Pew: 70 Years of Committed Public Service

  • March 05, 2018
  • by Howard Lavine

From ocean conservation to pension reform, Pew worked to improve policy, inform the public, and invigorate civic life.

Editor’s Recommendation

Highlights From 70 Years of Pew

Winter 2018

In the public’s imagination, 1948 will likely be remembered for one iconic headline: ‘Dewey Defeats Truman.’ Of course, he didn’t. But other important historical and cultural events did take place in 1948: creation of the World Health Organization, sale of the first Polaroid camera, desegregation of the armed forces, enactment of the Marshall Plan, and the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, which returned after a 12-year absence because of World War II. Amid these world-changing events, J. Howard Pew, Mary Ethel Pew, Joseph Newton Pew Jr., and Mabel Pew Myrin—four children of Joseph Newton Pew Sr., founder of Sun Oil Co., and Mary Anderson Pew—created without fanfare The Pew Memorial Foundation to honor their parents’ legacy and values. 

The Pew Memorial Foundation was incorporated on Feb. 6, 1948, and capitalized with 800,000 shares of Sun Oil stock with a value of approximately $50 million. The board—which included the four founders and three other family members—decided that it would focus its philanthropy on science, charity, religion, and education. The board members also committed to make their giving anonymous, following the biblical admonition that charity should be done in secret.

The first check written by The Pew Memorial Foundation was for $30,000 to the American Red Cross. Adjusted for inflation, it would be over $300,000 today. Other grant recipients in 1948 included the Institute for Cancer Research, now part of the Fox Chase Cancer Center; the American Biblical Society; and Grove City College. By year’s end, the foundation had awarded grants totaling $582,500.

Over the next eight years, the foundation made 181 grants totaling $12.5 million, which would be more than $100 million today. This rapid growth convinced the founders and their board colleagues that they needed a professional staff capable of managing the foundation’s assets and administering its grants. In 1956, they chartered The Glenmede Trust Co., whose sole purpose at the time was to manage The Pew Memorial Trust—created the following year.

Over the next two decades, the founders established six more trusts. These seven constitute what is today The Pew Charitable Trusts, and their early gifts helped support hospitals, religious organizations, and colleges and universities, including a pioneering effort on behalf of historically black schools.

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The Sun Oil Company opened a filling station in the western Philadelphia suburbs in 1920, the first of what soon became 500 under the familiar Sunoco name. Stock from the corporation would later fund Pew's first philanthropic foray into science, charity, religion, and education. (The Hagley Museum and Library)

From 1957 to 1969, the seven trusts awarded more than 2,500 grants totaling $64.6 million, making them one of the largest and most important grant-makers in the United States. 

By 1970, a new set of challenges was facing the world as the public’s concern for the environment grew. That year the world celebrated the first Earth Day, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created. In response to this growing movement to protect the world’s natural resources, the Trusts began funding projects at regional conservancies, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the International Oceanographic Foundation. This commitment to environmental protection grew and developed into a major policy area for Pew.

In 1979 alone, the Trusts gave $51 million in grants, nearly as much as it gave throughout the 1960s. But as the size and diversity of grants continued to grow, the organization’s leadership faced two questions: Were brick-and-mortar building projects the most effective way to advance the founders’ philanthropic mission? And did the increased level of giving require professional expertise that the board did not have?

When R. Anderson Pew, a grandnephew of J. Howard Pew, began his tenure as chair of the board of directors in 1978, he helped set a new strategic direction for the institution. Grants would no longer only go to organizations that appealed for help. The Trusts began to initiate projects—and find organizations capable of implementing them. This marked the beginning of a new form of philanthropy: investments based on ideas developed by staff or outside experts, and often implemented with the help of an advisory panel. By 1989, these sorts of projects covered approximately 25 percent of the Trusts’ grants, and the organization had become the nation’s second-largest private foundation as measured by giving.

Some of these projects focused on the education of health professionals and health policy research. This led to the creation of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. The first class of scholars was announced in 1985, and the program still supports the research of outstanding early-career scientists.

