Sage, Margaret Slocum

Receiving a vast fortune after the passing of her husband, Mrs. Sage became a benefactor to every imaginable charity, from educational, religious and medical institutions to cultural preservation programs and animal shelters. At a time when men held social power and controlled American wealth, Sage became an example of a woman in control of her fortune and aware of her potential influence.

Biographical Highlights
Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage (1828-1918), better known as Mrs. Russell Sage, was one of America’s greatest philanthropists. She was 78 when her famous husband died, leaving her a vast fortune.  Over the course of the next twelve years, she was a benefactor to every imaginable charity, cause, and requestor—from educational, religious and medical institutions to cultural preservation programs and animal shelters (Rockefeller Foundation Archives).

But, it was not simply her generosity or concern for the human condition that made this woman so remarkable.  Nor was it the fact that she became a role model for women philanthropists. Instead, it was her insight into how to give that distinguishes her.

In 1907, she established the Russell Sage Foundation, which has since grown into one of the world’s foremost philanthropic organizations. She used the foundation in a unique way—to give grants, yes, but also to fund the objective scientific research that would be the basis of that giving.  Even today, the Sage Foundation continues to fund research projects that increase the knowledge and understanding of society and culture (Russell Sage Foundation 2004).

Mrs. Sage’s personal life is veiled in a certain amount of secrecy that makes her even more fascinating.  No one knows why, for instance, she insisted on naming a foundation in honor of a Scrooge of a man who was more obsessed with accumulating wealth than parting with it.  It’s also unclear why she didn’t add her own name to the foundation that carries her unmistakable imprint—visionary, unbiased, and scientific. In the end, we know the woman best by what she left behind—an organization that has been bettering the whole of human life for nearly a century.        

Historic Roots

From the time the United States became a nation, women had exerted a great influence over philanthropy (Clotfelter and Ehrlich 1999), but they did not begin to control its direction until a full century later.  When Margaret Olivia Slocum was born in 1828, men held social power and controlled American wealth.  So, it’s not surprising that men, notably her contemporaries—Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller—also dominated the distribution of that wealth (Hoffman 2004). 

Remember, women living in the 19th century had a very different role in society.  Even though they were considered philanthropists—and even called “shapers of civil society” (McCarthy 2001)—their primary form of giving was giving of themselves. Strongly influenced by religion, they were active volunteers and powerful spokes-persons for social justice issues, especially those affecting women, children, and the poor. Moreover, women were effective in these roles. During the Civil War, they tended to the sick and wounded, and some were outspoken abolitionists. Later, they championed the causes of education, worker’s rights, and suffrage (Clotfelter and Ehrlich 1999).

The early 20th century proved to be a pivotal time for women. They won the right to vote in 1919, giving them a status they never had before.  But, a preceding event was even more important to women as philanthropists. The industrial revolution created opportunities for them to inherit and accumulate wealth and power. Suddenly, women were in charge of how both were used (ibid.).  Margaret Sage was a classic example.  She was nearly 80 years old when she became a widow and in total control of her husband’s vast fortune…wealth built during the industrial boom.   


Margaret Olivia Slocum was born into a prosperous New York family.  Well-educated, she spent the early part of her life living simply as a teacher, devoted to educational reform and the care of her sick mother. When she reached her early 40s, however, her life changed dramatically. She married Russell Sage, a wealthy financier, who had made his fortune on Wall Street and the railroad industry. 

While this sounds like the beginning of a romantic novel, the reality was quite different. This was Russell’s second marriage.  At 55, he had been a widower for some time. Although his marriage to Margaret lasted 37 years, it was an odd match. Russell was callous, miserly and devoted to the memory of his first wife.  Margaret, on the other hand, was sympathetic, generous, and liked to be called “Mrs. Russell Sage.”  Their opinions about philanthropy were completely opposite.

Even though Mrs. Sage always had strong philanthropic side to her nature—a product of her Presbyterian upbringing—it was not until her husband’s death in the summer of 1906 that she was truly free to express it.

