Henry R. Luce in 1962. Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Founding and Early Years

In 1936, when he proposed to create a new foundation, Henry R. Luce was only 38 years old but already influential in American life. With his Yale College classmate Briton Hadden, he had founded Time magazine thirteen years earlier, followed in 1929 by Fortune, and in 1936 by Life. Luce made his first major gift in 1935, an endowment at Yenching University in Peking to honor his father’s work. The Foundation’s grantmaking became a tribute to his parents, Elizabeth Root Luce and Henry Winters Luce, Presbyterian missionaries and educators who worked in China during the first part of the twentieth century. Their four children—Henry, Emmavail, Elisabeth, and Sheldon—were all born in China.

The certificate of incorporation for The Henry Luce Foundation was filed in the office of New York’s Secretary of State on December 24, 1936, signed by the first four members of the foundation’s board and their counsel. The original board comprised members of Henry R. Luce’s family and colleagues at Time Inc. At their first meeting two days later, the directors accepted the foundation’s first contribution—38 shares of common stock of General Publishing Company—from Henry R. Luce, and elected Charles Stillman as the foundation’s first president and chief executive officer, positions he held for 22 years.

Over its first three decades, the Luce Foundation emerged quietly. There were no offices or paid staff, and no formally designated programs. Grants followed the founder’s interests, and he slowly added to the foundation’s assets with additional stock from his publishing company. From 1936 to 1966, the foundation’s grants were mostly quite small, falling into three categories: more than 38 percent were related to Asian affairs, 36 percent to theology and ethics, and 25 percent to public affairs and policy. The recipients of grants included a variety of institutions and organizations, but many of the projects supported American colleges and universities.

Growth and New Programs

At Henry R. Luce’s death in 1967, the foundation became a major beneficiary of his estate. With greatly increased resources, the foundation began to hire full-time staff to develop program areas and to expand the scope of grantmaking.

In 1968, the board established the Henry R. Luce Professorship Program, which would fund positions at private colleges and universities in the United States and honored the founder’s interest in “ultimate questions.” Six years later, the Luce Scholars Program was launched, creating an opportunity each year for outstanding young Americans, with high promise of leadership in a variety of fields, to spend an internship year in Asia. Funding continued in Asian studies, theology, higher education, public affairs, and public policy, and grantmaking was increasingly organized into formal programs.

With the continued growth of its assets, the foundation in 1980 approved an allocation of $4 million to establish the Luce Fund for Scholarship in American Art, which was later designated as the American Art Program. Following the death of Henry R. Luce’s widow, Clare Boothe Luce, in 1987, the foundation received a bequest totaling over $60 million with a single purpose: “to encourage women to enter, study, graduate and teach in the natural sciences, in engineering, in computer science and in mathematics.” The Clare Boothe Luce Program has funded scholarships, fellowships, and professorships for women students and professors since 1989.

In 2000, again in response to increased resources, the board launched a five-year, $30 million initiative in environmental studies, focusing on American higher education and non-governmental organizations. Over the next three years, the board voted to phase out two of its long-standing programs, Public Affairs and the Henry R. Luce Professorships; and in 2005, the Board approved a new initiative in religion in international affairs.

Since its creation in 1936, the Luce Foundation has awarded more than $1 billion in grants; $350 million was approved in the past decade.

Leadership and Governance

Throughout its history, the foundation has been guided by a remarkably small number of leaders. The board currently numbers fourteen, and only seventeen other directors have served over the past 80 years. The founder, Henry R. Luce, never held a place on the board. 

Ten individuals (listed below) have served in an executive leadership role, including Henry Luce III (called Hank), the son of the founder, who led the foundation for 44 years and ensured its continuity by forging durable and imaginative programs, building a staff, and overseeing the growth of its assets.

Charles Stillman
President and CEO (1936–1958)
Henry Luce III
President (1958–1990)
Chairman and CEO (1990–2002)
Martha Redfield Wallace
Executive Director (1967–1982)
Robert E. Armstrong
Executive Director (1987–1990)
President (1990–1992)
John W. Cook
President (1992–2002)
Michael Gilligan
President and CEO (2002–2019)
Margaret Boles Fitzgerald
Chair of the Board (2002-2022)
Mariko Silver
President and CEO (2019–present)
Debra S. Knopman
Co-Chair of the Board (2022-present)
Terrence B. Adamson
Co-Chair of the Board (2022-present)

The board approved the Luce Foundation’s first formal statement of mission in 2004. The mission statement was revised in 2018. It reflects this private foundation’s faithful adherence to the founder’s vision, draws on the learning from its successful history, and sets a course for the future.

For additional information, see Walter Guzzardi, Jr. The Henry Luce Foundation, A History: 1936–1986 (University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

A more detailed look at the Foundation’s recent history and legacy of grantmaking is available in the 75th Anniversary commemorative publication, which you can download below. 

Icon: Document