High-speed broadband service has become nearly as important as electricity for many people, yet it’s not universally available in the United States. Plastic pollution is now virtually everywhere in the ocean, not only washing ashore around the globe but found in the deepest waters. And superbugs resistant to antibiotics kill at least 35,000 Americans a year, presenting a global threat to public health.
These seemingly disparate societal problems share two characteristics: They didn’t exist when The Pew Charitable Trusts was founded in 1948—and, today, Pew is pursuing solutions for each of them.
Pew is providing technical assistance to more than 30 states and territories as they extend broadband to places it has yet to reach and increase access to that service for those unable to afford it.
With Pew research showing that ocean plastic could be reduced by 80% in the next two decades, the organization developed an analytic tool that countries can use to determine the extent of their plastic pollution and to guide action to shrink it.
And Pew has raised awareness of the new superbugs, researching and promoting economic incentives to spur development of new medications and working with the medical community to ensure that current antibiotics are properly prescribed.
This year marks Pew’s 75th anniversary. And over that time, the staunchly nonpartisan NGO has operated with continuing innovation and keen attention to these kinds of emerging concerns—identifying problems and finding solutions that improve people’s lives and help communities thrive.
Pew works with an unflinching reliance on facts and strives to elevate the voices of concerned citizens. It seeks the common ground where solutions can be nurtured and brought to fruition, using relevant data to provide a shared understanding of a common problem as well as to establish benchmarks for progress. Underlying and motivating these efforts has been a commitment to encouraging effective government responses that serve the people and respond to the challenges of the times.
This public-spirited, goal-oriented way of operating is no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of the Pew family.
Joseph N. Pew was a visionary who recognized sooner than most when the nation began its evolution from a rural, agricultural economy to an industrialized giant requiring energy and transportation. He was the founder of Sun Oil Co., a former schoolteacher who settled his family on the southern outskirts of Philadelphia at the dawn of the 20th century.
His sons—J. Howard Pew and Joseph N. Pew Jr.—would eventually lead the business and become innovators themselves, with Sun Oil developing a powerful gasoline in 1927 called Blue Sunoco that was less expensive and less harmful to the environment than others on the market.
The brothers were deeply aware of the troubles of their day and responded to a forbidding challenge of the time—the threat of German U-boats in World War I—by establishing a shipyard to keep tankers operating for America’s Allies, providing a lifeline to European democracy as the war raged.
The Pews also were devoted to their employees—known for not laying off any workers during the Great Depression and for being among the first American businesses to install telephones in their cafeterias so workers could call home on lunch breaks.
This public-spiritedness took a new turn in 1948 when the Pew family created The Pew Memorial Foundation.
It was capitalized with 880,000 shares of Sun Oil stock, valued at approximately $50 million, donated by the two brothers as well as their sisters, Mary Ethel and Mabel. Mary Ethel Pew was one of the first women to graduate from Bryn Mawr College and during the war was a volunteer nurse with the Red Cross. Mabel Pew Myrin lived for a time in Argentina with her husband, returning to the U.S. in 1939 with a keen interest in issues as diverse as soil conservation and early childhood education.
The foundation made its initial grants anonymously, a policy rooted in the Pew family’s religious beliefs. The first grant of $30,000 went to the American Red Cross. Over the next eight years, the foundation’s awards totaled $12.5 million, the equivalent of more than $130 million today. Much of that early grantmaking went to Philadelphia organizations, a commitment to Pew’s hometown that continues today.
As time progressed, Pew’s founders realized they needed a new vehicle for their philanthropy. So in 1957, the foundation was restructured and its assets were transferred to The Pew Memorial Trust. Over the next two decades, the Pew family established six more charitable trusts, and by the end of the 1970s, Pew had evolved into one of the United States’ leading grantmakers. In 1979 alone, the trusts gave $51 million in grants, nearly as much as they had distributed throughout the 1960s.
As it grew, Pew sought to address the needs of an increasingly complex world and constantly evolved. Soon, Pew began initiating projects and seeking out organizations capable of implementing them rather than responding to unsolicited grant requests.
