By 2008, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation had $7,000,000,000 in assets and donated $300,000,000 per year. In its first thirty years of operation, from 1978 to 2008, the MacArthur Foundation had made over 18,500 grants worth a total of approximately $3,800,000,000 to 7,100 recipients in fifty-eight countries.
The General Program gives grants in fields such as public radio, documentary-making, digital technologies, and cultural institutions in Chicago. The Program on Human and Community Development is focused on domestic issues, such as the preservation of affordable rental housing, education (including the use of digital media in teaching), and policy research.
The Program on Global Security and Sustainability is focused on foreign or international issues, "including human rights and international justice, peace and security, conservation and sustainable development, higher education in Nigeria and Russia, migration and human mobility, and population and reproductive health." As of 2008, the MacArthur Foundation had offices in Chicago; Mexico City; New Delhi, India; Abuja, Nigeria; and Moscow.
John Donald MacArthur (1897-1978) was one of the three wealthiest men in the United States at the time of his death, the sole owner of the largest privately held insurance company in the United States - Chicago-based Bankers Life & Casualty Company - and the owner of real estate holdings in New York and Florida, as well as oil, textile, and real estate development companies. He was born in Pennsylvania, one of seven children of Rev. William Telfer MacArthur, an itinerant Baptist preacher, and Georgiana Welsted MacArthur.
Three of his brothers survived childhood and became successful in different areas. Alfred MacArthur became an insurance executive.
Tefler MacArthur became a publishing executive. Charles Gordon MacArthur (1895-1956) became a journalist, playwright, and screenwriter.
The latter married famed state-and-screen actress Helen Hayes (1900-1993). They adopted James MacArthur (1937-2010), who is best remembered as Detective Dan "Danno" Williams on Hawaii Five-0 (1968-1979).
When he was sixteen, John D. MacArthur left school to move to Chicago to join his elder brother Alfred in the insurance industry. The year he turned nineteen, he sold over $1,000,000 in insurance policies.
With his first wife, Louise Ingals, whom he divorced in 1926, John D. MacArthur had two children: J. Roderick "Rod" MacArthur (1920-1984) and Virginia MacArthur. Rod MacArthur founded the Bradford Exchange.
He established the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation (sometimes called "Little Mac") with assets of approximately $22,000,000. [One of the major beneficiaries of Little Mac was the A.C.L.U.] In 1985, his family founded the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, as a public interest law firm, at the Northwestern University School of Law
In 1928, John D. MacArthur married his second wife. One of five children, Catherine T. MacArthur (1908-1901) was born to Irish immigrants who settled on the South Side of Chicago. Active in the Democratic Party, her father held several posts in state and local governments and also owned retail stores at various points in his life.
The same year he married Catherine Hyland, a thirty-year-old John D. MacArthur purchased the Marquette Life Insurance Company. [It was located in the Marquette Building at 140 South Dearborn Street, where The John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is now headquartered.] Seven years later, in 1935, he borrowed $2,500 to acquire the financially impaired Bankers Life & Casualty Company of Chicago.
He was good at purchasing troubled insurance agencies and turning them around. One of his innovations was to replace door-to-door insurance salesmen with mass mailings.
By 1940, Bankers Life & Casualty Company had over $1,000,000 in assets. By 1977, assets had surpassed $1,000,000,000. When he died in 1978, MacArthur's insurance companies had over 3,000,000 policyholders, with $5,500,000,000 of insurance in force, and a sales staff of over 5,000 agents and brokers.
Mrs. MacArthur initially kept the books for her husband, often keeping a low profile. She would use her initials and maiden name, C.T. Hyland. When John met her, she was a secretary in Alfred's company.
In some of John's companies, Catherine served as a director, and in others as corporate secretary. She was one of the founding directors of the MacArthur Foundation.
In 1958, John & Catherine MacArthur moved to Florida. In the 1960s, he began to invest heavily in real estate. His landholdings included 100,000 acres of land in Florida (most of which was in or near Palm Springs and Sarasota), shopping centers, hotels, and nineteen buildings in New York City.
