History of the Russell Sage Foundation

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....

Yours sincerely,
Margaret Olivia Sage
New York, April 19, 1907



April 19, 1907
Margaret Olivia Sage (1828-1918) establishes the Russell Sage Foundation as the nation's first general purpose foundation with an initial gift of $10 million, part of the fortune she inherited upon the death of her husband, Russell Sage, in 1906. Mrs. Sage directs the new foundation to pursue research and programs for the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States of America.

May 1907
The Foundation funds the Pittsburgh Survey, the first systematic effort to survey the employment and living conditions among the working class in a large U.S. city. The findings inspire reforms regulating working conditions and the employers' liability system, and help end twelve-hour days and seven-day weeks for steel workers.

The Foundation sponsors early research on programs in housing, public health, working conditions, education, consumer credit, industrial relations, social surveys, and social statistics. These programs lead to legal reforms in building codes, workplace health and safety regulations, workmen's compensation and anti-usury laws.

At Mrs. Sage's direction, the Foundation erects its headquarters building just north of Gramercy Park to house its expanding research operations. Designed by Grosvenor Atterbury in Italian Renaissance style, the nine-story building is decorated with carved panels symbolizing Service flanked by Study and Counsel, Religion, Education, Civics, Justice, Health, Work, Play and Housing.


RSF expends nearly a sixth of its capital to build Forest Hills Gardens, a model suburban community for working families designed by architect Fredrick Law Olmstead. The grand aim was to demonstrate the possibilities of intelligent town planning for moderate cost housing close to a major urban center. The architecture was a great success, but the housing prices soon soared beyond the range of the families they were intended for, and the Foundation lost a significant part of its investment.

Mary van Kleeck joins RSF's Department of Industrial Studies to study the working conditions of women. Her book Women in the Bookbinding Trade leads to legislation banning the employment of women in factories between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Over the next 45 years, Van Kleeck builds a remarkable record of industrial relations research at Russell Sage, conducting studies of working conditions, unemployment, collective bargaining and economic planning.

RSF publishes Social Diagnosis, Mary Richmond's classic text on social work. Head of the Foundation's Charity Organization Department since 1909, Richmond orchestrates RSF's long-standing efforts to support private social service agencies, rationalize their operations and improve case work methods. These efforts culminate in the 1930s, when the Foundation provides space in its own building for the New York School of Social Work and gives key support for other fledgling schools of social work around the country.

RSF supports the New York Regional Urban Planning Project, "to visualize the commercial, the industrial, the social and the artistic values and possibilities of our glorious harbor and of all [its] broad and varied environs." The project becomes the Regional Plan Association of New York, responsible for coordinating policies for urban planning in the New York City area.

In charge of the statistical work for the Pittsburgh Survey in the early days of the Foundation, and later head of the Department of Exhibits and Surveys, Shelby Harrison takes over as second general director of the Foundation.

Esther Lucile Brown, a member of the Foundation's Department of Statistics, produces a study on Social Work as a Profession. Over the next three years, she releases reports on the professions of engineering, nursing, medicine, and law. In 1944, the Department of Studies in the Professions is established, headed by Brown.

Trustee E. Whitney Debevoise spearheads a major overhaul of the Foundation's mission and institutional identity. Using a military metaphor in the wake of World War II, RSF declares a redeployment of its intellectual and capital resources to the second trench. Henceforth, the Foundation will work to strengthen the basic capacities of social science in order to provide intellectual and scientific support for efforts to design and implement social policy on the Afront lines. The Foundation phases out all existing grants and direct financial support for charitable organizations, the original building is sold, and staffing is reduced.

Donald Young, formerly a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Social Science Research Council assumes the presidency of RSF and develops its new research agenda. The Foundation focuses on applying social science to the professions of medicine, law, social work, and to the arts of social practice more generally. Under Young, and later Orville Brim, RSF begins to develop a new role as a linking institution, connecting the growing enterprise of university-based social science to the social issues of long-standing concern to the Foundation.

In collaboration with the Social Science Research Council, the Foundation publishes a series of 17 monographs analyzing social and demographic data from the 1950 census. The decennial Acensus series becomes a tradition at Russell Sage; for every census thereafter, except 1970, the Foundation publishes reports on the economic and social condition of the country based on the statistics available in the census.

Under the direction of F. Emerson Andrews, the Foundation begins a series of studies of philanthropy: Philanthropic Giving (1950), Corporation Giving (1952), Attitudes Toward Giving (1953), Legal Instruments of Foundations (1958). This work on philanthropy leads eventually to RSF's support for the publication of the Foundation Directory and the establishment of the Foundation Center, both key resources in making the world of American foundations more intelligible and accessible.

Donald Young inaugurates a program on social science and the mass media in the hopes of fostering more informed and accurate reporting on the social sciences by professional journalists.

Orville Brim serves as president of RSF. Brim extends research on the professions to include journalism and the military, and inaugurates diverse new areas of research, including life-span development and aging, mental testing and human resource management, techniques for evaluating social programs, the development of social indicators, and even behavioral biology.

