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Retailing generosity

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[Editor’s note: This is part of continuing series of profiles of civic and philanthropic heroes.]

Sears chief Julius Rosenwald connected philanthropy, economic progress.

By Claire Gaudiani

Julius Rosenwald stands as a giant among philanthropists.

Born in 1862, his work expressed the force of America’s ideal of “self-interest rightly understood.”

He also gave with deep regard for the capacity of others and the importance of his gifts matching their gifts.

A young man from a poor immigrant German Jewish family, Rosenwald worked as a stockboy at Sears in the last half of the 19th century.

He imagined the stock would sell even better if it were not just in the store, but also in pictures and drawings people could receive in their homes with full descriptions and measurements: The Sears catalog.

He became the president of Sears, developing it into a mighty corporation and becoming a wealthy man.

He was a major supporter of Jewish causes, and also supported the founding of YM-YWCA’s for blacks in 25 U.S. communities, and committed matching funds to construct 5,357 “Rosenwald” schools for the education of African Americans.

He invested in human capital as well by developing the concept of the nation’s first Museum of Science and Industry, and giving the funds to build it in Chicago.

He believed people, particularly children, needed the stimulation of the museum to connect to the future as the new century progressed.

He also worked with other Midwest business leaders to restore the Palace of Fine Arts, developing the idea of an interactive museum where visitors could manipulate the displays, not simply view them.

And he invested in the human capital of his own employees, offering health, dental and profit-sharing to them and their families.

He gave away an estimated $63 million, which today would be worth at least 10 times as much.

His generosity had an impact on Chicago’s Jews, on blacks throughout the South, on all citizens who visited his museum and on various elements of corporate human resource policy.

None of this made him a paragon of virtue. His own family members say he was not an easy man to deal with.

Although said by some to be opinionated and sometimes harsh, he was clearly a risk-taker, a shrewd businessman and a premier philanthropist.

His story is important because he gave to people both like and very different from himself, providing support to the range of needs fellow citizens at his time were confronting.

He saw the connection between his generosity and economic advancement for people and the nation.


Claire Gaudiani is a professor at The George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University. This column is adapted from her book, The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism.

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