In April 1907, she established the Russell Sage Foundation with an original gift of $10 million (that amount was increased by another $5 million in 1918.)  She instructed that the foundation’s mission be for the “improvement of social and living conditions in the
United States of America,” and, especially, the New York City area (Rockefeller  Foundation Archives).

Although named for her husband, the Sage Foundation embodied Mrs. Sage’s ideals. First, it had extraordinary flexibility in grant-making. This was a trait that was distinct to Mrs. Sage and was so admired that the New York Public Library trustees commented upon it after she died.  In her honor, they prepared a resolution, dated April 9, 1919, that said, “Her breadth of view and liberal spirit emancipated her from narrow lines.”  Indeed, she would give to any religious organization or cause that impacted human life for the better. She was a benefactress to hundreds of organizations—from prestigious Ivy League universities to cultural preservation and animal protection programs (ibid.).

Second, Mrs. Sage was committed to social science research and used it as the basis for her giving.  At a time when segregation—of men and women, races, classes, and religions—was the norm, she was able to look beyond the issues that separated the human family.  By formally studying the root causes of social problems, she was armed with knowledge and objectivity. This made giving a powerful tool that could not only relieve social problems, but also solve them.  This, too, became an important part of the Sage Foundation (ibid.).

From the start, the Sage Foundation ”played a leading part in the new field of social work as well as in city planning, public health, criminal justice and education” (Klaassen). Nearly a century after it was instituted, the foundation continues to conduct research.  Today, it is focused on the future of work, cultural contact, and immigration. Interestingly, it works closely with the Rockefeller Foundation to research these issues (Russell Sage Foundation).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Mrs. Russell Sage lived at a peak moment in the history of American philanthropy.  It was not only a time when women were inheriting, building, and deciding how to use their own wealth (Clotfelter and Ehrlich 1999), it was also the age of scientific thinking.

Scientific philanthropy was both a social movement and way of thinking that dominated the period between 1889 and 1929. It promoted science and reason over religion and sentimentality as the basis for charitable giving. One’s giving could be based on the facts uncovered by objective research and study (e.g., the number of homeless or hungry; the characteristics of those who are likely to be without; or the areas of the city with the most needy populations) (Hoffman 2004).  
This era was ushered in with the publication of John Andrew Carnegie’s book, The Gospel of Wealth in 1889, and ended in 1929, when many lost their fortunes in the stock market crash. The period gave birth to three influential foundations: the Carnegie Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and The Russell Sage Foundation.  They functioned by investing money and giving grants from the interest, which had two key benefits. It allowed these philanthropic institutions to remain solvent and be a perpetual source of grants (Hoffman 2004).

The Sage Foundation, in particular, was important because it became the precursor to the “community foundation movement.”  Community foundations are philanthropic institutions dedicated to funding local needs, like schools, or addressing community problems like drugs or crime. The first community foundation in the United States was the Cleveland Foundation (1914), while the first in Michigan was The Grand Rapids Foundation, which opened in 1922 (Hoffman 2004).

Key Related Ideas

Cultural philanthropy:  “This is a branch of charitable giving that supports arts and culture. It covers the full range of performing arts, including media, literary, folk, and other arts, as well as museums” (Clotfelter and Ehrlich, p.474).

Multicultural philanthropy:  “This is a new branch of charitable giving that is focused on the effects of changing populations, new technologies, and globalization.  It also includes issues of aging, race, and, even, terrorism” (Clotfelter and Ehrlich, p. 474).

Scientific Philanthropy:  “This idea of systematic, scientific philanthropy is a product of the era of optimism and faith in the ability of science and reason to solve all human problems; it is the rationale for modern American foundations. These new ‘foundations,’ both private and community, were not designed to help people directly but were to be the instruments, or ‘scientific charity,’ of reform, of problem solving, and would address the root causes of poverty, hunger and disease” (Council on Foundations).

