Remembering Philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis (1907-2013)

Kathryn Wasserman Davis
Kathryn Wasserman Davis (1907-2013)

This past month marks the passing of Kathryn Wasserman Davis at the extraordinarily advanced age of 106. As a benefactor who left her alma mater, Wellesley College, more than $50 million as well as supporting many other causes, her role as a major philanthropist was more than notable.

But she was also one of the most colorful figures in the world of philanthropy – in some respects a throwback to another era but in other ways totally modern.

A child of privilege – her family’s fortune came from the merchant trade in St. Louis – Kathryn Wasserman was born in Philadelphia. She was educated in private schools there and was a graduate of Wellesley College. (Almost unheard of for women of the time, she would go on to earn a Master’s degree from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Geneva – all of them by 1935.)

Her family also included notable people in the world of medicine and social justice. An uncle (the bacteriologist August Paul von Wassermann), for example, developed the Wassermann test for syphilis. And she marched with her mother in support of the suffragette movement when she was a child.

So it was only natural that Kathryn would gravitate toward the social sciences in her own life interests. After graduating from Wellesley, she joined a group riding horseback in the Caucasus region of the Soviet Union under the leadership of anthropologist Leslie Alvin White.

It was the first of more than 30 visits she would make to the Soviet Union and its successor nations – the last trip taken when she was over 90 years old!

Traveling was in her blood. After earning a master’s degree in international relations at Columbia, Kathryn returned to Europe to complete her Ph.D. at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Geneva is where she met her future husband, a banking and insurance executive Shelby Cullom Davis, who would go on to form the Davis Family of Mutual Funds. He would also serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland from 1969 to 1974.

Kathryn Wasserman Davis (early years)The two were married in 1932. Collaborating with her husband in investment activities, Kathryn became one of the very first female members of the New York Stock Exchange. In 1937, at the tender age of 30, she was named a member of the Committee for Suggested Improvement for social security laws, then still in evolution.

Her marriage to Mr. Davis would produce three children. While not traveling around the world – to the aforementioned Russia but also multiple visits to India and China – Kathryn raised their family in Westchester County, NY, becoming active in various civic activities such as the League of Women Voters and Planned Parenthood.

The field of medicine was of particular interest to Kathryn. Going in a different direction from her uncle’s focus on venereal disease, her interests focused on curing glaucoma, leading to major support of the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute and research into the role of genetics.

Besides her generous financial support of Wellesley College over a 75-year period, Kathryn’s philanthropy extended to a great many other organizations and institutions, including these:

  • American/Soviet Youth Orchestra
  • College of the Atlantic
  • East-West Institute
  • Friends of Acadia
  • Heritage Foundation
  • Hoover Institute
  • Institute for World Politics
  • Jackson Laboratory
  • Lincoln Center
  • Maine Coast Heritage Trust
  • Princeton University
  • Wheaton College

Of all of her philanthropic efforts, the one that pleased her most was Projects for Peace. This initiative was established on her 100th birthday, launching 100 prizes of $10,000 each for student projects submitted for judging based on their tangible, local means to foster peace. Since then, more than 1,000 initiatives have been started, some of which have blossomed into sustained programs in a wide variety of countries. Many of them are focused on youth.

Kathryn Wasserman Davis in Florida
Kathryn Wasserman Davis, “active elder.”

A “people” person, Kathryn Davis attracted the attention and gratitude of many during her long and active life. Some were famous – such as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s … all the way up violinist Joshua Bell, who serenaded her on her 106thbirthday earlier this year.

Very late in life – at age 94 – Kathryn Davis took up a new hobby: painting. For the next dozen years, she produced more than 200 works of art in acrylics and water colors. Mainly landscapes, these paintings can be found throughout the world. It’s just one more interesting facet of a person who also remained an active skier and tennis player into her 10th decade!

A few years ago, one of Kathryn Davis’ eleven great-grandchildren asked her what her favorite day of the year was, expecting to hear something like Thanksgiving or Independence Day as the response.

Instead, as befits someone who has lived such a long and full life, Kathryn Wasserman Davis replied, “Tomorrow!”

A Game-Changer for Charitable Organizations and Causes?

Jumo, a social network focused on charities.Chris Hughes
Jumo, the newest social network focused on charities and social activism.
There’s a new international social media resource being launched. Jumo, which was unveiled this past week in a beta test version, aims to connect people with not-for-profit causes and charitable organizations.

Established in February 2010, Jumo describes itself as “a social network connecting individuals and organizations who want to change the world.”

The founder of Jumo is Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who more recently served as director of online organizing for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. He sees Jumo as a way for people to find and evaluate organizations that focus on the causes that interest them. Such organizations can range all the way from health and educational initiatives to ones dealing with advocacy issues such as gay rights.

News articles, YouTube videos, Twitter posts and other content will be added to Jumo pages, and users can also add their own comments and feedback.

What’s the inspiration behind Jumo? It’s to establish a social platform focusing on issues, advocacy and not-for-profit organizations rather than on personalities or branded products. “The more connected [an] individual is to an issue they care about, the higher probability there is they will stay involved over a longer period of time,” Hughes has stated.

As part of establishing its mission, Jumo has outlined the following three key factors:

 Millions of people are working to improve the lives of others, many of whom lack the resources to have major impact.

 There are millions of other people who would want to help, but don’t know how.

 Despite where we are with technology, it’s still difficult to find meaningful opportunities to get involved.

Jumo provides a platform wherein people can discover the type of causes and organizations they care about, follow the latest news and updates in those fields, and support the work of these organizations through the donation of skills, time or financial support.

In Hughes’ view, this is what differentiates Jumo from social media platforms such as Facebook, which also allows the creation of pages for non-profit groups. Facebook’s groups tend to be passive, with many an individual’s interaction going little beyond “following” or “liking” them.

Hughes believes there will be significantly more volunteering and giving associated with the people who interact with organizations on Jumo. And if that happens, it may finally fulfill the promise of online platforms enabling not-for-profits to raise money more efficiently and less expensively than via traditional means.

That’s a goal that has been stubbornly elusive to date, as only about 5% of all U.S. donations come from online giving, according to the Blackbaud Index of Online Giving.

How does Jumo intend to grow and thrive in the online world? As a not-for-profit initiative itself, it plans to rely on payments from users and sponsorships from groups that would like to receive more highly visible promotion on the site.

Jumo already contains ~3,000 charitable organizations and issues-oriented groups which have been “seeded” on the site. But any organization that is certified as “tax exempt” is eligible to set up a page on Jumo.

Is Jumo destined to transform social activism? Only time will tell … but it will be interesting to see how this interesting new venture evolves and grows in the coming months.