Public Welfare Foundation

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Social Justice
A Washington DC-based private philanthropic foundation active for over 70 years, the Public Welfare Foundation makes grants nationally in support of reforming criminal justice, juvenile justice and workers’ rights in the United States.

Written by Jennifer Donley Convey



The Public Welfare Foundation (PWF) is a private grant-making organization based in Washington, DC. Founded in 1947 by newspaper magnate Charles Marsh, the foundation has been a leader in the philanthropic sector for 70 years. Today, its mission is to support “efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need”, and its core values are “racial equality, economic well-being and fundamental fairness for all” (Public Welfare Foundation). The foundation carries out its mission and values through funding organizations that work within its three programmatic focus areas: youth justice, criminal justice, and workers’ rights. Since 2011, PWF has also housed a temporary special initiative on civil legal aid for the poor.

In terms of strategy, the foundation aims to bring about bigger-picture, systemic reform within its issue-areas, and to focus on areas where its dollars can have a genuine impact. The foundation seeks to make a difference by tackling tricky issues that are often under-funded and ignored, and  that affect marginalized communities (Foundation Center). PWF boasts assets of more than $480 million, giving out around $20 million annually to its grantees, which are located all across the United States (Public Welfare Foundation).


Historic Roots

The Public Welfare Foundation was established in 1947 by Charles Edward Marsh. Marsh was an influential and charismatic American businessman who made his fortune in the newspaper industry. Informal philanthropy was a lifelong practice for Marsh, who was known for his tendency to step in and assist people wherever he went – both in offhand donations and, for instance, even helping individuals he recently met in Europe to flee the Nazis and come to America. He eventually used his wealth to establish a more formal giving vehicle in the Public Welfare Foundation, carefully selecting a name that was broad enough in purpose to allow the foundation to be flexible and to remain relevant in the future. The name also, conspicuously and somewhat unusually, does not include a reference to his own name, as Marsh preferred to give anonymously. Marsh envisioned the scope of the foundation in a similarly broad way: he simply wished that PWF should center around promoting “the well-being and happiness of human beings” (Public Welfare Foundation).

The new foundation officially began its work in 1948 with small-scale projects in Jamaica, from initiatives to increase water supply for rural villages, to donating sewing machines so that the children had proper clothing for school. From there, larger grants were made for things like scholarships, medical clinics, and small loans to help struggling fishermen. Projects developed beyond Jamaica, and the foundation recruited “agents” to address the need in local communities across the world: one of these agents in India was even the famous nun and Catholic Saint, Mother Teresa, and another was celebrated children’s author Roald Dahl (Public Welfare Foundation). By 1953, when PWF was already active in over 12 countries and continuing to grow, Charles Marsh made the decision to step down as head of the foundation due to his declining health, and was succeeded by his wife, Claudia Haines Marsh, who served as PWF’s president for the next 22 years, and remained involved until her death in 2000 at age 100. Charles Marsh himself died in 1964, leaving an impressive legacy as the Public Welfare Foundation continues to thrive over 50 years later: over the course of the 70 years since Marsh created it, the Public Welfare Foundation has given over $570 million to nearly 5,000 different organizations helping people all over the country and the world (Public Welfare Foundation).

In addition to its remarkable grantmaking legacy, the Public Welfare Foundation continues another rich historical tradition today in its very office space: since 1999, the foundation has been housed in the True Reformer Building in Washington, DC, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It holds a special significance as the first building in the United States to be “designed, financed, built, and owned by the African American community after Reconstruction” (Public Welfare Foundation). The building is well-known to passersby in DC, as the side of the building boasts an enormous, colorful mural of the famous jazz musician, Duke Ellington, who often performed there.



The Public Welfare Foundation has been the vanguard of innovative trends in philanthropy since its beginnings. It was one of the first foundations to support small, rural businesses and to engage in micro-lending (Scanlon, 2012), loaning small amounts of money to help individuals, often in rural communities without access to supplies or financial resources, to get started or grow their small businesses. PWF was also an early environmental funder, making one of the first grants to the National Resource Defense Council in 1973 (Scanlon, 2012). And the foundation was, in 1991, the very first grant-maker to fund the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), and continued to support the organization at a high level throughout the 1990s, culminating in the VVAF being awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its work to ban landmines internationally (Scanlon, 2012).

By choosing not to fund direct services in favor of investing in “projects aimed at systems reform, research, and strategic leadership” the foundation has also made an important and outsized impact in recent decades in the criminal justice, juvenile justice, and workers’ rights reform movements (Green, 2017). It has provided the initial funding for dozens of key studies and campaigns around these issues, from the Justice for All project, addressing the lack of access to effective legal assistance in our civil courts (National Center for State Courts), to the Campaign for Youth Justice, fighting against the prosecution of juvenile offenders in adult courts (Kelly, 2016). The Public Welfare Foundation is a leader in the philanthropic sector as it seeks to achieve innovation and impact in all that it does.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The Public Welfare Foundation is a leader in the philanthropic sector. It has not only kick-started, funded, bolstered, and supported the work of a huge variety and number of nonprofit organizations for 70 years, but it has also used its voice to speak out on important issues in Op-eds and other public forums throughout its history.

