Diamond, Irene: A Diamond in the Rough

During her lifetime, Diamond (1911-2003) contributed 90 percent of everything that she had as personal wealth to foundations and organizations that were close to her heart. She gave in several areas but most predominantly to the arts, medical research (AIDS) and human rights.

Biographical Highlights

Irene Diamond has made several significant contributions to society.  The Irene Diamond fund has donated upwards of $10 million to support immunology in New York City medical schools, universities and research institutions (Dougherty 2003). 

In 1992, Diamond gave Julliard’s largest contribution at the time of $10 million.  Her donation established a fund to support student scholarships, faculty salaries, and special projects aimed at increasing minority representation in the Juilliard community.  She also donated another $10 million in 2001 to increase financial aid for the master’s degree students (The Juilliard Journal 2003).

The human rights movement received their single largest donation to date in 1988.  Diamond donated $30 million to Human Rights Watch, which, at the time, was one tenth their annual budget (Human Rights Watch 2003).   “Nobody has ever invested that amount of money in the human rights movement before.  Her contribution transformed the cause of human rights in the Untied States” (Roth 2003).

Historic Roots

Irene Diamond was born as Irene Levine, in Pittsburg Pennsylvania in 1911.  As a young woman, Irene studied acting in Manhattan.  She also did some freelance reading and modeling for Warner Brothers before landing her first editorial position in the story division of Warner Brothers.  She became a talent scout over her years with Warner Brothers and was active in Hollywood as well as New York.  She is credited for working on such movie classics as Casablanca, and for furthering the careers of Robert Redford and Kirk Douglas (Saxon 2003).  Levine married at the age of 31 to an affluent New York real estate developer, Aaron Diamond; they had one child together.

In 1955, Mr. and Mrs. Diamond established the Aaron Diamond Foundation to support medical research programs and other causes.  Unlike other foundation endowments, they decided before Aaron’s death in 1984 to pay out their endowment over a ten-year span.  With Mrs. Diamond agreeing to his wishes, she proceeded to oversee the distribution of over $200 million in grants over a decade.  With more then $50 million earmarked for AIDS research which includes support for the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, there were many crucial discoveries made involving the immune system’s effort to combat the virus (Saxon 2003). 

She continued her giving by establishing the Irene Diamond Fund and donated money to a variety of causes including The Juilliard School, Young Concert Artists, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Human Rights Watch.

Diamond was a resident of Manhattan for almost her entire life, and died on January 23, 2003 in her Manhattan home of a heart attack.  She was 92 years old.  It is documented that she donated 90% of her worth through her foundations and donations to society.  She is survived by her daughter and her two grandchildren.  Her fund is expected to continue its work after her death (Wisner 2003).


Irene contributed 90 percent of everything that she had as personal wealth to foundations and organizations that were close to her heart.  She single handedly established scholarships and programs at Juilliard for current students and for their master’s program.  She had money donated to increase minority representation within the famous dance school.  However, Juilliard was just one of her many passions. 

As a member of Human Rights Watch, Diamond sat as a board member for fifteen years.  She was an active critic of the U.S. involvement in the wars in Central America in the 1980s and strongly supported Human Rights Watch’s work to expose human rights abuse by U.S. allies in the region.  In 1988, she donated an amount that, at the time, was one tenth of their annual budget, the largest amount ever donated to that foundation, $30 million.  She has been attributed with single handedly transforming the cause of human rights in the United States. 

However, her donations did not stop there.  Her largest contribution to society and to any organization would be to the progression of AIDS research.  Along with the foundations and research institutions that she and her husband founded,
she has been documented as the countries largest supporter of AIDS research, with the founding and support of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center for the City of New York.  This center has been credited with the breakthrough discovery of protease inhibitors, a drug that appears to suppress the HIV virus.  Along with creating research organizations, she was also the first foundation to financially support an AIDS education condom program (Clyde 1998). 

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Diamond has been attributed in transforming movements within the philanthropic sector.  Diamond and her husband were one of the first foundations to decide to pay out $200 million dollars to a foundation that they had begun.  They believed that it was better to put all of the money into one project instead of spreading projects too thin.  That way, the few projects that were of focus were in their control and had the potential to do an enormous amount of good. 

As previously stated, Diamond has helped to make real the wishes of her late husband by paying out over $200 million dollars to AIDS research.  She has created the Aaron Diamond Center for AIDS research, donated money to organizations within New York such as The Juilliard School, Human Rights Watch, and The Irene Diamond fun with has given grants totaling over $13 million to a variety of causes. 

The Diamond Project is the fund that was established at the New York City Ballet that gives young choreographers the chance to be developed.  The Project works with Young Concert Artists by finding and supporting new talent.  Young Artists is an endowment that provides funding to help develop talented dancers.  By assisting them in learning to audition and perfect technical requirements, it helps the naturally talented become more successful.  “We started the program to get talented people ready to audition.  Opening the doors for quite a few people is much more important to me then doing it for just one” (Clyde 1998, 1).

Key Related Ideas

Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy:  Given every two years to one or more individuals who, like Andrew Carnegie, have dedicated their private wealth to public good and who have a sustained an impressive career as a philanthropist. The criteria established that nominees should be a visionary of philanthropy that reflects the ideals and breadth of the man it celebrates; that the work of the philanthropist has a sustainable track record; and the impact his or her philanthropy has had on a field, the nation or internationally.  In 2001, Diamond was one of six inaugural recipients. 

