The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (also known as the MacArthur Foundation) was the twelfth largest foundation in the United States in 2014 with total assets over $6 billion. From 2000 to 2017 MacArthur granted an average of just over $200 million each year to programs in support of higher education, the arts, mental health, and a large number of left-of-center causes including human rights, international affairs, disarmament, environmentalist policy, population control, abortion rights, economic development, affordable housing, and juvenile justice reform.
Many left-of-center grantees have received more than $5 million in MacArthur grants since 1987, among them Planned Parenthood, the Population Council, the Carter Center, ProPublica, Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Defense Fund, ClimateWorks, and International Crisis Group.
Since 2015, the foundation has focused its grantmaking on what it calls “Big Bets” — program areas that include climate change, criminal justice reform, and nuclear nonproliferation.
The MacArthur Foundation also funds a Fellows Program, popularly known as “Genius Grants.” Fellowships are five-year, unrestricted “stipends” to individuals “who show exceptional merit and promise of continued creative work.” In 2017, the stipend was $625,000. Most fellows are not noticeably political, but a sizeable minority, however, are recognized because of their left-wing political activism. Grantees have included a number of environmentalists and community organizers,as well as at least one drag performer. The left-wing weekly Chicago Reader wrote in 2015 “There could hardly be a more liberal grant than the MacArthur Fellowship.”
While the MacArthur Foundation leans strongly to the left, the man whose vast wealth launched the foundation was a rags-to-riches capitalist and is typically described as conservative. John D. MacArthur, a banker and insurance salesman who was one of two billionaires alive at the time of his death, created the MacArthur Foundation and staffed its board with a number of conservatives and Republicans, including two Bankers executives, radio commentator Paul Harvey, and former Nixon administration Treasury Secretary William Simon. MacArthur’s son J. Roderick MacArthur, however, was a proud liberal and appointed more liberals to the board. By 1981, the conservatives on the board had all resigned except for Paul Harvey. The Foundation has been solidly liberal ever since.
John D. MacArthur was the sole owner of Bankers Life and Casualty, which he bought in 1935 for $2,500 and grew to be the largest privately held insurance company in the United States. He reinvested much of his profits in real estate, which included thousands of acres in and around Palm Beach, Florida and 19 office buildings and 6,000 apartments in New York City. At the time of his death in 1978, Bankers had more than $1 billion in assets and MacArthur was one of only two billionaires in America.
Lewis Beman has written in Fortune that MacArthur was a “staunch conservative with political views to suit his nineteenth-century personality.” Concurring, New York Daily News reporter Kiki Levathes described MacArthur as an “arch conservative” who complained, “The liberals have destroyed what makes this country great.”
Early Political Division
When the MacArthur Foundation was created in 1970, it had six board members: William Kirby, two executives from Bankers Life and Casualty, radio commentator Paul Harvey, MacArthur’s wife Catherine, and MacArthur’s son Roderick. “I made the money,” MacArthur told the board, “you guys will have to figure out what to do with it.” In a 1976 interview with the Chicago Tribune, MacArthur said, “I’ve seen too many people, including Henry Ford, try to administer their estates from the grave. You have changing times. Besides, you lay down rules and people don’t follow them. So, I’ll trust in the Almighty that my trustees will do more good for the country than I would.” Bankers Life president Robert Ewing, who served as the foundation’s first chairman of the board, said, “We’re mostly a bunch of Midwestern businessmen devoted to free enterprise and opposed to more government controls. That’s the way we operate our businesses, and that’s the way we will run this foundation.”
Ewing’s plans never came to fruition. When MacArthur died of cancer on January 6, 1978, the foundation assumed his assets. Roderick MacArthur began to angle for control, and the foundation made its first two grants of $50,000 each to Amnesty International and the California League of Cities. Unlike his father, Roderick MacArthur was a proud liberal. “Rod MacArthur was the kind of guy who harangued total strangers in restaurants about PCB levels in whitefish,” MacArthur Foundation Fellow program director Kenneth Hope told the New York Times Magazine. Alleging conflicts of interest and misuse of the foundation’s assets by two board members who were top executives of Bankers Life, Roderick threatened lawsuits. As a compromise, the board agreed to expand. The Bankers Life executives appointed two new members, former Nixon White House Treasury Secretary William Simon and former University of Illinois president John Corbally. Rod MacArthur appointed two solidly liberal members, scientist Jonas Salk and physicist Murray Gell-Mann. Three other members with no ties to either Rod MacArthur or Bankers Life were appointed, Ford administration Attorney General Edward Levi, former M.I.T. president Jerome Wiesner, and former First National Bank of Chicago board chairman Gaylord Freeman.
