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The James Irvine Foundation was founded in 1937 with the broad mandate to benefit the people of California.

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 enterprises for agriculture. He inherited the vast ranch in 1886 and cultivated most of its 110,000 acres with grains, vegetables, citrus, and more. He had a keen business sense and heavily reinvested the ranch’s earnings back into his enterprise. Later, it would be this same belief in reinvestment that would spur his interest in philanthropy.

A foundation is born

The James Irvine Foundation was created in 1937 as the primary stockholder of The Irvine Company, which held his 110,000 acres of prime ranch and agricultural land — almost a third of present-day Orange County. The 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.

Son of a 49er immigrant

It all began when James’ father, James Irvine Sr., left Ireland for the U.S. at the age of 19. It was 1846, and he soon joined other immigrants in California as part of the 1849 gold rush. James Sr. worked as a miner and merchant, and in 1854 he bought an interest in a San Francisco grocery business. He then began investing in real estate in Northern California and joined several partners in purchasing three major Spanish-Mexican land grants south of Los Angeles. By the time he died in 1886, James Sr. left his son a valuable legacy in Southern California: 110,000 acres of ranch land.

Agricultural innovations build the Irvine Company

James Sr. had used the Irvine Rancho San Joaquin to raise sheep, but his son saw in the grass- and cactus-covered land an opportunity for cultivation. He became one of the state’s first major agricultural growers — and took risks. He believed in the fertility of the land and experimented with new cultivation methods, diversified crops, and drilled water wells and a canal. In 1898, he incorporated the ranch holdings under The Irvine Company, and by 1910 the ranch was the state’s most productive farm and its largest producer of beans and barley. In 1930, the ranch’s crops also included oranges, cauliflower, grapes, and papayas, making it a forerunner of the state’s large-scale agricultural operations.

From agriculture to real estate

Southern California’s growth in the 1940s and 1950s changed the nature of The Irvine Company investments — and increased their value. New residents poured into sprawling cities built on prime agricultural land. Unplanned sprawl ensued, but the Irvine Company took a more deliberate approach to community planning to ensure a range of uses, from higher education to agriculture. (The company provided the initial land for the campus of the University of California, Irvine.) Just as the ranch was known for its new agricultural techniques, the real estate company gained a reputation for large-scale planned communities.

The endowment and giving grow significantly

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, sales of the Irvine Company shares grew the Foundation’s endowment to $184 million. The Foundation endowment has continued to grow, reaching $3.1 billion by the end of 2023. This has allowed for increasing levels of grantmaking to California nonprofits, including $180.3 million in 2023. As the grantmaking grew, the Foundation became more intentional about its strategies for giving and growing its staff and board, with offices in northern and southern California.

Past Directors

Myford Irvine 1937–1959 (Chair 1937–1959)

Katharine Irvine 1937–1950

N. Loyall McLaren 1937–1977 (Chair 1959–1976)

A. J. McFadden 1937–1975

James G. Scarborough 1937–1968

Paul A. Dinsmore 1937–1950

W. H. Spaulding 1937–1944

Robert H. Gerdes 1944–1982

Kathryn L. Wheeler 1950–1997 (Honorary Director 1998–2003)

W. B. Hellis 1950–1958

James H. Metzgar 1958–1979

Edward W. Carter 1959–1989

John V. Newman 1963–1988 (Vice Chair 1983–1988)

Mark R. Sullivan 1963–1970

Morris M. Doyle 1965–1989 (Chair 1976–1989)

John A. Murdy Jr. 1965–1973

John S. Fluor 1968–1974

Rudolph A. Peterson 1971–1982

Stanton G. Hale 1974–1976

J. Robert Fluor 1977–1984

Camilla C. Frost 1978–1999

Roger W. Heyns 1978–1994 (Vice Chair 1988–1994)

Virginia B. Duncan 1978–1991

Walter B. Gerken 1980–1995

Myron Du Bain 1982–1996 (Chair 1989–1996)

Samuel H. Armacost 1982–2004

Forrest N. Shumway 1985–2000

Edward Zapanta, M.D. 1988–2001

Donn B. Miller 1989–2000 (Vice Chair 1994–2000)

Joan F. Lane 1990–2001

James C. Gaither 1991–2003 (Chair 1997–2003)

Angela Glover Blackwell 1991–1994

Dennis A. Collins 1994–2002

Blenda J. Wilson 1995–1999

Patricia S. Pineda 1995–2006 (Vice Chair 2006)

Peter W. Stanley 1997–2006 (Chair 2003–2005)

Toby Rosenblatt 1996–2008 (Vice Chair 2007–2008)

Gary B. Pruitt 1999–2009 (Chair 2006–2009)

Peter J. Taylor 2000–2012 (Chair 2010–2012)

Cheryl White Mason 2000–2003

Greg Avis 2002–2016 (Chair 2013–2016)

Mary G. F. Bitterman 2002–2003

Frank Cruz 2002–2014

David Mas Masumoto 2002–2014

Molly Munger 2002–2013

Jim Canales 2003–2013

Reggie Muehlhauser 2004–2016

Dr. Steve Schroeder 2004–2015 (Vice Chair 2014–2015)

Lydia Villarreal 2005–2019 (Chair 2017–2019)

Jane Carney 2006–2017

Paula Cordeiro 2007–2018

Isaac Stein 2007–2018

Virgil Roberts 2009–2021

Samuel Hoi 2011–2014

Robert E. Denham 2011-2023