Brim's first staff appointment, Princeton sociologist Wilbert Moore, helps solidify the Foundation's reputation as a research institute. Moore works with staff member Eleanor Bernert Sheldon to explore the possibility of developing a national battery of social indicators. Their pioneering work is published in Indicators of Social Change in 1968 and leads eventually to the development of the General Social Survey.

The Foundation initiates a series of studies of the social and educational effects of standardized testing under the direction of staff member David Goslin. The resulting RSF volumes include Goslin's Search for Ability, Brim et. al.'s American Beliefs and Attitudes about Intelligence, and David Armor's American School Counselor.

Under staff member Leonard Cottrell, and later Stanton Wheeler, the Foundation's effort to extend social science to the study of legal institutions become RSF's largest program and succeeds in creating a new interdisciplinary field. With seed money from Russell Sage, the Law and Society Association—and its affiliated journal, the Law & Society Review—is launched.

The Foundation’s prior focus on social science and medicine evolves toward more basic support for the developing field of behavior genetics. Russell Sage partners with Rockefeller University to select candidates for joint training in biology and the social sciences. A prominent result of this initiative is the three-volume Biology and Behavior Series published jointly by Russell Sage and the Rockefeller University.

The Foundation's Visiting Scholars program is inaugurated with the appointment of Alex Inkeles (Stanford) and Robert K. Merton (Columbia). Other visitors in the early years of the program include futurist Alvin Toffler, sociologist Daniel Bell and Public Interest editor, Irving Kristol.

Capping the studies of the professions inaugurated by Young and carried out under Brim, Wilbert Moore's The Professions is published.

As part of an evaluation of the quality of RSF's programs, Brim opens RSF files to a group of radical New Left sociologists. They criticize the Foundation for focusing on applied research rather than supporting direct action programs, and for the lack of attention to powerless groups in American society. Brim's own approach to evaluating foundation programs appears in his classic essay archly titled Do We Know What We Are Doing?

Hugh Cline serves as RSF president. During his tenure RSF focuses on improving measurements and methods of analyzing social change. The Foundation also sponsors research on the evaluation of governmental and non-governmental social programs. Cline extends the effort carried out by Young and Brim to explore more effective ways of communicating the findings of social science to policymakers and others outside academia.

RSF launches new research programs on civil liberties and social control to study the attitudes and behavior of the general publicY toward general and specific topics of freedom and control, and on the changing social roles ascribed to individuals on the basis of gender, race, and ethnicity.

After a period of administrative upheaval at Russell Sage in the late 1970s, Ford Foundation economist Marshall Robinson assumes the presidency of RSF and establishes new research programs on the social impact of changing gender roles, the growth of procedural complexity in the organization of economic and social activity, and the assessment, management, and public perception of risk.

The Foundation establishes its new headquarters on East 64th Street in the former home of the Asia Society, designed by distinguished American architect, Philip Johnson.

The Foundation's research program on the impact of gender role change focuses on institutional responses to efforts to expand opportunities for women. With support from the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation and Russell Sage, a task force under the direction of resident scholar Mariam Chamberlin is formed to chart the progress of women in higher education and examine the impact of changing gender roles on institutions of higher learning.

After skipping the 1970 Census, RSF again collaborates with SSRC to study the results of the 1980 Census. The Foundation publishes an authoritative 17-volume series on social, cultural, and economic trends in the U.S. revealed by the Census.

Eric Wanner, a social psychologist and vice president at the Sloan Foundation, is appointed president of RSF. The Foundation launches several new research initiatives, redesigns the Visiting Scholar program to permit open application and to foster collaborative groups, and overhauls the book publishing program to give the Foundation's research wider distribution and greater public impact.

Continuing its tradition of support for promising inter-disciplinary research, the Foundation announces a joint program of research with the Sloan Foundation in behavioral economics, examining the consequences of incorporating more realistic accounts of human decision making into economic models of market behavior. A second new program returns the Foundation to its earliest concerns with the plight of the poor, supporting research on the causes of the persistence of poverty and the rise of economic inequality in the U.S. despite robust economic growth.

Maintaining the Foundation's long-standing interest in strengthening the methodological equipment of social science, RSF provides support to encourage the use of state-of-the-art methods in quantitative research synthesis, which allow reliable conclusions to be drawn from multiple studies of a given social intervention or program.

Robert K. Merton becomes the first Foundation Scholar at Russell Sage, recognizing his long and invaluable service as an advisor to the administration and a mentor to so many visiting scholars. In 2000, Robert M. Solow becomes the second Foundation Scholar, following Merton’s retirement. In 2003, the position is renamed the Merton Scholar, in memory of the Foundation’s invaluable friend.

RSF inaugurates a new program of research on immigration to investigate how well immigrants and their children are adapting socially and economically to life in the U.S. The program is designed to examine speculation that non-European families in the current immigrant cohort might not duplicate the inter-generational progress of European immigrants in the great wave of immigration at the beginning of the twentieth century.

