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foundation

foundation, institution through which private wealth is contributed and distributed for public purpose. Foundations have existed since Greek and Roman times, when they honored deities. During the Middle Ages in Europe the church had many foundations, and in the Arab lands the waqf, or pious endowment, developed with the growth of Islam. In modern times European foundations, generally smaller than their U.S. counterparts, have been closely regulated by the state (e.g., the Nobel prizes; see Nobel, Alfred Bernhard).

In the United States there were a few early foundations, notably those endowed by Benjamin Franklin in 1791 to provide funds for loans to "young married artificers of good character" and by James Smithson in 1846 for the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution; however, it was not until after the Civil War that foundations developed rapidly. Social disintegration in the South and the establishment of early foundations such as the Peabody Education Fund and the John F. Slater Fund (both designed to provide educational opportunities for African Americans in the South) promoted the movement. The rapid growth of northern industrial enterprise in the postbellum years brought with it an accumulation of huge private fortunes. By the turn of the century, persuasive preachers of the "social gospel" urged the wealthy to meet their charitable obligations to society. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Sr., in the period 1896 to 1918, led the way in creating foundations that could distribute their enormous wealth in what was considered to be the most efficient and socially beneficent manner.

Favorable income tax laws in the 1940s further spurred philanthropic activity. During the early 1950s many American foundations were attacked by right-wing journalists and Congressmen; between 1950 and 1953 the House of Representatives conducted two separate investigations into "subversion and Communist penetration" of the nation's philanthropic foundations. Attacks on the foundations began to subside, however, with the passing of the so-called McCarthy era. Although a number of foundations have been restricted by their charters to specific philanthropic functions, the larger U.S. foundations have devoted themselves to broad areas (see separate articles on Lilly Endowment, Inc.; Ford Foundation; Rockefeller Foundation; Sloan Foundation; and Commonwealth Fund). The 1980s and 90s saw a doubling in the number of grantmaking foundations, including those developed by financier George Soros and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Due in part to economic prosperity, foundation giving doubled between 1990 and 1998 to $19.5 billion. In 1997, the largest recipients of grant dollars were education, health, and human services.

See also philanthropy.

See M. Cuninggim, Private Money and Public Service (1972); W. A. Nielsen, The Big Foundations (1972) and The Endangered Sector (1979); D. N. Layton, Philanthropy and Voluntarism: A Bibliography (1987); Foundation Center Staff, Guide to U.S. Foundations, Their Trustees, Officers, and Donors (2 vol., 1999).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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