Mary Ethel’s strong interest in health care, for example, led to a focus on the education of health professionals and health policy research. This led to the announcement of the first class of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences in 1985, the first time the Pew name was attached to the organization’s work. The program supports promising young scholars and continues today. Over four decades, hundreds of scientists have conducted groundbreaking research with the program’s support, and six of the scholars have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.
As the 1990s unfolded, Pew’s leaders grew more ambitious, and more interested in making a national impact. They began to partner with other philanthropists to incubate and create organizations such as the National Environmental Trust (NET). Established in 1994, NET organized public education campaigns about the importance of protections for endangered species, drinking water standards, and regulations aimed at curbing pollution. Along with efforts to conserve important landscapes in the United States and Canada, it would become the foundation of Pew’s current environmental conservation work.
Even with expanded ambitions, Pew kept its attention on Philadelphia. In 1996, it joined with city and state leaders to help launch the Greater Philadelphia Marketing Corp., now called Visit Philadelphia—the leading tourism organization for the city. It also raised funds for the renovation of the city’s symbols of democracy—Independence Hall and a new Liberty Bell Center—even as its support for local social service providers and arts organizations continued.
In 1998, Pew created the Pew Center on the States, which established a robust research portfolio examining state policy and offered states assistance in improving
the efficiency of their programs. By recognizing the important role of state-level policymaking in the United States and hiring experts in how the federal and state governments interact, Pew made state policy a hallmark of its approach to making American government more responsive and effective.
The dawn of the 21st century saw Pew reinventing itself—and innovating—once more. In the biggest structural change in its history, Pew became a public charity supported in part by the seven trusts in 2002.
The new model—which Duke University philanthropy scholar Joel L. Fleishman called “an almost unprecedented story in American philanthropy”—allowed Pew to not only continue making grants but to operate its own projects. This move took advantage of economies of scale, facilitated even more ambitious philanthropic partnerships, and increased the return on Pew’s investment in its ongoing efforts to help communities thrive.
And it set the stage for the Pew of today—and tomorrow.
Recognizing the half-century of research documenting the importance of pre-kindergarten education in boosting high school graduation rates and college attendance, Pew and its partners set out in 2001 to expand those programs, working in nearly 40 states and the District of Columbia. The decade-long campaign brought results, especially enriching education experiences for disadvantaged children: By 2011, total enrollment in pre-K exceeded 1.3 million children, up from 700,000 in the 2001-02 school year.
In 2004, Pew’s grantmaking to support public opinion polling, demographic analysis, and other social science work was brought under the umbrella of the newly created Pew Research Center. The Center is an independent subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts that has become an authoritative source of data for the public and policymakers across the U.S. and abroad.
With its long interest in strengthening democracy, Pew became concerned in 2008 that there was no standardized, reliable, nationwide source for information about where and when to vote, and what is on the ballot. That was the beginning of a partnership with leading technology companies, called the Voting Information Project, to provide that information to increasingly mobile voters. In the 2016 election, 123 million people accessed voting information through the project, which continues today under the direction of Democracy Works, a nonpartisan, civic tech nonprofit organization.
Continually seeking ways to help government be more responsive to the needs of citizens, Pew also turned to consumer protections in finance and food safety. Projects to improve dental care and help states select programs that provide the best possible return on investment incorporated and built on work started by the Pew Center on the States.
During this time, Pew’s conservation work expanded in the U.S. and around the world.
The respect for Indigenous communities that guided Pew’s efforts in Canada inspired efforts to help conserve one of the wildest and most intact environments remaining on the planet—the Australian Outback. Working with Indigenous communities, scientists, conservation organizations, industry, regional townships, and government agencies, Pew is helping to ensure that these landscapes can support healthy ecosystems and create sustainable opportunities for local people, particularly Traditional Owners.
Building on findings from the Pew Oceans Commission, which reported in 2003 on the increasingly dire state of the ocean, Pew has spent the past two decades seeking to improve fisheries management, end illegal fishing and overfishing, and reduce plastic pollution. Last year, the World Trade Organization’s 164 members voted to end many of the subsidies to fishing fleets around the globe after Pew-commissioned research found that billions of dollars of these government subsidies were accelerating overfishing.