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Dr. James Holland served as a consultant on interracial matters during Pew's early days, helping to create a program that promoted equal opportunity through support of African-American institutions of higher learning, which continued through the 1990s. (Delaware State University)

In keeping with its long-standing recognition that evolution and reinvention were essential to remaining effective in meeting new societal challenges, Pew’s leadership in the 1990s decided to concentrate on issues where the institution could bring about consequential outcomes. This meant focusing on challenges in which the facts, data, and science were clear and pointed to a solution; where Pew could add unique value; bipartisan consensus could be built; and the impact would be measurable and long-lasting. It began to create organizations that could accomplish specific cultural, civic, research, and policy objectives. 

One was the Pew Health Professions Commission, charged with improving the health care system by identifying new ways to train and deploy health professionals. Another, created in 1994, was the National Environmental Trust, which organized and supported national public education campaigns to inform citizens about attempts to dismantle protections of endangered species, weaken standards for drinking water, and eliminate pollution regulations.

In 1998, Pew gave a three-year grant to the University of Richmond to establish the Pew Center on the States, which became the platform for the Trusts’ robust research portfolio examining state policy and offering states assistance in the development, implementation, and evaluation of their programs. And a year later, it funded the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which continues to track the evolution of the internet and interesting developments online under the umbrella of the Pew Research Center.

Launched in 2000, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life became another platform for original research. Also part of the Pew Research Center today, it conducts surveys, demographic analyses, and other research about the practice of religion and its place in American life and around the globe.

At the same time, Pew’s bond with the city of Philadelphia continued to deepen: The board’s first meeting in 1948 had been held in the Sun Oil building on Walnut Street in Philadelphia. In 1987, the Trusts took up residence in an office on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and in 1992 moved into a new home on 21st and Market streets.

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The Swann Memorial Fountain marks the center of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Starting in 2001, the popular Philadelphia thoroughfare received an 11-year long facelift, supported by the city, the state, civic-minded foundations, and Pew to make it more attractive and user-friendly. (David Grahae, Time & Life pictures, Getty Images)

Although Pew has grown over the past 70 years and now, in addition to Philadelphia, maintains offices in Washington, D.C., London, and other cities around the world, it remains committed to supporting the people and institutions of the city that launched its philanthropy and investment philosophy. In 1996, for example, the Trusts joined with the city and state to help launch the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., now called Visit Philadelphia. And the Trusts also helped raise funds to renovate Independence Mall, including a new Liberty Bell Center. 

Pew’s support for the great symbols of American democracy has not been limited to Philadelphia. The Trusts invested in the Founding Fathers Project, whose principle goal is to transcribe, annotate, and make widely available on the internet the papers of America’s founding fathers. Pew made a substantial donation toward the design and testing of a new casement for America’s founding documents at the National Archives—and a state-of-the-art gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to protect and display the flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 

Pew’s connection to Philadelphia is not just about tourism and history. It is also very much about people. The Pew Fund for Health and Human Services helps to ensure that the region’s most vulnerable residents receive much-needed assistance by supporting a range of programs that serve vulnerable adults; disadvantaged children, youth, and families; and the frail elderly. Since its inception more than 25 years ago, the Pew Fund has awarded nearly $220 million to approximately 320 nonprofit organizations. And since its beginning in 2008, the Philadelphia research initiative has provided timely, impartial data and analysis to help residents and elected leaders address critical social and economic issues facing the city.

With the dawn of the 21st century, Pew would look to reinvent itself again. In 2002, the organization became a public charity, allowing it to develop new tools and new ways of operating, take advantage of economies of scale, raise substantial outside funding, and increase the return on investment. 

In practice, this meant that Pew began to operate projects directly with its own staff. The National Environmental Trust and the Campaign for America’s Wilderness, which had been created as independent entities, were brought in-house, providing continuity but also new policy and advocacy expertise. Around the same time, Pew created the public safety performance project to help states advance fiscally sound, research-based policies and practices in sentencing and corrections. It has helped 33 states revise their sentencing and corrections laws, holding offenders accountable while reducing recidivism rates and saving states billions of dollars. 

