Our History


John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur were quiet philanthropists in their lifetime, giving primarily to organizations in cities where they lived: Chicago and Palm Beach. Their business interests, including the immensely successful Bankers Life and Casualty insurance company and real estate holdings concentrated in Florida, New York City, and Chicago, consumed most of their time and energy.

On October 18, 1970 – after John’s longtime friend and attorney William T. Kirby convinced him that a foundation would allow his money to go to good use long after he was gone – the documents for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation were completed.

"I made the money; you guys will have to figure out what to do with it."

John intentionally left the business of what to fund to the Foundation’s first board of directors, which included Catherine; Kirby; his son, Roderick; radio commentator Paul Harvey, a friend from Chicago whose popular program carried ads for Bankers Life; and Louis Feil, a business associate from New York. “I made the money; you guys will have to figure out what to do with it,” MacArthur told the board. This direction presented the Foundation’s first board with two challenges: how to divest responsibly the assets and how to shape a forward-looking organization that could change with society’s evolving challenges.

When John died of cancer on January 6, 1978, the Foundation assumed his assets, estimated at $1 billion, and made its first two grants of $50,000 each to Amnesty International and the California League of Cities. Since 1978, the Foundation has made grants totaling more than $6.8 billion in the United States and about 40 countries around the world.

The Foundation’s first decade was challenging: assets to dispose of in a way that realized good value responsibly, tensions over grantmaking strategies, the task of assembling a staff and working out its relationship with directors who had also served as staff in the early days.


A seminal figure of this period was the Foundation's first president, John Corbally, who, with his colleagues James Furman and William Kirby, helped the directors fashion the Foundation's early program: the MacArthur Fellows, support for public radio, investment in peace and security, mental health, and the environment among them.

The second decade saw rapid expansion and experimentation, fueled by growing assets as Mr. MacArthur's real estate holdings were liquidated. New ventures included a leadership role in Chicago school reform and support for vigorous neighborhood development efforts in Chicago.

The Foundation launched the Population Program, with field offices in Mexico, Nigeria, Brazil, and India. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Foundation opened an office in Moscow in support of its work to strengthen universities and policy institutes in the sciences and social sciences.


Under Adele Simmons' creative leadership, the Foundation was reorganized to emphasize cross-cutting themes that illuminated the interconnectedness of problems it confronted and the complexity of their solutions.


The third decade found the MacArthur Foundation in early adulthood: clear about its values, its mission, and areas of work in which it sought to make a difference. Under Jonathan Fanton’s leadership, the Foundation deepened investment in some of the Foundation’s most promising areas of work including human rights and international justice, juvenile justice, affordable housing, and community and economic development. He sought out and supported major new ideas, such as the Encyclopedia of Life and the Law and Neuroscience Project, and emphasized fewer grants but for larger amounts and longer periods of time to increase the impact of MacArthur’s grantmaking.


From 2009 to 2014, Robert L. Gallucci changed the Foundation's culture and practices, embedding assessment in all programs to ensure their impact and giving the professional staff the freedom to apply their talents. He initiated a new area of grantmaking to strengthen American democracy at a critical and challenging time for the nation, and he launched the discovery grants process to spur innovative new ideas.


With Julia Stasch as president, the Foundation narrowed its focus for greater impact. She advanced the notion of “Big Bets,” or significant and urgent investments to achieve transformative change in areas of profound concern. She also led the creation of 100&Changea groundbreaking global competition for a single $100 million grant to enable real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time. Stasch standardized and implemented a more rigorous process for developing and evaluating grantmaking strategies, and she changed the way the Foundation staffs its programs by instituting a collaborative, team-based structure that brings together the diverse expertise and needed capacities to each field of MacArthur’s work. As part of living the Foundation’s mission of a more just, verdant, and peaceful world, Stasch charged MacArthur staff to lead with a commitment to justice in grantmaking and operations through the “Just Imperative.”


MacArthur, one of the nation’s largest independent foundations, is now led by President John Palfrey.

The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. MacArthur is placing a few big bets that truly significant progress is possible on some of the world’s most pressing social challenges, including advancing global climate solutions, decreasing nuclear risk, promoting local justice reform in the U.S., and reducing corruption in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria. In addition to the MacArthur Fellows Program and the global 100&Change competition, the Foundation continues its historic commitments to the role of journalism in a responsive democracy as well as the vitality of our headquarters city, Chicago.

MacArthur is one of the nation's largest independent foundations. Organizations supported by the Foundation work in about 50 countries. In addition to Chicago, MacArthur has offices in India and Nigeria.


Learn more about MacArthur through our 40 Years, 40 Stories series or an interactive timeline of the Foundation's history.

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