The foundation’s founder, Charles Marsh, intentionally left the name of the foundation vague so that the foundation could be flexible to change its giving targets over time as societal issues came up, and the foundation did exactly that. PWF has funded internationally in the past, and today it funds only in the U.S. The foundation formerly funded environmental issues and health issues, while today it focuses on social justice issues like criminal justice and workers’ rights. It has supported almost 5,000 organizations throughout this trajectory of varying issue-areas, geographical scope, and grant-making strategies, making a broad impact across the non-profit and philanthropic sectors nationally and overseas.


Key Related Ideas

  • Civil Court vs. Criminal Court - The Public Welfare Foundation currently funds reform-minded initiatives in both the civil and criminal justice systems, which operate in distinct ways and for different purposes. Civil cases typically address private disputes between people or organizations, while in criminal cases, the government brings a case against individuals accused of crimes that are considered to be harmful to society as a whole.
  • Juvenile Justice - When a young person under the age of 18 is accused of a crime, they are usually processed under a special criminal justice system called the juvenile justice system. However, one of the key challenges that the Public Welfare Foundation seeks to address is the fact that in many states, accused youths are tried in the adult court system and can be accordingly sentenced in the adult prison system.
  • Paid Sick Leave - Paid sick leave is time workers are allowed to have off from work in order to deal with health issues – for instance, going to a doctor appointment or staying home with the flu – without losing pay. A part of the Public Welfare Foundation’s workers’ rights portfolio seeks to address the lack of paid sick leave for many American workers. According to the PWF’s data, this is an important issue because “parents who don’t have paid sick time are more than twice as likely as parents with paid sick time to send a sick child to school or day care, and five times as likely to report taking their child or a family member to a hospital emergency room because they were unable to take time off work during their regular work hours” (Weldaw and Powell 2017).


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Roald Dahl (1916-1990) was a best-selling British children’s author and a close friend of PWF’s founder, Charles Marsh. Before Dahl was famous for his writing, Marsh enlisted him as one of the foundation’s earliest representatives. Some of Roald Dahl’s most beloved works include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The BFG.
  • Candice C. Jones is the brand-new leader of the Public Welfare Foundation, hired as President & CEO in the fall of 2017. Her background is a strong fit for the work of foundation: she had previously served in the philanthropic sector as a program officer at the MacArthur Foundation, where she focused on youth in the criminal justice system – also an important program area for PWF (Public Welfare Foundation).
  • Charles Edward Marsh (1887-1964) was the original donor and founder of the Public Welfare Foundation. He made his fortune in the newspaper industry, and sought to give it all back to society, founding PWF in 1947 as a means to carry out this philanthropic goal during his lifetime and beyond (Public Welfare Foundation).
  • Claudia Haines Marsh (1899-2000) was one of Public Welfare Foundation’s most influential presidents, serving in the role for over two decades, from 1952-1974. She was the third wife of PWF founder Charles Marsh, and she continued to be actively involved in the Foundation’s work until her death in 2000 at the age of 100 (Public Welfare Foundation).
  • Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) was a Catholic nun who dedicated her life to charitable work and serving the poor. She served as an agent of the Public Welfare Foundation in its early years, tasked with distributing foundation dollars to people in need in India, where she was stationed (Public Welfare Foundation).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Campaign for Youth Justice was founded in 2006 – with seed funding of $500,000 annually from the Public Welfare Foundation – to fight the use of the adult legal systems to prosecute youth who commit crimes.
  • Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) is a nonprofit organization that helps foundations and philanthropists to improve their giving and its effectiveness through data-based initiatives. They recently partnered with the Public Welfare Foundation to survey PWF’s grantees for their feedback on topics including the foundation’s grantmaking processes, impact, and grantee-relations.
  • John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is a philanthropic foundation based in Chicago, IL which concentrates on, among many other issues, criminal justice reform. For example, MacArthur’s Safety + Justice Challenge, works to address over-incarceration in the U.S. by addressing sentencing abuse and misuse.
  • Open Society Foundations (OSF) is a grantmaking organization that, like PWF, works to support organizations that tackle issues like racial justice, reducing juvenile incarceration rates, and ending juvenile life without parole.


Reflection - Did you know that there are several states in the U.S. today that try, sentence, and incarcerate youths under 18 in the adult criminal justice system? Can you think of any alternative ways to deal with young people who commit crimes?



  • Foundation Center. Public Welfare Foundation.
  • Green, Elizabeth. Public Welfare Foundation. Chronicle of Social Change, April 13, 2017.
  • Jones, Candice, el. Al. “Florida should shut down youth-detention centers where ‘fight clubs’ thrive.” Miami Herald, October 18, 2017.
  • Kelly, John. “10 Years Old Campaign for Youth Justice Has Had Unmistakable Impact.” Chronicle for Social Change, March 22, 2016.
  • National Center for State Courts. Justice for All Project.
  • National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Member Spotlight: Public Welfare Foundation. August 25, 2016.
  • Perry, Paul. “Who’s Helping the Formerly Incarcerated Lead the Fight for Criminal Justice Reform?” Inside Philanthropy, September 29, 2016.
  • Public Welfare Foundation.
  • Safety and Justice Challenge. About the Challenge.
  • Scanlon, Thomas J. Memorandum. 2012, p. 10-11.
  • Sturrock, Donald. Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York, 2010. p. 305.
  • Weldaw, Kate and Powell, Jacqulyn. “Council Unanimously Votes to Explore Paid Sick Leave.”, September 29, 2017.
  • Williams, Marie N. “A New Strategy Juvenile Justice Reform: Local Leadership and Incremental Change.” Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, November 21, 2016.


This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.