The Wallace Foundation: A Brief History

The Wallace Foundation traces its origins back more than a half century to the philanthropic impulses of DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace, founders of The Reader's Digest Association. Giving freely of their time and the wealth amassed from the "little magazine" they launched in 1922, the Wallaces during their lifetimes contributed generously to a wide assortment of artistic, cultural and educational causes. They also ensured that after their deaths their fortune would go to philanthropy. The Wallaces' giving has touched many institutions and their legacy continues today through the work of The Wallace Foundation. You may read more about the Wallaces and their philanthropy in a booklet published by The New York Community Trust, where they established a number of charitable funds.

With assets of about $1.5 billion in 2014, The Wallace Foundation stays true to Lila and DeWitt Wallace's passions for learning and the arts. Wallace today aims to better the lives of disadvantaged children in American cities by providing more opportunities to learn, both in and out of school. In particular, we focus on improving: the quality of the principals who lead our schools; the use of time devoted to learning during summer and the school day and year; and access to and the equitable distribution of quality arts learning and after-school programs. We also work on building appreciation and demand for the arts.

Getting Organized (1986 – 1990)
The Wallaces died in the 1980's (DeWitt in 1981 and Lila in 1984). Their estate plan gave much of their fortune to four private foundations they had established, a magnanimous philanthropic gesture. With the founders gone, the foundations – whose assets comprised Reader's Digest's stock – needed to develop an organizational structure. They rented office space in New York City and began to hire staff. M. Christine DeVita, who had been deputy general counsel at Reader's Digest, joined as executive director in 1988; then, with the board of directors, she helped create a plan to take Reader's Digest public to provide a public market in which the foundations could sell the founders' stock over time. The four Wallace foundations were merged into two and renamed the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. Their missions were revised to concentrate on education and youth for DeWitt, and arts and culture for Lila. Grants evolved from supporting relatively small local programs to foundation-created initiatives with a more national focus.

The First Decade as a National Foundation (1990 to 1999)
DeVita was named president of the Wallace Funds in 1989. In the following years, she played a key role in increasing the number of national multi-year philanthropic initiatives taken on by the Funds. She also helped incorporate evaluation and communication expertise into the staff, a pioneering move for philanthropy of the time. The DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund continued to focus on education (particularly teachers and school libraries) and national youth-serving organizations. The Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund created audience development efforts for a variety of different art forms and added initiatives in public libraries and urban parks.

The work of both Funds began to draw national attention. A teacher-recruitment program, Pathways to Teaching Careers, was recognized as a model in the 1998 reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act. A program for school libraries, Library Power, became the basis for new national standards by the American Library Association. The Lila Wallace fund was among the first national foundations to invest in American folk art traditions. The Fund also received the National Medal for the Arts from the first President Bush for its work helping cultural organizations develop new audiences.

Second Decade as a National Foundation (2000 to 2009)
Early in the 2000s, the Funds sold the last of their Reader's Digest stock and merged into a single national philanthropy with a name reflecting its roots: The Wallace Foundation.

Equally significant was the adoption of a new approach to philanthropy. After studying the results of their efforts in the 1990s, Wallace's board and staff concluded that although the Funds had accomplished much, they had not fundamentally changed the areas in which they worked. The Wallace Foundation moved, therefore, from "doing good" to "making change," and developed the approach to philanthropy that is the hallmark of its work today: developing and sharing effective ideas and practices that can be used to effect beneficial changes in the areas of Wallace interest.

Over the decade, the foundation published more than 150 reports and other publications highlighting findings from its on-the-ground work and commissioned research. Wallace's efforts in school leadership helped put an important but marginalized issue – the need to better train and support principals – high on the national education reform agenda. The foundation's work in Dallas supported the building of a national model for improving arts education for city children. Wallace's approach to improving after-school programming for urban youngsters is being adopted in a number of American cities. Our efforts in the arts helped shed light on ways arts organizations could reach new audiences. The foundation's assessment of its worth during this decade was the subject of its '09 Report: Appraising a Decade.

Into the Future: 2010 and Beyond
Wallace marked the first year of its third decade as a national foundation by intensive planning and a decision to concentrate further on providing children, particularly those living in distressed urban areas, with more and better opportunities to learn in and out of school. The foundation also moved into a new area of interest: summer and expanded learning. In 2011, Wallace reached another milestone with the retirement of DeVita, the organization's founding president. It stepped into a new era with the arrival of Will Miller at the helm July 1, 2011.