The John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation was established by business mogul John D. MacArthur (1897-1978) and his wife, shortly before Mr. MacArthur’s death. As the sole owner of Bankers Life & Casualty Company, MacArthur, by the end of his life, was one of the three wealthiest men in America. He was also a political conservative who passionately supported free-market economies and loathed government bureaucracy and regulation. In a 1974 interview in Nation’s Business, MacArthur gave voice to his low regard for anti-capitalist leftists, when he characterized environmentalists who were trying to block him from developing properties he owned in Florida as “bearded jerks and little old ladies” who “are obstructionists and just throw rocks in your path.”
In 1970 MacArthur’s longtime friend, attorney William Kirby, convinced him to set up a philanthropic foundation that could use MacArthur’s vast fortune for chartiable purposes. On October 18 of that year, the documents for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation were completed, though the disposition of Mr. MacArthur’s assets would be deferred until after his death.
The Foundation’s first board of directors included the following individuals: (a) MacArthur’s wife Catherine; (b) William Kirby; (c) MacArthur’s business associate Louis Feil; (d) MacArthur’s friend Paul Harvey, the famous radio commentator; (e) William Simon, who served as Secretary of the Treasury during the Nixon-Ford administration; and (f) MacArthur’s son, J. Roderick MacArthur (JRM). While most of the board members were conservatives, JRM was a leftist who had dodged the military draft during WWII.
Never formally articulating a political or ideological mission for his Foundation, John D. MacArthur elected to entrust all of the Foundation’s grantmaking decisions to these board members. “I made the money; you guys will have to figure out what to do with it,” he told them. Elaborating on his reasons for adopting this posture, MacArthur explained: “If I was trying to decide who to give the money to right now, I couldn’t sit at this coffee table, because I’d be bothered day and night. They’d all be after me to try and get my money, and I couldn’t lead the life I want to lead. So leave me in peace.”
When MacArthur died of cancer on January 6, 1978, the Foundation assumed his roughly $1 billion in assets and began disbursing money to select organizations. Its first two grants of $50,000 each went to Amnesty International and the California League of Cities.
Mr. MacArthur’s failure to clarify any set of funding priorities or guiding principles ultimately led to bitter internecine conflict among the Foundation’s board members. Most notably, JRM quarreled on a regular basis with his conservative counterparts as he fought to become the Foundation’s primary decision-maker. Eventually a compromise was reached, whereby JRM was permitted to name two additional individuals to the board. Both of his selections—one of whom was the famed Dr. Jonas Salk—shared JRM’s left-leaning political values. As the power struggle between the conservative and leftist board members escalated, one-by-one the conservatives resigned; by 1981, most of them had left the board. The Foundation’s funding priorities thus moved quickly and dramatically leftward, prompting its then-president, John Corbally, to tell a reporter in 1987 that if the late founder were to see how his money was now being spent: “I think a lot of it would just make him furious.”
During the 1980s, the MacArthur Foundation directed much of its philanthropy toward the environment, mental health, public radio, and peace-and-security issues. In the ’90s, the Foundation expanded its grantmaking to new ventures such as school-reform and neighborhood-development efforts in Chicago, policy institutes and universities in the former Soviet Union, and a Population Program with field offices in Mexico, Nigeria, Brazil, and India. In the 2000s, the Foundation began to invest more heavily in groups promoting left-wing approaches to issues like human rights, international justice, juvenile justice, affordable housing, and community and economic development. And from 2009-14, the Foundation’s then-president, Robert Gallucci, initiated a new area of grantmaking to “strengthen American democracy at a critical and challenging time for the nation.”