As a result of this political divide, the board quarreled over the direction of the foundation. Roderick and Simon “fought openly,” wrote Brenda Shapiro in Chicago magazine. “Board members, unable to work together, established separate fiefdoms not only for grant-making decisions but for the complex affair of getting Bankers ready for sale.” By 1981, all the conservatives except for Harvey had resigned from the board, and Roderick began to move the foundation leftward.
Liberal Takeover and Creation of the Genius Awards
One of Roderick’s earliest initiatives was the MacArthur Fellows Program, nicknamed “Genius Grants” by the media. With the first grants in 1981, the program was ridiculed by detractors on both the left and the right. They argued that too many of the grantees, which included scientists, writers, academics, artists, and musicians, were already at the peaks of their careers. Liberal commentator Michael Kinsley complained, “Not one of the first MacArthur Fellows is suffering from lack of recognition for his or her talents… not one really faces financial obstacles to exercising his or her creativity.”
Conservative critics pointed out that many of the grantees were well-known for their liberal and left-wing political activism: the ACLU’s Morton Halperin, Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, global population control advocate John Holdren, leader of the unilateral nuclear freeze movement Randall Forsberg, and founders of the socialist periodical Dissent Irving Howe and Meyer Schapiro. Additional fellows included advocates for a variety of left-of-center causes including homelessness, environmentalism, abolishing the death penalty, prisoners’ rights, and the peace movement. Writing in U.S. News & World Report, John Leo described MacArthur fellows as “gender ideologues” and “low-luster laborers in the traditional vineyards of the left.” Sam Worley, Deputy Editor of the leftist “alternative” weekly Chicago Reader, exclaimed, “There could hardly be a more liberal grant than the MacArthur Fellowship.”
Another initiative spearheaded by Roderick in 1980 was the foundation’s $19 million bailout of failing Harper’s Magazine. A few years later, the foundation turned the magazine over to a new Harper’s Magazine Foundation, and Roderick’s son Rick was named publisher. With Rick MacArthur at the helm, Harper’s Magazine took a sharp turn leftward.
The foundation’s first president, John Corbally, supported Roderick’ MacArthur’s left-of-center agenda and launched initiatives in support of public radio, peace and security, mental health, and the environment.
Adele Simmons Era
Adele Simmons became president in 1989 after twelve years as president of Hampshire College, an experimental alternative school providing “individualized” learning, no strict curriculum requirements, and “narrative evaluations” rather than traditional grades. Simmons launched the foundation’s Population Program, paving the way for tens of millions of dollars in grants to abortion providers or advocates including Planned Parenthood, the Population Council, and the Population Reference Bureau.
During Simmons’s tenure, the foundation awarded $100,000 to a juvenile justice reform program led by former Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn. In the 1960s, Dohrn had celebrated as a “revolutionary” act the murder of Sharon Tate by the Charles Manson “family,” and her Underground had at one point “declared war” on the United States.
Expansion of Liberal Grantmaking
MacArthur’s third president Jonathan Fanton (1999-2009), oversaw grants to organizations that opposed the death penalty, advocated for increased environmental regulation, supported public housing programs, and funded the International Criminal Court.  Fanton’s successor, Robert Gallucci (2009-2014) launched the Democracy project, which provided over $30 million to leftist organizations focused on voting rights.
Under the leadership of Julia Stasch, president since 2014, the foundation has focused its grantmaking on what it calls “Big Bets.” These programs include Climate Solutions, Criminal Justice, Impact Investments, and Nuclear Challenges. In 2014, the foundation categorized its grantmaking in the U.S. as follows: $20.5 million for Juvenile Justice, $25 million for Digital Media & Learning, $15 million for Community & Economic Development, and $9.5 million for Housing. Internationally, the foundation granted $20.5 million to Conservation & Sustainable Development, $17.6 million to Human Rights & International Justice, $11.3 million to Population and Reproductive Health, and $15.5 million to International Peace & Security.
MacArthur advocates for placing “a price on carbon,” curbing methane emissions, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, increasing the use of renewable sources, and securing international climate agreements. A primary mechanism for pursuing these goals has been the foundation’s participation in the Energy Foundation, a collaborative “pass-through” effort launched in 1991 with the Pew Charitable Trusts and Rockefeller Foundation. The Energy Foundation bundles donations in order to make big grants to radical environmentalist and other left-wing causes, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, Sierra Club Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund, U.S. Climate Action Network, and Center For American Progress. Between 1991 and 2018, the MacArthur Foundation provided more than $84 million to the Energy Foundation.”
