John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


* Assets: $6,999,766,070 (2017)
* Grants Received: $0 (2017)
* Grants Awarded: $255,597,682 (2017)

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:

  • The International Peace & Security program aims to “prevent nuclear terrorism and strengthen stability in the Asia-Pacific region.” As a member organization of the Peace and Security Funders Group, the MacArthur Foundation supports many organizations that advocate unilateral disarmament and defense-budget cuts by the United States.
  • The Conservation & Sustainable Development program, active since 1982, works to “preserve ecosystems and species and … promote development that respects the environment.” Toward that end, the Foundation funds groups which believe that “the right incentives will persuade governments, businesses, and communities to change their policies and behaviors, [thereby] reducing pressure on ecosystems.” One such incentive favored by MacArthur is a cap-and trade system that would legislate limits on the quantity of carbon dioxide that businesses may legally put into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. The Foundation’s concern about this issue is rooted in the premise that as a result of man-made greenhouse gases, “climate change is a real threat to our shared vision of a sustainable world.” In 2014, John Holdren, director of the Obama administration’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, gave a presentation to MacArthur’s board of trustees on “the potential role of philanthropy in addressing climate change.”
  • The Migration program strives to “improve conditions for vulnerable migrants, while laying the groundwork for fundamental improvements in migration policies and practices at the national, regional, and global levels over the longer term.” According to the Foundation, “immigration reform”in the United States—i.e., normalizing the status of illegal immigrants and providing them with a path-to-citizenship—(a) “would be a powerful instrument for economic revitalization [of] the U.S. economy”; (b) “has the potential to significantly increase the number of young, working-age people in the economy”; and (c) “would … reduce federal deficits, help the housing sector, and mitigate the effects of an aging population.”

For information on additional International Programs of the MacArthur Foundation, click here.

2) The U.S. Programs address various issues in the United States:

  • The Housing program aims to “support more balanced housing policies that acknowledge the importance of affordable [government-subsidized] rental housing [for low- and moderate-income Americans.”
  • The Juvenile Justice program was launched in 1996 in an effort to “reverse” a host of recently enacted state laws that: (a) called for more juveniles to be tried in adult criminal court; (b) instituted harsher penalties against such offenders; and (c) allowed adults and youths to be imprisoned in the same facilities. Objecting strenuously to the “racial and ethnic disparities” in incarceration rates nationwide, this program has supported research and policy analysis that “made it clear that adolescents are fundamentally different from adults, and that treating juvenile offenders as adults, relying on incarceration, and failing to commit resources to rehabilitation and treatment is expensive, produces negative consequences, jeopardizes public safety, and compromises future life chances.”
  • The Criminal Justice program seeks to “reduce over-incarceration” in America by promoting alternatives to imprisonment for nonviolent offenders. “Reducing the number of people in jails,” says the MacArthur Foundation, “would save taxpayers billions of dollars each year and allow jurisdictions to reinvest in critical services like education, mental health care, and workforce development to strengthen families and communities and help keep people out of jail.”

For information on additional U.S. Programs of the MacArthur Foundation, click here.

3) The Media, Culture, and Special Initiatives programs include the following:

  • The Media initiative, which was launched in 1983, supports the production and distribution of television-, radio-, and Web-based news and documentary programs “that help inform the American public about important domestic and international current affairs and policy issues.”
  • The Arts & Culture in Chicago program provides general operating support to theaters, dance organizations, musical groups, museums, exhibitors, and visual arts organizations in the city.
  • The Strengthening American Democracy program explores “ways to strengthen democracy in the U.S., given our perception that the political system has failed to adequately address major issues confronting the nation.” Some specifics include the MacArthur Foundation’s objection to “a clear and troubling effort … to make voting more difficult” (voter ID laws); its dissatisfaction with “the [growing] concentration of wealth and income”; and its support for “public financing of elections.”

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.

(Information on grantees and monetary amounts courtesy of The Foundation Center, GuideStar, ActivistCash, the Capital Research Center and Undue Influence. Also see here, here, and here.)


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