Among the many recipients of MacArthur Foundation grants over the years have been such groups as: the Alliance for Justice; the American Bar Association Fund for Justice and Education; American Civil Liberties Union Foundation; the American Constitution Society, the American Federation of Teachers; Amnesty International; the Arms Control Association; the Aspen Institute; the Brookings Institution; Campaign for America’s Future; Catholics For Choice; the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; the Center for Reproductive Rights; the Center for Women’s Policy Studies; the Children’s Defense Fund; the Coalition for the International Criminal Court; the Cornell University Peace Studies Program; the Earth Day Network; the Earth Island Institute; the EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund; the Economic Policy Institute; the Environmental Defense Fund; Environmental Media Services; the Environmental Working Group; the Fourth Freedom Forum; Friends of the Earth; Global Exchange; Grantmakers Without Borders; Greenpeace; Human Rights First; Human Rights Watch; the International Crisis Group; the Institute for America’s Future; the Institute for Policy Studies; the Institute for Women’s Policy Research; the League of Women Voters; Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund; the National Council of La Raza; the National Lawyers Guild; National Public Radio; the National Women’s Law Center; the Natural Resources Defense Council; the Nature Conservancy; the Neighborhood Funders Group; Oxfam America; the People for the American Way Foundation; Physicians for Human Rights; the Physicians for Social Responsibility; Planned Parenthood; ProPublica; Public Broadcasting Service; the Public Citizen Global Tomorrow Coalition; the Rainforest Alliance; the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund; Sojourners; the Tides Center and the Tides Foundation; Trust for Public Land; the Union of Concerned Scientists; the United Nations Population Fund; the Urban Institute; the Urban League; the Wilderness Society; the Wildlife Conservation Society; the World Organization Against Torture; the World Resources Institute; the World Wildlife Fund; and the Worldwatch Institute.
To view a list of additional MacArthur grantees, click here.
In a 2005 exposé, the Capital Research Center (CRC) reported that for every dollar the MacArthur Foundation spent on grants, it spent forty cents on overhead and administrative charges. These high administrative costs were due, in no small measure, to the reckless and wasteful spending habits of the Foundation’s personnel. Said CRC: “Whenever MacArthur board members go to Chicago for meetings, for example, they stay at the Four Seasons, where the rack rate for rooms is $385 a night. In 2002, five MacArthur board members and one spouse went to Africa on a weeklong fact-finding mission that cost the Foundation $63,137. A six-day trip in 2003 for four board members and three spouses to Moscow cost the Foundation $73,723.”
Meanwhile, radio commentator Paul Harvey, who had served on the MacArthur Foundation board from 1970-2002, recalled that “Mr. Mac [John D. MacArthur] could have afforded such luxurious travel, and yet he never did” indulge in such extravagance. “He never had private yachts or private jets.” Speculating on how the founder would have felt about the current board’s profligacy, Harvey added: “He would have been exasperated, embarrassed, frustrated, and utterly unsympathetic. He would have loved to bang some heads together.”
In a similar vein, Harper’s magazine publisher John R. “Rick” MacArthur, son of JRM and grandson of John D. MacArthur, said: “If my grandfather were alive today, he would have utter contempt for the MacArthur Foundation. There’s no question that my father and grandfather wanted the lowest overhead possible.”
The MacArthur Foundation’s Current Programs
The MacArthur Foundation today makes grants and loans through four major programs:
(1) The International Programs focus on a variety of issues that affect people in approximately 60 countries around the world:
For information on additional International Programs of the MacArthur Foundation, click here.
2) The U.S. Programs address various issues in the United States:
For information on additional U.S. Programs of the MacArthur Foundation, click here.
3) The Media, Culture, and Special Initiatives programs include the following:
4) The MacArthur Fellows program, instituted in 1981, annually awards fellowships (sometimes nicknamed “genius grants”) to approximately two- to three-dozen “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Only a small minority of these grant recipients have been political conservatives, while a disproportionately high number have been left-wing critics of America’s many alleged inequities and transgressions. In 1995, columnist John Leo wrote that the MacArthur Fellowships largely reward “ideologues [and] low-luster laborers in the traditional vineyards of the left.” Some of the more noteworthy winners have been: Marian Wright Edelman, Paul Ehrlich, Henry Louis Gates, Morton Halperin, John Holdren, Irving Howe, Cecilia Munoz, and Susan Sontag. To view a comprehensive list of all genius-grant recipients since 1981, click here.