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Autoimmune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS):  AIDS has claimed the lives of more than 23 million men, women and children globally.  It is estimated that 38 million people throughout the world are currently living with HIV.  In 2003, 2.9 million people died from AIDS, nearly half a million being children under the age of 15.  In 2003, 4.8 million people were newly infected with HIV.  By 2010, 25 million children will be
orphans because of AIDS.  Currently, 38 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS.  In the next 20 years, it is estimated that 70 million deaths will result from AIDS (aids.com).

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Aaron Diamond (1910-1984): Aaron, Irene’s husband, began their philanthropy by creating a research center for the further pursuit for a prevention or cure for the AIDS disease.

  • David Ho (1954 - ): Dr. Ho is the main researcher at the Diamonds AIDS lab. Ho has been credited to finding several breakthroughts in understanding the HIV virus and has changed the course of clinical care for HIV patients.  Ho developed the combination of drug therapy that has helped reduce the death rate of AIDS in America to a fifth of what it once was before the use of his protease inhibitor drug cocktail (Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center 2004).  Ho was named TIME magazine’s Man of the Year.

  • Steven Joseph: Joseph was the Commissioner of Health in New York City in the 1980s. He was the first to encourage Mr. and Mrs. Diamond to begin a lab within the city.  The City of New York also donated money to the building and support of the first Diamond foundation. 

  • Hall Wallis (1899 – 1991): This Hollywood producer gave Diamond her first job as story and talent editor at Warner Brothers.  Together they produced scripts including Come Back Little Sheba, The Rose Tattoo, and Casablanca.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) is a global organization working to prevent HIV infection and the disease and death associated with it, and to protect the human rights of all people threatened by the epidemic of HIV/AIDS.  AmfAR is one of the world's leading nonprofit organizations dedicated to supporting HIV/AIDS research, AIDS prevention, treatment education, and the advocacy of sound AIDS-related public policy (https://www.amfar.org/cgi-bin/iowa/index.html).

  • The Diamond Fund supports immunology in New York City medical schools, universities and research institutions.  There are five institutions funded by this organization including Columbia, Rockefeller University, and New York University Medical Center.  The Diamond Fund has also made contributions to the Arts such as Juilliard, Young Concert Artists, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Human Rights Watch. 

  • The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (PAF) was founded to create hope for children and families worldwide by eradicating pediatric AIDS, providing care and treatment to people with HIV/AIDS and accelerating the discovery of new treatments for other serious and life-threatening pediatric illnesses (http://www.pedaids.org). 

  • Human Rights Watch attempts to prevent discrimination, uphold political freedom, protect people from inhuman wartime conduct and bring offenders to justice.  Diamond was a major benefactor to this organization (http://www.hrw.org). 

  • The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) is a global nonprofit working to find a vaccine to prevent HIV infection and the onset of AIDS. Founded in 1996, it is operational in 23 countries worldwide and works to ensure that a future vaccine is a global priority and will be accessible to those who need it (http://www.iavi.org/about/overview.asp).

Related Websites

The Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center Web site, at www.adarc.org, offers a history of the programs that the Center has funded.  This site also includes detailed information about the headway that has been made because of the Diamond’s contributions to AIDS research. 

The AIDS information Global Information System Web site, at https://www.aegis.com/, provides the obituary that was written by the New York Times writer upon Diamond’s death.  It provides a great deal of background material about Diamond’s ideas and hopes for her donations and the organizations of which she was so fond.  The site provides information about AIDS and HIV support and programs worldwide.  

Condom Hall, at www.condomhall-condoms.org, provides the public with information on safe sex.  Diamond was attributed to being a pioneer on educating youth about the benefits of safe sex in a time where abstinence was the only method that was taught. 

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center. History. Accessed October 9, 2004. http://www.adarc.org/about/history.htm.

Aids.com.  HIV/AIDS Stats.  Accessed March 31, 2005.  http://www.aids.com

Clyde, Allan R.  “A Conversation With Irene Diamond”.  Foundation News & Commentary  39 (1998): 2.  Accessed October 8, 2004. http://www.foundationnews.org/CME/article.cfm?ID=1454.

Diamond, Irene. “Irene Diamond Obituary” Dance Magazine. June, 2003.  Accessed October 8, 2004.  http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1083/is_6_77/ai_101861178.

Dougherty, Matthew. “Research Briefs – Diamond Professorships.”  23 January (2003).  Columbia University Health Sciences.  Accessed October 8, 2004. 

Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch. “Human Rights Movement Loses Great Friend” 22, January (2003). Accessed October 9, 2004. https://www.hrw.org/press/2003/01/irenediamond.htm.

Saxon, Wolfgang. “Irene Diamond, Philanthropist, Dies at 92”. New York Times. 23 January (2003) Accessed October 9, 2004. https://candid.org/newyork/gitn/ny_gitn_020103.html.

Roth, Kenneth. Human Rights Watch. “Human Rights Movement Loses Great Friend”.  22, January (2003). Accessed October 9, 2004. https://www.hrw.org/press/2003/01/irenediamond.htm.

The Juilliard Journal. “Irene Diamond, Philanthropist and Longtime Juilliard Benefactor, Dies”. The Juilliard Journal.   Accessed October 8, 2004. https://www.juilliard.edu/update/journal/903journal_story_0302.asp.

Wisner, Heather. “Irene Diamond Obituary” Dance Magazine. June, 2003.  Accessed October 8, 2004.  http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1083/is_6_77/ai_

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.