A Century of Philanthropy: Carnegie Corporation of New York

By Theroux, Karen | American Libraries, September-October 2011 | Go to article overview

A Century of Philanthropy: Carnegie Corporation of New York


Theroux, Karen, American Libraries


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

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.

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The father of American philanthropy started out as a poor Scottish immigrant who then spent much of his adult life getting rich in the steel industry. In later life, he 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, consider it charity. He considered grant making 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 philanthropies. It 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 Brookings Institution. Corporation funds helped launch the Chronicle of Higher Education, National Public Radio, the Educational Testing Service, PBS's Nova, and the Children's Television Workshop, creator of Sesame Street. The corporation made possible the Children's Defense Fund, the Jefferson Science Fellows, the Civic Mission of Schools, and the United Nations Peace building 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 democracy. Over time, the corporation has developed an approach to grant making 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 love for learning

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. …

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