Working with President George W. Bush, Pew pioneered the concept of large marine protected areas, starting in Hawaii with the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, established in 2006 and dramatically enlarged a decade later by President Barack Obama. That work continues today and has led to the creation of marine protected areas worldwide that safeguard 4.8 million square miles of ocean. In March, the United Nations approved a historic agreement, long sought by Pew, to help establish marine protected areas in international waters and conserve the high seas, which make up two-thirds of the ocean.
With its ongoing care for Philadelphia, Pew established a research and policy initiative for the city in 2008 that has delved into operations of the school system, polled residents on key issues, and studied a range of other services. The initiative recently has turned its focus to four key areas that affect quality of life in Philadelphia: easing the housing problem, contending with the opioid epidemic, modernizing the civil court system, and improving the city’s fiscal health. And in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pew’s staff in the city is providing research and convenings of local leaders seeking to bolster the city’s economic future.
Over the past 75 years, Pew has worked in every state and the District of Columbia, as well as on conservation issues around the world. As the organization embarks on the next chapter in its history of service, Pew will continue its core focus on strengthening democracy, helping communities thrive, and conserving the natural world.
Essential to a free and democratic society is that citizens understand each other’s perspectives, that the people’s voices are heard by their elected representatives, and that their desires are honored with thoughtful debate and compromise.
Building on its previous efforts to bolster democracy, Pew will innovate yet again with a nonpartisan, long-term effort called the Election Trust Initiative, which will operate as a subsidiary with support from partners. By funding and distributing evidence-based research, the initiative will strengthen election administration across the United States, guided by the principle that America’s election systems must be secure, transparent, accurate, and convenient.
That work is foundational to strong, thriving communities. And so are other elements of modern civic infrastructure: affordable housing, courts that solve disputes fairly, good public health data, and broadband internet. In those areas, Pew’s expertise in increasing government responsiveness, especially at the state level, will continue to help individuals and families in the years ahead.
As the world confronts biodiversity loss and climate change, it is more important than ever to protect vital landscapes and our fragile ocean for future generations. So Pew and its partners have launched an ambitious global effort called Enduring Earth to help governments, Indigenous peoples, and local communities secure large-scale, durable conservation projects and support community development.
Enduring Earth’s aspirational goal of protecting 1.5 billion acres around the world by 2030 would contribute greatly to the growing global ambition to protect 30% of the Earth’s land and water by 2030, an effort known as “30 by 30.”
These initiatives show the necessity of partnership to bring about lasting change. Among the many lessons Pew has learned over its 75 years is that few individuals or organizations can go it alone. Meeting society’s biggest challenges requires working with partners who can collaborate on the creative solutions that might not otherwise be found and pool resources to scale them up to have greater impact.
No one knows the challenges we will be facing in the coming decades as Pew turns toward its 100th anniversary. What we do know is that increasing our understanding of each other’s hopes and challenges, making government more responsive, and conserving the environment will require continued vigilance. Pew will contribute to that vital undertaking, offering the research, dialogue, and innovative problem-solving that lead to thriving communities, a stronger democracy, and a healthier environment.
Banner spread credits: Charlie Shoemaker for The Pew Charitable Trusts (school of fish, man fishing); Nima Taradji for The Pew Charitable Trusts (sprouts, flag, smoke stacks); Redd/Unsplash (student); Unsplash (vial); The Pew Charitable Trusts (payday); Towfiqu Photography/Getty Images (pills); Rozanne Hakala/ Getty Images (Capitol); Toni Greaves for The Pew Charitable Trusts (starfish); Lexey Swall for The Pew Charitable Trusts (Philadelphia, man with child, girl writing); Oed/ullstein bild via Getty Images (fiber optic cable); Sproetniek/ Getty Images (E.coli); Shin Okamoto/Getty Images (northern lights); Kerry Trapnell for The Pew Charitable Trusts (Australia); Katie Orlinsky for The Pew Charitable Trusts (oysters); Christian Grondin (colorful fish); Aidan Bartos/ Unsplash (dollars)