Over the course of his life, he also owned real estate development companies, paper and pulp companies, publishing companies, radio and television stations, banks, and nineteen insurance companies. For the last twenty years of his life, he mostly lived and worked in one of the hotels he owned, the Colonnades Beach Hotel, on Singer Island, in Palm Beach Shores, Florida.
John & Catherine MacArthur were billionaires, yet their home was a small apartment that overlooked a hotel parking lot. He conducted business at a table in the coffee shop.
John D. MacArthur's lawyer, William T. Kirby (1911-1990), convinced John D. MacArthur to establish the MacArthur Foundation and to transfer most of his enormous wealth to it upon his death. In 1970, John MacArthur, Catherine MacArthur, and Bankers Life & Casualty Company CFO Paul D. Doolan signed documents to establish The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The founding members of the Board of Directors in 1970 included Catherine MacArthur, Rod MacArthur, Kirby, and the popular radio host Paul Harvey (1918-2009), who was a pitchman for the insurance company. Doolan served as the first Chairman of the Board.
In 1978, following the death of John D. MacArthur, the MacArthur Foundation became active. The MacArthur Foundation assumed control of Bankers Life, which had assets of approximately $1,000,000,000.
That first year, the MacArthur Foundation made its first grants. The recipients were Amnesty International and the California League of Cities. Meanwhile the assets from the Citizens Bank & Trust Company of Park Ridge went to establish the Retirement Research Foundation.
One of the original board members, John E. Corbally, former President of the University of Illinois, served as President of the MacArthur Foundation from 1979 to 1989. Corbally, Rod MacArthur, and William Kirby pushed for the establishment of the MacArthur Fellowships (popularly known as "MacArthur Genius Grants"). These are five-year, unrestricted grants. This is called The MacArthur Fellows Program, and the MacArthur Foundation established it in 1979.
That same year, the MacArthur Foundation established the Health Program to focus on mental health, the Special Grants Program (later renamed the Community Initiatives Program) to give grants to cultural and community activities in Chicago, and the General Grants Program to address other concerns not covered by the other three programs. The Health Program made $15,2000,000 in its first two years.
In 1980, the MacArthur Foundation gave eighty-two acres of oceanfront property in Palm Beach County, valued at $22,100,000, to the State of Florida for the John D. MacArthur Beach State Park. That same year, the MacArthur Foundation awarded a $1,000,000 grant to help establish the Chicago office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (now known as LISC Chicago) to improve low-income neighborhoods.
Kirby, who had earned two degrees at the University of Notre Dame and served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, was a partner in the law firm Hubachek, Kelly, Rauch & Kirby from 1965 to 1980. He resigned to devote all his energies to the MacArthur Foundation.
In 1980, Rod MacArthur and his son, John R. "Rick" MacArthur, convinced the Board of Trustees to create the Harper's Magazine Foundation as a separate entity to continue publication of Harper's Magazine after the magazine's parent company, the Minneapolis Star & Tribune Company, announced that year it would cease publication of Harper's Magazine. The oldest general-interest magazine in the United States, Harper's Magazine debuted in 1850.
The John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation spent $12,200,000 on this initiative. In 1984, Rick MacArthur became President of the Harper's Magazine Foundation and Publisher of Harper's Magazine, a post he still holds.
When she died in 1981, one of Catherine MacArthur's charitable bequests was $12,000,000 she left Palm Beach Atlantic University. She and her husband had supported the school in life.
That same year, the MacArthur Foundation announced the first class of MacArthur Fellows. The forty-one recipients included historians, scientists, novelists, and poets.
In 1982, the MacArthur Foundation awarded a group led by former Carter Administration official Gus Speth $15,000,000 to establish the World Resources Institute (W.R.I.) "to educate decision makers about the scientific basis for global warming," as described on the WRI's Web site and in "30 Years of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation." Over the years, the MacArthur Foundation has awarded the WRI over $43,000,000.
In 1983, the MacArthur Foundation launched a major initiative to fight parasitic diseases and created its first research networks of scientists, practitioners, and policy experts to investigate the roots of mental illness. That same year, the MacArthur Foundation began support for ShoreBank on the South Side of Chicago, the first and largest community development bank in the U.S. By 2008, the MacArthur Foundation had awarded more than $275,000,000 in grants to ShoreBank, which was profitable until it failed in 2010.