Andrew Carnegie founded the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1911. The earlier nonprofits Carnegie founded, such as the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the Carnegie Hero Fund, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had narrow, limited aims. But Carnegie, who still had half his fortune when he crated the corporation, left no restrictions on what the Carnegie Corporation should be used for. As a result, the nonprofit gradually deviated from Andrew Carnegie’s beliefs. Before Carnegie’s death in 1919, the Carnegie Corporation eliminated a program created by Carnegie that subsidized the construction of libraries. However, until World War II the Carnegie Corporation largely funded other Carnegie charities.
Under the presidencies of John W. Gardner (1955-1965) and Alan W. Pifer (1965-1982), the Carnegie Corporation dramatically expanded. Its most significant achievement was the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television (1965), which inspired the creation of the Corporation for Public Television. A second commission, the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting (1979; also known as “Carnegie II”) was far less effective.
Vartan Gregorian has been the president of the Carnegie Corporation since 1997. Under his leadership, the Carnegie Corporation has awarded substantial grants to such liberal groups as the Alliance for Justice, the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). It has also funded numerous prizes, including the Carnegie Medals for Philanthropy, the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction, and the Andrew Carnegie Fellows, a program similar to the MacArthur Foundation’s fellowship programs but limited to college professors.
Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) retired from business in 1901, when he and his partners sold Carnegie Steel to U.S. Steel. He created many organizations with limited aims, including the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which conducts scientific research, the Carnegie Hero Fund, which gives medals to people who save others’ lives, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which funds educational research.
By 1906, notes Carnegie biographer Joseph Frazier Wall, “Carnegie was sick of the game” of philanthropy, and by 1910 “he was desperately sick of it.” “The final task dispensation of wealth preparing for the final exit,” Carnegie wrote to a friend, is “a heavy task…all sad.. You have no idea the strain I have been under.”
When the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was created in 1910, Carnegie still had half of his fortune. Under the advice of Elihu Root, Secretary of State in the Theodore Roosevelt administration, Carnegie used $125 million to create the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1911. He imposed only one restriction on the corporation: It would provide pensions for Presidents of the United States and their widows.
Three years later, Carnegie tried to change his mind. He tried to take $10 million from the Carnegie Corporation budget for a new organization to serve Great Britain. When Root advised that the endowment could not be reversed, Carnegie used money he had saved for his retirement to start the British organization. 
Carnegie’s wishes were violated a second time during his lifetime when the Carnegie Corporation board voted to slow down and ultimately eliminate the program that funded libraries. Of the 1.419 libraries funded with Carnegie’s money, only six were approved after 1917, two years before Carnegie’s death, with the last opening in American Fork, Utah in 1919. Historian Theodore Jones notes that there is no evidence what Carnegie’s reaction was when the Carnegie Corporation board voted to terminate the library program.
Carnegie Corporation in the 20th Century
Until World War II, the Carnegie Corporation remained relatively small. Under the presidency of Henry S. Pritchett, the foundation largely funded other Carnegie charities. Pritchett’s successor, Frederick S. Keppel, discarded old programs but created few new ones. As a result, the Carnegie Corporation remained small until after World War II.
After World War II, and the presidencies of John W. Gardner (1955-1965) and Alan Pifer (1965-1982), the foundation dramatically expanded. Under Pifer’s presidency, according to foundation observer Waldemar Nielsen, Carnegie became “the quintessential liberal, activist entrepreneurial foundation, more of a combat force than a traditional charity.”
Carnegie’s most significant achievement of the 1960s was funding the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television in 1965. The Commission issued a report, Public Television: A Program for Action, which said “we contemplate assistance to Public Television on a far larger scale than at present.” All of the commission’s recommendations, including changing the name of educational television to “public television,” creating one quasi-governmental organization to run the stations and oversee content (the Public Broadcasting Service) and a second one (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) to fund the stations. The only proposal Congress rejected from the commission was a two-percent excise tax on the sale of television sets to pay for shows on public television.
In 1977, the Carnegie Corporation created a second commission to explore ways to fund public broadcasting. Unlike the first Carnegie Commission, the report of the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting, or “Carnegie II,” issued in 1979, published recommendations that were not implemented, including doubling the size of the public broadcasting budget and paying for it in part by taxing commercial stations’ broadcast licenses.
In 1985, the Carnegie Corporation met with representatives of other nonprofits Carnegie created to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Andrew Carnegie’s birth. At the event Carnegie Corporation president David Hamburg told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Andrew Carnegie, were he alive, would appreciate “a continuing commitment to three themes that shaped his philanthropy: peace, education, and social justice.”
The Vartan Gregorian Years
Vartan Gregorian became the Carnegie Corporation’s president in 1997, a position he continues to hold today. Prior to becoming Carnegie Corporation president, he was president of Brown University and also served as an adviser to Walter Annenberg in his Annenberg Challenge, a $500 million series of grants to public schools that many consider a major philanthropic mistake.
The Carnegie Corporation under Gregorian has funded numerous liberal groups. Among others, it has funded the Alliance for Justice, the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), and the Mexican American Legal and Defense Fund (MALDEF).
The Carnegie Corporation has also funded a wide variety of prizes in recent years. These include:
The Carnegie Medals for Philanthropy, launched in 2001, awarded to eminent philanthropists. The most recent winners include H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and Marguerite Lenfest of the Lenfest Foundation, Julian Robertson of the Robertson Foundation, and Jeff Skoll of the Skoll Foundation.
The Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction, co-sponsored with the American Library Association. The winners in 2017 were Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad for best novel and Matthew Desmond for Evicted for best non-fiction book.
The Andrew Carnegie Fellows, launched in 2015, which give 35 professors two-year, $200,000 grants. These grants are similar to the MacArthur Fellowships, but are limited to professors.
The Academic Leadership Award, launched in 2015. In 2017 this prize was given to seven university presidents, including Georgia State University president Mark P. Becker, Georgetown University president John J. DeGioia, and Case Western Reserve University president Barbara J. Snyder. Schools whose presidents received these prizes got $500,000 grants.
In 2011, the Carnegie Corporation marked its centennial. President Vartan Gregorian gave an interview with Carnegie Corporation vice president Susan King in which he said his role was to be “a guardian of a tradition: a guardian of an important mission…We just have to keep Andrew Carnegie’s notion of spreading the gospel of wealth, and that’s what we are doing.”
Indiana University philanthropy professor Leslie Lenkowsky noted in Philanthropy that “in important ways, the Corporation’s work has departed from its founder’s vision. Although it remains riveted on curing social and political inequalities, it has come to regard them less as the unfortunate by-product of an otherwise successful and worthy economic system and more as symptoms of fundamental flaws that require substantial changes to the system itself.”
The Economist noted that both IBM and the Carnegie Corporation had both been created in 1911. The magazine had concluded that IBM had done more good since 1961 because it continued to grow, while the Carnegie Corporation stagnated. IBM had sales of $200 billion and employed 427,000 people, while Carnegie barely made the list of America’s 20 largest foundations.
One reason why Carnegie was far smaller than IBM, The Economist noted, “may be that 100 years is too old for a philanthropic foundation. The absence of an existential threat have made it too comfortable…It is not clear what, if anything, keeps the people in charge of the Carnegie Corporation awake at night. The passage of time saps a foundation of the unique energy of its founder.”
“No wonder,” the magazine concluded, “many of today’s philanthropists aim, as Carnegie did, to give away all of their money by the time they die, or at least put a time limit on the lifespan of their foundation after their death.”