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

By Claire Gaudiani

Margaret Olivia Sage funded research to help shape policy.

One of the many real heroines of philanthropy is Margaret Olivia Sage.

When he died in 1906, her husband, Russell Sage, left her more than $60 million, his entire fortune, saying she was better suited “temperamentally” to dispose of it than he was.

Her vast generosity supported education, social services, improved health and sanitary conditions, and the feminist cause, but her most important contribution to the improvement of human life involves her commitment to funding research studies on the real conditions of people.

From the compilations of on-the-ground, door-to-door research findings on poverty, a plan to improve conditions could be drafted, and actions taken and monitored, to help assure positive outcomes in peoples’ lives.  Olivia Sage, who lived from 1828 to 1918, combined study and action, research and advocacy, and fundamentally changed the course of philanthropy.

She refused to accept as adequate the process she found in place in philanthropy.

She thought critically about that process and funded the changes necessary to add new processes to the arsenal that philanthropy could bring to the work of improving human life in society.

Ultimately, Sage’s greatest impact may have been on the way policymakers would understand the poor and their conditions in America’s cities.

She realized that in an American society increasingly driven by success in science and technology, she needed to create a way for policy leaders and regular citizens to understand in quantitative terms the challenges of human beings faced with poverty, and how these challenges could be addressed.

She began the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907 with $10 million and began to fund surveys.

The first, the 1914 “Pittsburgh Survey,” attempted to examine the social problems of the whole city of Pittsburgh.

This approach changed the way the country learned about public health and other issues that bore directly on how improvements in the lives of working people and the poor could occur. The rest of the century is the story of how this work progressed.

All of us have been touched by the work of Olivia Sage, who not only funded charities, but funded the studies that taught the rest of the country and century about poverty.

She brought mind and matter to her work and made it our work.

How often do we see Olivia’s approach to new thinking working nowadays?


Claire Gaudiani is a professor at The George H. Heyman Jr. Center Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University and the  author of The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism.
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Other columns by Claire Gaudiani:

Helping hands [9.20.04]

Change agent [10.11.04]

Retailing generosity [10.25.04]

Prescription for change [11.22.04]

Whitewashing history [12.06.04]

Breakthrough philanthropy [12.20.04]

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