Additionally, between 2015 and 2018, MacArthur Foundation gave $13.5 million to the environmentalist “pass-through” bundler ClimateWorks and tens of millions of dollars more to left-of-center groups like Earthworks, Natural Resources Defense Council, Climate Group, Environmental Defense Fund, New Venture Fund, World Resources Institute, Climate Central, ecoAmerica, and Sierra Club.
A primary mechanism for pursuing its criminal justice goals is MacArthur’s Safety and Justice Challenge, which funds projects throughout the U.S. that develop plans for “creating fairer, more effective local justice systems using innovative, collaborative, and evidence-based solutions.” Among the 2017 applications funded is Mayors for Smart on Crime, an initiative of the liberal Center for American Progress founded by Democratic Party operative John Podesta. Led by 10 liberal Democratic mayors, including New York City’s Bill de Blasio, the initiative rejects “outdated tough on crime approaches” because they are “short-sighted, ineffective, and disproportionate in their effect on black and Latino communities.” Instead, Mayors for Smart on Crime calls for “fair laws,” “just and proportional responses,” and “comprehensive approaches outside of the justice system—in public and behavioral health, education, jobs, and housing.” Participating mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, the Democratic mayor of Gary, Indiana, said, “If we continue to use law enforcement centered solutions, we will get the same mixed results and we will continue to lose valuable human potential.”
Another example of the MacArthur Foundation’s preference for left-wing approaches to criminal justice is its support for the Brennan Center for Justice report, “Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Jails: Recommendations for Local Practice.” The report alleged that disparities in arrest and incarceration rates were related to the controversial concept of “implicit racial bias” and proposed numerous methods to reduce this supposed bias.
MacArthur also funds an effort to produce journalists sympathetic to its approach to criminal justice reform. In 2017, the foundation gave $200,000 to the left-leaning Poynter Institute “to design and convene a series of regional workshops for reporters… aimed at providing them with the practical skills, technical assistance, and access to sources they need in order to report effectively on local criminal justice systems and jail overuse.” MacArthur’s hope is that these workshops will help reporters produce stories on their local criminal justice systems, increasing public hostility to current incarceration levels.
While MacArthur Foundation does provide some grants to centrist organizations like the Center for Strategic and International Studies and center-right organizations like the Hudson Institute to study nuclear non-proliferation, most of the foundation’s grants go to left-leaning organizations like the Brookings Institution, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Center for Public Integrity, Federation of American Scientists, Fund for Constitutional Government, Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation and Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Ploughshares Fund, and Natural Resources Defense Council.
MacArthur launched an American Democracy project from 2012-2016, granting more than $30 million to mostly left-leaning advocacy organizations focused on voting rights. Grantees included the American Civil Liberties Union, American Democracy Program, Advancement Project, Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, Democracy 21, Voting Rights Institute, and Justice at Stake. Recipients of American Democracy grants have advocated for automatic voter registration, elimination of photo identification requirements, minimum early voting periods, restoring voting rights to criminals with felony convictions, public financing of presidential and congressional elections, and government funding of political campaigns.  
Board Chair Marjorie Scardino
Born in the United States, Marjorie Scardino was president of the U.K.-based publisher Pearson which owned the Financial Times and book publisher Penguin Group, from 1997 to 2012. She was the first woman to become chief executive of an FTSE 100 company. In 2013, Scardino was made a board director of Twitter. Scardino was a practicing lawyer from 1976 to 1985, publisher of the Georgia Gazette from 1978 to 1985, and President of North American operations and then CEO of The Economist Group Limited between 1985 to 1996.
President John Palfrey
In 2019, MacArthur Foundation announced that former Harvard professor, former executive director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, and then-Head of School for the northeastern preparatory boarding school Phillips Academy Andover, would take over as president of the foundation.
Former President Julia Stasch
Julia Stasch joined the MacArthur Foundation in 2001 as vice president for U.S. programs where she was responsible for programs focused on justice, housing, education, community and economic development, and social and economic policy. Prior to joining the foundation, she served as Department of Housing Commissioner for the City of Chicago and Chief of Staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley (D). During President Bill Clinton’s first term, Stasch served as Deputy Administrator of the General Services Administration.