In addition to corrections policy, the Trusts’ national policy agenda in the early 2000s included improving the safety of food, drugs, and medical devices; raising the quality of food and snacks served in schools; reducing the use of antibiotics in animal feed; and providing consumers with better information about financial products. 

“The secret of its successes,” Duke University philanthropy scholar Joel L. Fleishman has written about Pew, “lies in a combination of its commitments to ongoing rigorous empirical research, its carefully designed and beautifully implemented strategies over an extended period that marry strategically shaped commission and high-quality expert knowledge, and its energetic development of high-quality relationships with major policymakers relevant to its many issues of concern.” 

In 2004, Pew established the Pew Research Center as the umbrella organization for public opinion polling, demographic research, and other empirical social science research. In addition to religion and internet research, its other areas of emphasis include study of Hispanics in the U.S., global attitudes, journalism, and the role of science in society. 

A year later, the Trusts established the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to support artists and arts and heritage organizations in southeastern Pennsylvania. The center has since awarded over $126 million in grants to artists and arts institutions. Pew also successfully advocated for increasing public access to the Barnes Foundation’s world-class art collection by supporting relocation of the artwork to an award-winning new building on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

In 2006, Pew’s economic mobility project began to gather data on the ability of Americans to move up the economic ladder. A year later, the project issued the first of many reports on the state of the American Dream.

That same year, Pew began researching state and local pension promises and found a billion-dollar gap between funding and the promises made to public sector workers. Drawing on this research—and with the understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all solution—Pew now provides technical assistance to policymakers considering ways to ensure that their retirement systems are affordable and sustainable—and put workers on the path to a secure retirement. 

In 2008, the Trusts determined that there was no standardized, reliable, nationwide source for information about where and when to vote, and what is on the ballot. That was the beginning of a partnership with leading technology companies to provide that information online—and easily—to voters. And in the 2016 election, voting information was accessed 123 million times.

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Pew's conservation work helps protect vast swaths of Canada's pristine boreal forest. (Getty Images/Minden Pictures)

Meanwhile, Pew’s work on behalf of the environment begun in the 1970s was continuing to have impact. The organization’s efforts are credited with saving tens of millions of acres of pristine American landscapes critical to preserving clean water, safeguarding habitat, and providing opportunities for outdoor recreation—while benefiting local economies at the same time.

This strategy is also being carried out globally. With partners, Pew is working to conserve Canada’s boreal forest and Australia’s Outback. It is also working on marine policy, promoting sustainable fisheries, seeking to safeguard sensitive marine habitats, and protecting vulnerable marine biodiversity. These efforts build upon findings in 2003 from the Pew Oceans Commission that determined “the oceans are in crisis” and issued a series of recommendations for a new oceans policy that emphasized conservation. 

Pew and its partners launched the Global Ocean Legacy project in 2006 to promote the world’s first generation of permanently protected marine reserves. This has led to nine parks in the sea around the globe. This work continues in partnership with the Bertarelli Foundation as the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, which seeks creation of six more large marine reserves by 2022.

In scope and in staff, Pew has continued to grow and do consequential work. The Trusts helped win passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the strongest overhaul of protections of Americans’ food supply since the Great Depression, and continued to work for its successful implementation. More recently, major poultry producers and restaurant chains—in close collaboration with Pew—have agreed to limit or end their unnecessary use of antibiotics that are important to public health. In the worldwide fight against illegal fishing, Pew and its partners have seen significant successes—from expanded use of identification numbers for tracking vessels, to partnering with Interpol to fight fisheries crime, to Project Eyes on the Seas, a space-based radar system used to detect illegal fishing activities.

And that is just a partial list.

In just the past few years, as Pew has continued to reinvent itself to address the issues of the day, it has invested in new projects aimed at helping prepare communities for flooding, seeking improved maintenance of the national parks, and addressing the opioid epidemic. It is a diverse set of problems. But Pew—at 70 years old—responds to these and many other challenges with a nonpartisan, evidence-driven approach that can bring results on behalf of the nation and the world. 

That was true in 1948 and remains true today.