The Commonwealth Fund has its origins in the philanthropic efforts of the Harkness family. Stephen V. Harkness began his career in New York State's Finger Lake region at age 15 as an apprentice harnessmaker. Harkness eventually settled in Ohio and became a successful businessman. He invested early in the petroleum refining business and provided funds at a critical moment in the history of the fledgling Standard Oil Company.
Anna Harkness, like her husband Stephen, had a strong civic spirit and believed in encouraging all forms of self-help. In the years following her husband's death in 1888, she moved her family to New York City where she gave liberally to religious and welfare organizations, and to the city's major cultural institutions. And yet she felt keenly the shortcomings of such unstructured personal giving.
In 1918, Anna Harkness founded The Commonwealth Fund with the mandate that it should "do something for the welfare of mankind." Among the first women to establish a foundation, Anna initially endowed her new philanthropic enterprise with a gift of nearly $10 million. The Fund's first president was her son, Edward Stephen Harkness, who shared his mother's commitment to building a responsive and socially concerned philanthropy and who, over the years, gave generously to the Fund's endowment.
As a first step, Edward hired a staff of talented and experienced people to help him. As president of The Commonwealth Fund for 22 years, he led that staff to rethink old ways, experiment with fresh ideas, and take chances, a path encouraged by each successive generation of the board of directors.
Through additional gifts and bequests between 1918 and 1959, the Harkness family's total contribution to the Fund's endowment amounted to more than $53 million.
Throughout its history and in keeping with its donors' intent, The Commonwealth Fund has sought to be a catalyst for change by identifying promising practices and contributing to solutions that could help the U.S. achieve a high performance health system. The Fund's role has been to establish a base of scientific evidence on what works, mobilize talented people to transform health care organizations, and collaborate with organizations that share its concerns.
The Fund's work has always focused particularly on the challenges vulnerable populations face in receiving high quality, safe, compassionate, coordinated, and efficiently delivered care. The foundation's communications efforts have enabled it to share knowledge and experience and reach influential audiences able to push forward the necessary agenda for achieving a high performance health system. As an independent, nonpartisan organization, the foundation has aimed to identify areas of agreement and help develop common ground from which policymakers across the political spectrum can lead the nation towards a health care system that assures long, healthy, and productive lives.
History of Fund Work
The Fund's work in the 1920s led to the development of the field of child guidance and contributed to the emergence of progressive public health departments in communities around the country. From the late 1920s through the 1940s, the Fund supported the construction of rural hospitals meeting high standards of care, and in doing so laid the way for the federal Hill-Burton Act, which in 1946 initiated a program of hospital construction and improvement. Always mindful of the long-term payoff of investments in people, the Fund launched in 1925 an international program—initially called Commonwealth Fund Fellowships, later changed to the Harkness Fellowships—bringing young professionals from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and other English-speaking countries to the United States for extended study and travel.
Following World War II, the Fund supported the development of new medical schools in the United States, with the aim of addressing doctor shortages and the needs of communities lacking health care services. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Fund contributed significantly to the movement of the time to bring health care to underserved communities, including troubled urban areas. Following a period of encouraging improved medical school curricula in the late 1970s, the foundation played a major role in the 1980s in stimulating the patient-centered care movement and bringing attention to the problems facing elderly Americans, as well as the challenges confronting the nation's academic health centers. The Fund also maintained its early interest in youth development in this period by helping stimulate organized youth mentoring programs.
Since 1995, the Fund has concentrated its efforts on helping to address health care coverage and access issues and on improving the quality and efficiency of health care. It also has used its longstanding international base to stimulate exchanges and collaborations among developed countries on health policy and practices.
Throughout its history, the Fund has been a value-added grantmaker, employing a professional staff to work closely with grantees in developing and implementing projects and communicating their results to influential audiences.
We welcome you to watch a slide show celebrating The Commonwealth Fund's 90th Anniversary, which was marked in 2008.
