The MacArthur Foundation was established by John D. MacArthur (and his wife Catherine) shortly before he died in 1978. Mr. MacArthur was the sole owner of Bankers Life & Casualty (BL&C) Company, the largest privately held insurance company. At the time of his death, he was one of the three wealthiest men in America.
The MacArthur Foundation is one of the ten largest private philanthropic foundations in the United States and supports hundreds of leftist organizations, particularly environmentalist groups, although John D. MacArthur himself characterized the types of radical environmentalists that now benefit greatly from his Foundation's philanthropy as "bearded jerks" and "obstructionists."
Never formally defining a political or ideological identity for the Foundation, MacArthur once told William Kirby, the attorney who helped him set up the Foundation, "I figured out how to make the money. You fellows will have to figure out how to spend it." Two of the original members of the Foundation's Board of Trustees were the late conservative William Simon (who served as Secretary of the Treasury during the Nixon-Ford administration), and the conservative radio broadcaster and free-market advocate Paul Harvey. From 1979 to 1981, liberal and conservative forces fought for control of the Board. But when William Simon tried unsuccessfully to oust fellow Board member Rod MacArthur (John's son, a leftist and a WWII draft dodger), Simon resigned, and the Foundation's new, leftward political course was set in motion.
Most of the MacArthur Foundation's Board members have ties to leftist foundations or organizations. Its current President, Jonathan Fanton, is the Chairman of Human Rights Watch.
In addition to its support of radical environmentalism, the MacArthur Foundation funds groups that advocate gun control, juvenile justice reform, alternatives to incarceration for criminals, low-rent housing for the poor, radical feminist causes, gay rights, and “community change” initiatives to counter America's allegedly rampant racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. Further, it supports organizations that oppose Social Security privatization, school choice, and the U.S. military’s development of an anti-missile defense system.
Noting its lurch to the political left, the Foundation's former President John Corbally opined in 1987 that if John MacArthur were still alive to see how his money was being spent, "a lot of it would just make him furious."
The MacArthur Foundation favors redistributive economic policies that can avert “costly conflicts between haves and have-nots.” It is a member organization of the Peace and Security Funders Group and the International Human Rights Funders Group. (The latter is a network of more than six-dozen grantmakers dedicated to funding leftist groups and causes.)
Each year since 1981, the Foundation has awarded its MacArthur Fellowship (sometimes nicknamed the "genius grant") to approximately two- to three-dozen individuals who "show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work." People of any age and any field of endeavor are eligible for an award, so long as they are U.S. residents. Each winner earns $500,000, which he or she receives in twenty installments over a five-year period. To date, only a handful of the several hundred "genius" recipients since 1981 have been political conservatives. Leftists who condemn what they characterize as America’s rampant poverty, exploitation, discrimination, and racial inequity are disproportionately represented among the genius award recipients.