The Aileen K. and Brian L. Roberts Foundation is the family foundation of Brian L. Roberts, who became president of Comcast in 1990 and CEO of Comcast in 2002 and whose father, Ralph Roberts, founded Comcast in 1963. The foundation funds a wide variety of causes, with emphasis on Jewish philanthropy and education in Philadelphia. In addition, the foundation is the philanthropic vehicle that enabled Aileen Roberts to join the board of the Barnes Foundation, a prominent Philadelphia art museum, in 2005 and rise to become Barnes Foundation chairman in 2021.
The Roberts Foundation has long supported Jewish causes. In 2009 the foundation, along with Ralph J. Roberts, helped to restore the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue (named for Roberts’s maternal grandfather) at the long-closed Eastern State Penitentiary. 1 In a 2014 interview for the Jewish newspaper Forward, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (D) said that Roberts’s “commitment to religion and Jewish causes is like every other thing he does: it is extremely personal and low-profile.” 2
The Roberts Foundation’s two largest single grants were both related to medicine. In 2006 the Roberts Foundation, donated $15 million to the University of Pennsylvania for the Roberts Proton Therapy Center, which opened in 2009. Roberts’s parents, Ralph and Suzanne Roberts, provided additional donations. Proton therapy is a form of cancer treatment, and Aileen Roberts is a breast cancer survivor. 3 In 2016, the foundation, collaborating with several members of the Roberts family donated $25 million to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for the Roberts Collaborative for Genetics and Individualized Medicine, which specializes in genetics research in diseases affecting children. 4
The Roberts Foundation also gives to the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, the supporting organization for donors to Philadelphia public schools. The Roberts Foundation is credited by the fund with donations of over a million dollars, along with the Lenfest and William Penn Foundations, the Vanguard Group, and the Philadelphia 76ers. 5 In March 2020, the Roberts Foundation donated $5 million to the fund as the largest donor to an $11 million effort to buy 50,000 Chromebooks for students engaging in virtual learning during COVID-19 pandemic-related school closures. 6
Barnes Foundation Associations
In 1922 Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) created the Barnes Foundation as a museum to display his art collection. He left a very specific set of instructions in his deed of trust, including prohibitions on moving the collection from its home in the Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion Township, changing the way the pictures and other objects were displayed on the walls, acquiring any other art, or loaning the art in the museum’s collection to any other institution. Barnes declared that these restrictions “are unamendable and shall never be amended in any manner whatsoever,”7
By 1990 most of the trustees appointed by Barnes had retired and their replacements began a systematic repudiation of Barnes’s intentions. This process accelerated in 2002, when the museum’s board allied with the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lenfest and Annenberg Foundations to begin a successful legal campaign to move the museum from the Philadelphia suburbs to a larger facility in downtown Philadelphia. They were joined by Comcast and the Roberts Foundation which in that year jointly made a $2 million donation to the Barnes Foundation.
In 2004, the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania Orphans’ Court voided many of the prohibitions Barnes made in his deed of trust, including one limiting the Barnes Foundation board to five members. 8 Aileen Roberts joined the expanded Barnes Foundation board in 2005. 9
In 2012 Aileen Roberts, along with Barnes Foundation trustee Joseph Neubauer, received the Philadelphia Award, a civic award administered by the Independence Foundation, for her work in moving the Barnes Foundation to downtown Philadelphia. This work included placing the museum in a dramatically expanded space hat included exhibitions by artists whose works were not part of the Barnes Foundation, a direct violation of Albert Barnes’s wishes. Aileen Roberts told the Philadelphia Inquirer her work included selecting the architects for the new building, a process that included visiting 25-30 museums in the U.S. to study these museums’ architecture. 10
In 2019 the Roberts Foundation donated $5 million to a $100 million Barnes Foundation capital campaign scheduled to be completed in 2022. Other contributors included $10 million from the Neubauer Family Foundation, $5 million from the Maguire Foundation, and $2.5 million from the Knight Foundation. 11
In February 2021 Aileen Roberts was named chair of the Barnes Foundation board. 12
- Jon Hurdle, “Synagogue Restored in Historic Philadelphia Prison,” New York Times, March 28, 2009.
- Nathan Guttman, “Brian Roberts’ Jewish Roots and Outsized Ambition Drive Comcast’s Rise in Media,” Forward, March 2, 2014, https://forward.com/news/193521/brian-roberts-jewish-roots-and-outsized-ambition-d/ (accessed May 19, 2021)
- Miriam Hill, “Roberts Family’s Grateful Donation,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 6, 2006.
- Marie McCullough, “CHOP, Comcast Founders Announce $50 Million Genetics Initiative, Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 2016.
- “Our Investors,” Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, http://thefundsdp.org/about-us/investors (accessed May 19, 2021)
- Kristen A. Graham, “Robertses Tell of Tech Donation,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 23, 2020.
- Martin Morse Wooster, How Great Philanthropists Failed and You Can Succeed In Protecting Your Legacy (Washington, D.C: Capital Research Center, 2017), 110.
- Martin Morse Wooster, How Great Philanthropists Failed And You Can Succeed In Protecting Your Legacy (Washington: Capital Research Center, 2017), 131.
- Patricia Horn, “Barnes Adds Five To Board As Part of Its Expansion,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 21, 2005.
- Peter Dobrin, “Philadelphia Award Goes To Aileen Roberts, Joseph Neubauer,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 20, 2012.
- Peter Dobrin, “Goal: $100 Million,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 23, 2019.
- “Aileen Roberts Named Chair of the Barnes Foundation Board of Trustees,” press released from the Barnes Foundation, February 22, 2021, https://www.barnesfoundation.org/press/press-releases/aileen-roberts-elected-chair-of-the-board (accessed May 19, 2021)