History of the Russell Sage Foundation
- Letter of Gift
- History of the Foundation
- Centennial, 1907-2007
- Download Foundation Timeline (PDF)
One of the oldest American foundations, the Russell Sage Foundation was established in 1907 for "the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States" by a gift of $10 million from Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage (1828–1918), widow of railroad magnate and financier Russell Sage. Mrs. Sage directed the foundation to pursue its mission through a broad set of activities, including "research, publication, education, the establishment and maintenance of charitable or benevolent activities, agencies and institutions, and the aid of any such activities, agencies, or institutions already in existence."
Letter of Gift
To the Trustees of Russell Sage Foundation:
I have transferred to Russell Sage Foundation...a fund, the principal of which...shall be held, and the income thereof applied to the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States of America....
The scope of the Foundation is not only national but is broad. It should, however, preferably not undertake to do that which is now being done or is likely to be effectively done by other individuals or by other agencies. It should be its aim to take up the larger and more difficult problems, and to take them up so far as possible in such a manner as to secure co-operation and aid in their solution....
Margaret Olivia Sage
New York, April 19, 1907
Soon after its establishment, the Foundation played a pioneering role in dealing with problems of the poor and the elderly, in efforts to improve hospital and prison conditions, and in the development of social work as a profession. The Foundation was also responsible for early reforms in health care, city planning, consumer credit, labor law, the training of nurses, and social security programs.
In 1907, the foundation funded the Pittsburgh Survey, the first systematic effort to survey working class conditions in a large U.S. city. Considered a major Progressive Era achievement, the findings inspired labor reforms and helped end twelve-hour days and seven-day weeks for steel workers. Between 1909 and 1922, the Foundation spent nearly a sixth of its capital to build Forest Hills Gardens, a model suburban community for working families designed by architect Frederick Law Olmstead. The aim was to demonstrate the economic and social viability of an intelligently planned suburban community. The first lots sold for $800, and a new suburb began thriving by 1917, but housing prices soon soared beyond the range of the families they were intended for.
During its first 40 years, the Foundation also spent more than $1 million on the Regional Survey and Plan, a guide for development in the New York metropolitan region. Researchers completed 12 massive volumes as part of the effort, and in 1928, the Foundation helped launch the Regional Plan Association to implement the plan’s recommendations.
Since World War II, the Foundation has devoted its efforts to strengthening the social sciences as a means of achieving more informed and rational social policy. It launched a variety of programs to draw the social sciences closer to decision-makers in other professions, from policymakers to health care providers. This initiative included funds for research on "social indicators," a collection of data that measure the quality of life.
In the 1950s, the Foundation supported research on the practice and aims of philanthropy. It established the Foundation Center, now the country’s leading source of authoritative information on organized philanthropy. It was also the first to publish The Foundation Directory, a comprehensive listing of the nation’s several thousand largest foundations.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Foundation turned to medical ethics, including patients' rights, extreme measures to sustain life, and the use of human subjects in research. Foundation-supported books from this period include Bernard Barber’s Drugs and Society (1967) and The Dying Patient (1970).
The Foundation was an early force in the development of behavioral economics, launching the Behavioral Economics program in 1986 with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. A number of seminal books on behavioral economics published by Russell Sage remain key texts in the field today, including Quasi Rational Economics (1991) and Advances in Behavioral Finance (1993).
In 1993, the Foundation also established the Behavioral Economics Roundtable, a group of leading behavioral economists elected by grantees in the program and charged to design initiatives to advance the field. Three charter members of the Roundtable subsequently received the Noble Prize in economics: George Akerloff, Daniel Kahneman, and Thomas Schelling.
The Foundation launched new programs to study immigration, the rise of economic inequality and contact among cultures within the American population. Between 1992 and 2000, the Foundation worked with the Ford Foundation to conduct a Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality. In 2000, the Foundation partnered with the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) to produce The American People: Census 2000, edited by Reynolds Farley of the University of Michigan and John Haaga of PRB. The Foundation also supported several other census-based books reflecting on the import of the new millennium and the evolution of American society, including Century of Difference: How America Changed in the Last One Hundred Years (2006) by Claude Fischer and Michael Hout, both of University of California, Berkeley and (2006) by Michael Katz and Mark Stern, both of the University of Pennsylvania.
The Russell Sage Foundation archives reside at the Rockefeller Archive Center. Prospective researchers should contact the Center for further information.
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