A program is formed to study contact among cultures within the increasingly diverse American population. In its initial stage the program examines problems of racial and ethnic discrimination; subsequently, the program evolves to study the frictions that arise as American institutions like schools, health care facilities, and the legal system adapt to a more diverse clientele.

Working jointly with the Ford Foundation, RSF conducts the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, which examines the economic problems of the poor in four of America's largest cities. Echoing the Pittsburgh Survey, the Multi-City Study attempts to determine whether high rates of unemployment in the inner city are due to residential segregation, labor market discrimination, the flight of employers to the suburbs, or poor educational preparation. The results are published in seven RSF books and over a dozen doctoral dissertations.

The Foundation establishes the Behavioral Economics Roundtable, a group of leading behavioral economists elected by grantees in the program and charged to design initiatives to advance the this new interdisciplinary field. The most successful of the Roundtable's several initiatives is its summer institute, run in alternate years since 1994 to provide an introduction to the field for young investigators.

The Foundation's program of research on poverty is refocused specifically on an examination of the causes and consequences of the long-term decline in availability and quality of jobs for workers with limited education. Renamed the Future of Work and undertaken jointly with the Rockefeller Foundation, the program supports extensive case studies of nearly 500 establishments in 25 industries to assess the changing competitive pressures on American firms, the ways in which firms responded by restructuring work, and the consequences for the quality of low-wage jobs. More recently, the Foundation has undertaken a comparative study of low-wage jobs in five European countries to compare the restructuring of work and the quality of low-wage jobs in different national institutional environments.

In partnership with the Carnegie Corporation, RSF launches a special project on Social Inequality to explore the social repercussions of rising economic inequality in such areas as family formation and functioning, the resources available to children, education from pre-school to college, health care and insurance coverage, political participation and representation, and involvement with the criminal justice system. The project is designed to determine whether families who are falling behind economically are also falling behind in other ways that will make it difficult for them to keep pace in the future.

Extending the trend toward lighter, faster reports on the decennial census, the 2000 project focuses on promoting public awareness of the census results and their societal implications. With the Population Reference Bureau, RSF produces a series of 14 reports on what the census reveals about issues such as work, gender, immigration, and racial inequality. Two major volumes are commissioned framing the results of the 2000 census within a long, historical view of the statistical trends in American society over the course of the 20th century. RSF also funds an online guide to the census for journalists, a web-based survey of public participation in the census, and a study of the impact of the Census Bureau's decision to allow respondents to identify as multiracial.

Prompted by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, RSF develops several lines of research to examine the nature of social and political life after September 11. The initiatives include studies of New York City’s recovery from the attack on the World Trade Center, field studies of Muslim- and Arab-American communities in the U.S., and a standing committee to monitor the effects of the war on terror on the relationship between national security concerns and the protection of civil liberties.

The Foundation celebrates its centennial with a day-long symposium focused on some of the principal issues which have concerned the Foundation over its long history, including the plight of low-wage workers, the stratification of American society, immigration and diversity in the United States, and the role of social science in addressing these issues.

Sheldon Danziger, the Henry J. Meyer Distinguished University Professor of Public Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and director of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, is appointed president of RSF.

The Foundation launches a new research initiative on the Social, Economic, and Political Effects of the Affordable Care Act. The initiative will examine the effects of the reform on outcomes such as financial security and family economic well-being, labor supply and demand, participation in other public programs, family and children’s outcomes.

The Foundation enters into research collaborations with a number of other foundations on a variety of topics related to its core interests. Co-funders include the Carnegie Corporation; the William T. Grant Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; the MacArthur Foundation; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; The Spencer Foundation; and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Supplementing its longstanding book publishing program, the Foundation launches a new open-access journal, RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. RSF is a peer-reviewed journal of original research by both established and emerging scholars.

The Foundation initiates two new working groups on emerging fields in social science. The working group on Computational Social Science will examine how “big data” can expand our understanding of social issues and improve research methods in the social sciences. The Biology and Social Science working group will examine how the incorporation of biological concepts, processes, and measures in social science research might improve our understanding of a range of social and economic outcomes.

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In the century since Mrs. Sage first dedicated her Foundation to the betterment of social and living conditions, the institution she created has evolved in many ways -- beginning as a source of information and support for private social agencies in its earliest years, and gradually becoming a research organization dedicated to strengthening social science and bringing it more effectively to bear on describing and analyzing the nation's changing social problems. It was Mrs. Sage's foresight in allowing the Foundation to adapt to unanticipated circumstances that has allowed RSF to pursue its founder's intentions in a variety of fresh and creative ways over the long life of the institution. As we look ahead to the next hundred years, it will be a challenge to do as well.


The Russell Sage Foundation archives reside at the Rockefeller Archive Center. Prospective researchers should contact the Center for further information.

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RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


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