Jean and Harvey Picker
In 1986, Jean and Harvey Picker joined the $15 million assets of the James Picker Foundation with those of The Commonwealth Fund. James Picker, a prime contributor to the development of the American radiologic profession, had founded the Picker X-ray Corporation, an industry leader in its field. Recognizing the challenges faced by a small foundation, the Pickers chose the Fund as an institution with a common interest in improving health care and a record of effective grantmaking, management, and leadership. The Commonwealth Fund strives to do justice to the philosophy and standards of the Picker family by shaping programs that further the cause of good care and healthy lives for all Americans. (A video tribute to Harvey Picker, produced by the Picker Foundation, is available on the Fund Web site.)
Health Services Improvement Fund
In April 1996, the Fund received a $1.7 million contribution from the Health Services Improvement Fund with a commitment to use these funds to improve health care coverage, access, and quality in the New York City greater metropolitan region.
Frances Cooke Macgregor
Frances Cooke Macgregor began giving small gifts to the Fund in 1999 to support work on iatrogenic medicine issues. In her 2002 bequest to the Fund, she added $3.1 million to the endowment to help support projects that aim to reduce medical errors and improve patient safety.
A pioneer in the fields of medical sociology and medical anthropology, Ms. Macgregor was an expert on the psychological and sociological effects of facial disfigurement. She became interested in this issue during the 1940s, when she encountered patients disfigured by cancer and pilots whose faces had been shattered or burned during World War II.
In March 2009, The Commonwealth Fund received an unanticipated bequest of $100,000 from the estate of Ms. Floriana Hogan of Boca Raton, Florida. Ms. Hogan was an educator and her husband was a physician. They resided in Massachusetts prior to their retirement and admired the Fund's work to advance a high performance U.S. health system. The funds will be added to the foundation's endowment.
While The Commonwealth Fund does not solicit funds, it has received periodic smaller gifts from individuals over the years, including shares of royalties received from books published by former grantees.
The Commonwealth Fund received its historic headquarters building as a bequest in 1951 from the estate of Mary Stillman Harkness, daughter-in-law of the foundation's founder, Anna Harkness. The Fund took occupancy of the building in that year, and has used it as its offices since that time.
Designed by the architect James Gamble Rogers, the building was constructed as the residence of Edward and Mary Stillman Harkness between 1906 and 1908, and was a gift to them from his mother, Anna Harkness. Much of the business of the Fund was conducted from this building during the period that Edward S. Harkness was president of the Fund, 1918 until his death in 1940.
Known as "Harkness House," One East 75th Street in New York City received landmark status in 1967. The Landmarks Preservation Commission's designation described the building as "an imposing residence in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo . . . outstanding not only for excellence of design and beauty of execution, but also for subtle richness of detail." Landmarks designation was accorded "because Harkness House has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City." In a 1987 essay on the building, architecture critic Paul Goldberger described Harkness House as "a notable presence on the cityscape of New York," and, noting the care that has been given to its maintenance, observed that "the preservation of one of New York's most distinguished houses can, in and of itself, be a philanthropic gesture that enriches the quality of life for the entire city."
The donor's expectation that The Commonwealth Fund would use this distinguished building to advance the foundation's mission continues to be fulfilled, as the architectural stature and location of the building, along with its effective maintenance, make it a very desirable location for high-level health policy meetings. The building is used both for providing office space for the Fund's staff and for meetings that advance the foundation's work.
The major restoration of the building undertaken by the Fund in the early 1980s helped spark the general move toward improved care of the city's public spaces and historic buildings on the Upper East Side, which then spread to other neighborhoods. The Fund is pleased to make it possible for those interested in architecture and social history to tour Harkness House, through periodic tours arranged by the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America.
Rockefeller Archive Center
The Fund makes its historical material available for scholarly research through the Rockefeller Archive Center at http://www.rockarch.org/collections/nonrockorgs/commonwealth.php.