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Olive Dame Campbell (1882-1958):  Campbell was the inspiration for the 2000 movie, Songcatcher. The movie was very loosely based on her life. In fact, she and her husband, John C. Campbell, did far more than the movie showed.  Together, they collect and preserved Appalachian folk music for future generations and founded a number of cultural organizations to keep Blue Ridge Mountain folk art alive.   John C. Campbell was a missionary-teacher who worked in the southeastern United States. Thanks to a grant from the Sage Foundation, he was able to research conditions in the Southern Appalachians.

  • Osceola McCarty (1908 -1999):  Although McCarty has no direct connection to the Sage Foundation, she rivals Margaret Sage in her philanthropic spirit. Indeed, she may be even more remarkable because she was not born into wealth. An African-American woman, Miss McCarty made her living as a washerwoman. Still, she managed to save $150,000 in her lifetime.  She would have lived and died without anyone knowing, but, at age 87, she donated the entire amount to the University of Southern Mississippi. Her generosity became the inspiration for the biography, The Riches of Osceola McCarty by Evelyn Coleman, and The Gift, making her the university’s greatest donor (University of Southern Mississippi).

  • Oprah Winfrey (1954- ):  Winfrey, a television talk show host and actress, is one of the most well-known and beloved women philanthropists in the world today.  In 2003, she became the first African-American woman to become a billionaire. Long before she reached that status, she was known for her exceptional generosity.  The mission of her foundation, The Oprah Winfrey Foundation (1987), is to help the children of Africa, many of whom have been orphaned due to the devastating effect of AIDS. However, this is just one of many of Oprah’s philanthropic ventures.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The Carnegie Foundation:  Founded in 1905, the Carnegie Foundation is “committed to the kind of thinking that leads to action,” and “to this day . . . is rooted in its original mission, strengthening the future of the profession of teaching and the calling of educator.”  It continues to base its work on scientific research ( 

  • The Rockefeller Foundation:  “is a knowledge-based, global foundation with a commitment to enrich and sustain the lives and livelihoods of the poor and excluded.”  Even today, the foundation remains faithful to John C. Rockefeller’s original (1913) vision—to use scientific research to promote human welfare around the world (

  • The Sage Colleges:  In 1916, Russell Sage College was founded in Troy, New York by Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage.  The Sage Colleges is an independent private institution of higher education consisting of three colleges that include Russell Sage College, a college for women; Sage College of Albany, a co-educational college in Albany, NY; and Sage Graduate School, operating on both campuses. 

Related Web Sites

Council on Foundations Web site, at, is the premier site and member organization for all foundations with news, publications, training, a Career Center, and much more.

The Russell Sage Foundation Web site, at, provides information about the foundation and its programs, as well as a number of the foundation’s publications for purchase or download.

The Women in Philanthropy Web site, at,
offers an A-Z listing of famous women donors throughout history include Olivia Sage.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Clotfelter, Charles  and Thomas Erhlich, ed. Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector in a Changing America.  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-253-21483-1.

Council on Foundations. An Abbreviated History of the Philanthropic Tradition in the United States. Accessed October 2004.

Hoffman, Mark C. 1880-1929: Scientific Philanthropy, Foundations of Public Administration Power Point, Grand Valley State University, 2004.

Klaassen, David. Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota.  Accessed September 2004.

McCarthy, Kathleen D., ed. Lady Bountiful Revisited: Women, Philanthropy, and Power. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1990.  ISBN: 08-35-161-10.

McCarthy, Kathleen D., ed. Women, Philanthropy, and Civil Society.  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001.  ISBN:  0-253-33918-9.    

Mulhearn, Christine. “Women in Philanthropy: Mrs. Russell Sage (Margaret Olivia Slocum).”  Harvard University: Kennedy School of Government, 2000.

Rockefeller Foundation Archives.  Accessed September 2004.

Russell Sage Foundation.  Accessed September 24, 2004.

University of Southern Mississippi. Oseola McCarty: The Gift.  Accessed September 22, 2004.

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.