The Independence Foundation is a private foundation endowed by steel industrialist William H. Donner that split from the William H. Donner Foundation to continue the Donner Foundation’s Philadelphia programs after the Donner Foundation moved to New York. In addition to supporting cultural institutions in Philadelphia, the Independence Foundation funds legal fellowships for left-progressive public interest law, including with the Pennsylvania affiliate of the ACLU.
When industrialist William H. Donner founded what was to become the William H. Donner Foundation in 1932, it was initially headquartered in Philadelphia. In 1960, the Donner Foundation moved to New York City and the foundation split in two, with about half of the foundation’s $44 million in assets remaining in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia-based organization being renamed the Independence Foundation. The last descendant of William Donner on the Independence Foundation board, Frederick Donner, retired in 1995. 1
The Independence Foundation began by continuing Donner Foundation scholarship programs for private secondary schools, including Philips Exeter Academy and St. George’s School. 2 In 1985 the foundation changed direction and began supporting nursing education programs. In 1989 the foundation awarded a total of $10.8 million, including million-dollar grants to nine universities to endow Independence Chairs in Nursing for nine professors and money to support the chairs. The grant was the largest grant in nursing education up to that time. 3
In 1993 the Independence Foundation changed its focus again and stopped being a national foundation, transforming itself into an organization that solely aided Philadelphia-based organizations. A 1997 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer stated that Independence Foundation, with $100 million in assets, was the fourth-largest Philadelphia-based foundation, behind the far larger Pew Charitable Trusts and William Penn Foundation and the slightly larger Philadelphia Foundation, the city’s community foundation. 4
Philadelphia Cultural Grants
The foundation has contributed to the construction of cultural institutions in Philadelphia. In 1998, it committed $3 million towards the building of the performing arts center in Philadelphia that was opened as the Kimmel Center in 2001. 5
In 2005, the foundation donated $750,000 towards an expansion of Philadelphia’s central library. Despite donations of $5 million from the Annenberg Foundation and $4.5 million from the William Penn Foundation, fundraising goals for the expansion were not met, and the money was used for a renovation of the original building completed in 2019. 6
The Independence Foundation awards $10,000 fellowships to a dozen artists each year who live in Philadelphia or in nearby counties. It also supports local theatre companies through its “New Theatre Initiative” which supports the production of new plays. 7 The foundation also funds a prize for “outstanding new play/musical” as part of the Barrymore Awards, local theatre prizes administered by Theatre Philadelphia. 8
Public Interest Law Fellowships
The Independence Foundation’s primary interest in public policy is through its fellowships in legal issues at Philadelphia-based organizations. At the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Hayden Nelson-Major has used his Independence Foundation fellowship to explore ways to reduce bail for defendants the ACLU says cannot afford to pay hefty bail fees. 9 A Public Interest Law Center Independence Foundation fellow, George Donnelly, has said he targets “the severe power imbalance in Philadelphia between tenants…and their landlords.” 10 Justin Hollinger, a Regional Housing Legal Services Independence Foundation fellow, works on creating community land trusts, expanding tenant cooperatives, and representing “community organizations at zoning board meetings and in negotiations with developers.” 11
- Independence Foundation, “About Us,” https://independencefoundation.org/about-us/ (accessed October 21, 2020)
- Peter Binzen, “Smaller Trusts Make Big Impacts,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 16, 1985.
- “Independence Foundation Grant To Establish Nursing Chairs At Nine Universities,” American Journal of Public Health, January 1990.
- Peter Dobrin, “Corestates, First Union Foggy About Foundation,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 22, 1997.
- Peter Dobrin, “Proposed Arts Center To Get $3 Million,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 31 1998.
- Stephen Salisbury, “Library Expansion Still on Track,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 3, 2005. Inga Saffron, “Free Library Adapts Parkway Building To Make Room For Events, Workshops, Meetings—And a Few Books, Too,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 8, 2019, https://www.inquirer.com/real-estate/inga-saffron/philadelphia-free-library-expansion-wing-reinvention-parkway-teen-business-20190408.html (accessed October 22, 2020).
- Julia M. Klein, “In Philadelphia, Grants Nurture New Theater,” New York Times, November 11, 2008.
- “The Barrymore Awards,” Theatre Philadelphia website, https://www.theatrephiladelphia.org/barrymore-awards (accessed October 22, 2020).
- “Challenge to Philly Bail Practices in Pennsylvania Supreme Court Would Have Statewide Ramifications,” press release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, February 14, 2020.
- “George Donnelly,” biography at Public Interest Law Center website, https://www.pubintlaw.org/people/george-donnelly/ (accessed October 22, 2020).
- “’19 Graduate Awarded Prestigious Independence Foundation Fellowship,” press release from Kline School of Law, Drexel University, May 22, 2019, https://drexel.edu/law/about/news/articles/overview/2019/May/hollinger-independence-fellow/ (accessed October 22, 2020)