Since its founding in 1950, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) has become well-known for its philanthropic campaigns on youth issues and public health.. These include long-term funding for research to eradicate trachoma (a form of eye infection) in the developing world.
In one controversial chapter of its history, EMCF was a key supporter of organizations backing a litigation campaign in the 1970s that paved the way for the large-scale deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. Philanthrophy expert Waldemar Nielsen critiqued EMCF’s support for this effort, calling it an example of how the foundation had “administered strong shocks to American society” through some of its programs, “whose consequences the foundation has then ignored.”
EMCF takes its name from its founder Edna McConnell Clark, daughter of the founder of the company known today as Avon, David Hall McConnell. She endowed the foundation with donations of Avon stock. Later generations of the Clark family continue to be involved with the foundation, serving as board members.
EMCF today is based in New York, with a staff of about 40.
The year 1999 was a pivotal moment in EMCF’s recent history. That year, the foundation announced plans to “to re-examine our overall engagement” with tropical disease issues, which represented 25 years of involvement by EMCF as a funder of tropical disease research.
In 2000, building on this announcement, EMCF signaled that it would shift focus as a funder to the field of “youth development.” As stated in its 2000 annual report: “ A critical need exists in this country to help young people from poor families make a successful transition to independent adulthood, and we feel this is how we should eventually be focusing all the Foundation’s assets and resources.”
Between 2002 and 2012, EMCF announced a total of $332 million in support of youth development efforts.
In 2016, ECMF announced its plans to spend down all its remaining assets over the next decade.
In 2014, ECMF disclosed contributions from the following organizations:
- Corporation for National and Community Service
- Samberg Family Foundation
- Duke Foundation
- George Kaiser Family Foundation
- The JPB Foundation
Nancy Roob has served as ECMF’s President and CEO since 2005; her career with ECMF dates back to 1994.
In his book The Golden Donors, Waldemar Nielsen noted ECMF’s cooperation with other organizations in support of efforts during the 1970s around the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill. Nielson wrote: ECMF “played a key role in bringing about the [Alabama] court decision in the case of Wyatt v. Stickney in the early 1970s to deinstitutionalize large numbers of individuals who formerly had been kept in mental institutions. But now that […] people are to be seen sitting on park benches and sleeping in doorways in cities all over the country because community service facilities to care for their needs have not been created, the foundation has taken no action to address that problem.”
Further context for Nielsen’s observations come from Aryeh Neier, who worked as American Civil Liberties Union executive director from 1970 to 1978. In his 2003 memoir Taking Liberties, Neier reflects on his long career with that organization (and its New York City affiliate, the NYCLU), and briefly describes the ACLU’s partnership with EMCF: “During my tenure at the ACLU, our biggest donor overall was the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.”
In 1969, the NYCLU created a Project on Civil Liberties and Mental Illness (later known as the Mental Health Law Project). In two Alabama cases, Wyatt v. Stickney (1972) and Wyatt v. Aderholt (1974), the Project’s staff lawyers (per the ACLU’s official history on the topic):
“challenged the conditions of hospitalization for those with mental illness and developmental disabilities, leading to significant reductions in the institutions’ populations; major increases in expenditures for mental health and rehabilitative services; improvement in psychologist-patient ratios; significant reductions in the abuse of patients; and the adoption of the then-innovative concept of specific treatment and rehabilitation plans for each individual. The principles argued for … and included in the judge’s final order, were subsequently adopted by 35 other states. Another significant result of the Wyatt litigation was the formation of the Mental Health Law Project (MHLP), now the Bazelon Center in Washington, DC.”
The Mental Health Law Project received: two years’ worth of start-up funding; funding for a feasibility study; and funding to pay a full-time development officer’s salary for one year from EMCF.