A Century of Friendship: A History of Cambridge Philanthropy in America

A Century of Friendship: A History of Cambridge Philanthropy in America

  • Marc Feigen and David Baker

For nearly a hundred years, Cambridge and America have been partners. In the 1920s, generous benefactors such as John D. Rockefeller funded science in Cambridge. Thousands of Americans and Canadians have come to Cambridge to study and then use the skills and knowledge they have gained back home. Since records began in the 1960s, Cambridge has raised over $1.2 billion from generous and committed generous donors – and likely much more, especially if inflation is taken into account.

Marc Feigen, (St John's 1983) Executive Vice-Chair and co-founder of CAm had long wondered about the motivations and the history of the early American leaders who gave so much to their British alma mater. What led to the creation of Cambridge in America? Who were the key players in the evolution of the organization? What role does CAm play in philanthropy for Cambridge?

To mark the 20th Anniversary of the founding of CAm, he and David Baker (Gonville & Caius, 1982), spent four years researching the philanthropic history of Cambridge in America. Launched on June 17 at the CAm Board meeting, A Century of Friendship: A History of Cambridge Philanthropy in America is a fascinating and lively 80-page chronicle of CAm, the organizations that preceded it, its history, its people, and the way that it has helped shape American philanthropy for Collegiate Cambridge.

There were some surprises along the way. The authors were amazed to learn that Oxford played the key role in the founding of the American Friends of Cambridge University (AFCU), one of CAm’s predecessor organizations. Some myths were debunked. It was long believed that Dean Acheson founded AFCU, and indeed this is recorded in a memoir that is the only history we have of AFCU until now. But the authors learned that Acheson wrote a letter effectively denying knowledge of the project and passing it on to colleagues in his law firm.

There are other surprising stories from the early days, such as that of a major benefactor who left a huge bequest to Cambridge simply because a letter from AFCU thanking him for a $25 donation had arrived just at the time when he was discussing his new will with his lawyer. Another story involves the Secretary of AFCU in the early 1980s who was so committed to achieving the personal touch that he stoically added “top-and-tail” handwritten notes, often with personal messages and reminiscences, to 6,000 letters sent to donors.

Another important finding was the significant role played by women in the story of Cambridge philanthropy. At various critical moments, such as the founding of both AFCU and CAm, the book describes how it was often women who played a key role in managing change and driving success.

The project started about five years ago. Feigen found the perfect writing partner in David Baker, a Gonville & Caius alumnus who lives in London. Formerly a publisher at Oxford University Press, Baker is a freelance writer who works on various projects and who has collaborated with Feigen previously on books and other written work. Feigen and Baker wrote every word together, and their friendship has grown through the experience.

Said Baker, “It was a true collaboration. There was lots of lively discussion between us, even at the level of individual sentences. The book has two authors from either side of the Atlantic but, we hope, just one style.”

Feigen and Baker were in the midst of their research in 2019 and early 2020 when the Covid pandemic struck, and challenges arose. Due to COVID-related closures, the pair lost access to critical academic libraries. However, with a few good books as a start, they embarked on interviewing key figures in the history of CAm. Baker said, “Our interviewees were extremely generous with their time and remarkable in their recall of facts and stories. Without their help we could not have written this book.”

The book shares the inspiration of many American alumni from Cambridge who, despite often having competing loyalties – particularly to the American institutions where they completed their first degree – nevertheless made Cambridge the focus of their educational philanthropy. It describes some of the magnificent American gifts to Cambridge that funded the University Library, scholarships, institutes and research centers, buildings, arts, sports – all enhancing the rich and full tapestry of Cambridge life. Every College and every part of Cambridge University have benefited over the past hundred years.

Apart from the more obvious advantages of CAm, including its favorable tax status for US donors and its fundraising expertise, there have also been other unexpected benefits. “CAm has had a constructive impact on Cambridge as an institution,” Feigen said. “It has encouraged greater collaboration and cooperation overall between the University and Colleges to achieve common philanthropic goals. Experiencing the collaboration in America, Cambridge itself became more collaborative over time.”

Feigen’s main motivation in researching and writing this book is to help people all across Cambridge understand why Cambridge in America exists. He commented, “I hope that a new Bursar just joining a Cambridge College, or a new Development Director, or even a new Head of House, will read this book and take away how much Cambridge in America can contribute. We also hope that it will inspire both current and especially future American donors by describing the positive impact of what came before.”

Baker commented, “We hope that our book helps debunk the myth that Americans brought fundraising to Cambridge. It became apparent, through our research, that no one side of the Atlantic has a monopoly on philanthropic wisdom. The historical and social contexts for philanthropy in the US and UK are very different, but I hope we’ve shown that each side does have much to learn from the other.”

Feigen explained, “This is not just a CAm story. This is certainly not just an American story. This is a Cambridge story. It is leadership in Cambridge that has made philanthropy so successful. It is professional expertise in Cambridge in partnership with professional experts in Cambridge in America that drives our work and ensures our success. This is a history of collaboration and growing trust across the Atlantic.”

“Our book is a testament and gratitude for all the people who came before and worked so hard to build a unique and special fundraising organization for Cambridge. CAm and Cambridge together are a beautiful partnership. With greater support, Cambridge can play an ever more vital role in solving the world’s growing problems.”

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