The James Irvine Foundation was founded 75 years ago in 1937 with the broad mandate to “benefit the people of California.” The Foundation celebrates this anniversary in 2012 with an interactive timeline that spotlights historic moments in the Foundation’s history, as well as prominent achievements of our grantees. We also commissioned a series of blog posts from California experts that describe the state’s unique challenges and opportunities. They offer some very compelling ideas and we encourage you to read the posts and let us know your thoughts in the comment boxes below the blogs.
About James Irvine
James Irvine was a pioneer of California agriculture who built his family’s Southern California ranch into one of the state’s earliest, most productive large-scale agricultural enterprises.
After inheriting the vast ranch in 1886, Mr. Irvine brought most of its 110,000 acres under cultivation, introducing myriad crops, including grains, vegetables and citrus. He had a keen business sense, and many credited his success to his practice of heavily re-investing his ranch’s earnings back into his enterprise. Later, it would be this same belief in re-investment that would spur his interest in philanthropy.
Establishing the Foundation
During his life, Mr. Irvine gave generously to community and cultural organizations. By the 1930s, the Great Depression had brought considerable unrest to his native California. After glimpsing his own mortality in the death of a close friend in 1936, Mr. Irvine decided to establish a foundation that would promote the “general well-being of the citizens and residents of the state of California.”
The James Irvine Foundation was created in 1937 as the primary stockholder of The Irvine Company, which in turn held Mr. Irvine’s most valuable asset: his 110,000 acres of prime ranch and agricultural land — almost a third of present-day Orange County.
The new Foundation made its first grant in 1938 for $1,000. By the time of James Irvine’s death in 1947, the Foundation had distributed $30,950, primarily to educational, cultural, health care and community-service organizations. After his death, the Foundation began receiving the full proceeds from Mr. Irvine’s stockholdings, which greatly increased its grantmaking.
From Agriculture to Real Estate
The growth of Southern California during the 1940s and 1950s changed the nature of Mr. Irvine’s investments — and increased their value. New residents poured into the state, moving into sprawling cities built upon prime agricultural land. The Irvine Company, located in one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, increasingly felt pressure to open its holdings to real estate development.
In contrast to the unplanned sprawl nearby, The Irvine Company’s more deliberate approach to community planning ensured a wide range of uses, including higher education and agriculture. (The company provided the initial land for the University of California, Irvine campus.) Just as the ranch had become known for adopting new agricultural techniques, the real estate company became known for its large-scale planned communities.
In 1977, the Irvine Foundation was forced to sell its share in the company to comply with new federal legislation. When James Irvine died in 1947, his bequest to the Foundation was valued at $5.6 million. Thirty years later, when the Foundation sold its share of The Irvine Company, its value had grown to $184 million. Today, the Foundation’s assets are fully diversified and stand at about $1.8 billion.