is helping police and the public deal with the lack of federal immigration legislation by supporting a program of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). This national membership organization for police executives aims to focus national attention on the problems caused by increased demands for local enforcement of federal immigration laws. The program has made measurable progress in publicizing the need for national immigration reform as well as helping law enforcement personnel work with this challenge.

Carnegie Corporation has a history of advocating for civil rights for all people. One of its most dramatic, and unanticipated, contributions to this cause was hiring Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in 1938 to study race relations in America. Myrdal’s research, culminating in An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, was considered the most comprehensive and wide-ranging study of the state of black Americans and interracial relations ever undertaken. Published in 1944, the book crystallized the country’s emerging awareness that racial discrimination and legal segregation could not endure. The book was cited in the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ended “separate but equal” education for black children, and served as a moral wake-up call prior to the civil rights movement.

In the 1970s the corporation’s continued interest in the rights of immigrants and minorities led to working for social change through the courts, supporting groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Native American Rights Fund, and Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. And to ensure that all citizens exercise their rights by voting, the corporation has for decades been a leading funder in campaign finance reform, election administration, and nonpartisan voter engagement. Support for the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, for example, advanced the development of new equipment for a secure and uniform voting system and resulted in the 2002 Help America Vote Act.

Acting on the world stage

The quest for peace was Andrew Carnegie’s constant preoccupation. Before founding the corporation with its peace-building mission, he supported the creation of the Peace Palace at The Hague and gave $10 million to establish the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He tried futilely to stop World War I and called for the establishment of a “league of nations.” And although Carnegie did not live to see the United Nations, the corporation has actively supported the world body along with many other programs aimed at achieving lasting peace.

Shortly after World War II, the corporation helped establish the Russian Research Center at Harvard University to foster understanding of the Soviet Union, then an emerging world power. Years later, the Carnegie Moscow Center—the Russian branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—was created with support from the corporation, which continues to be a major funder of this center as well as those in Beijing, Beirut, and Brussels.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, ongoing support for higher education in Russia and other post-Soviet states helped reduce brain drain during a critical time of societal transformation, while strengthening higher education in Russia. Importantly, this work influenced the Russian government to invest substantially in universities with corporation-created Centers for Advanced Study and Education (CASEs).

Carnegie Corporation’s decades-long commitment to international peace and to nuclear nonproliferation resounds in the work of grantee organizations such as the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Many of today’s important arms control achievements can be traced back to early investments in independent scientific, technical, and policy analyses on nuclear arms reductions, and to programs fostering engagement between U.S. and Russian communities working on nuclear issues. A number of high-ranking foreign policy officials, including specialists in nuclear security with the present U.S. administration, developed their expertise through earlier grants. In addition, the corporation helped to found the Aspen Institute’s Russia Congressional Program and has funded it for more than a quarter-century.

Working independently and with other funders, the corporation strives to strengthen understanding of Muslim communities and societies through its Islam Initiative. The initiative builds on the Carnegie Scholars Program, which from 2004 to 2009 awarded research, writing, and public engagement grants on Islam-related themes to more than 100 American scholars. Today, its grantees include academic institutions that teach about Muslim societies and communities and that provide online resources for the public, the media, and policy communities. Projects that make available significant writings from the past also receive support.

As one of seven foundation members of the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, established in 2000, Carnegie Corporation has contributed to the group’s $440-million investment in advancing higher education in sub-Saharan Africa and helping to revitalize some of the continent’s most prominent universities. This work also included scholarship programs for female undergraduates, which provided aid for more than 2,000 students in South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana.

Since libraries are indispensable for nurturing the next generation of African academics and leaders, funding has also been provided for state-of-the art facilities, internet connectivity, and developing research commons and portals linking the libraries of six South African universities to each other and to the world. And over the past decade, eight modern public libraries equipped with the latest technology have been built, several in less-advantaged townships such as Khayelitsha in Cape Town, with the contribution of leveraged resources from South African governmental agencies.

This funding model, which requires communities to take responsibility for corporation-sponsored libraries, echoes Andrew Carnegie’s original funding scheme and brings the corporation’s work full circle. Gregorian calls libraries the “keepers of the DNA of our civilization.” In honor of the centennial, Gregorian and the trustees will attend the unveiling of four of these new libraries in South Africa, all built with local funding and Carnegie Corporation grants.

KAREN THEROUX is an editor/writer in the Carnegie Corporation’s Public Affairs department.



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