By 1911 Andrew Carnegie had endowed five organizations in the United States and three in the United Kingdom, and had given away over $43 million for public library buildings and close to $110 million for other purposes. Nevertheless, ten years after the sale of the Carnegie Steel Company, he still had more than $150 million and, at the age of 76, was tiring of the burden of philanthropic decision making. On the advice of Elihu Root, a long-time friend, he decided to establish a trust to which he could transfer the bulk of his remaining fortune and, ultimately, the responsibility for distributing his wealth after his lifetime. Having already used the conventional labels for his previously endowed institutions, he selected "corporation" for this last and largest. It was chartered by the State of New York as Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Corporation's capital fund, originally donated as a value of about $135 million, had a market value of $1.55 billion on March 31, 1999.
During 1911 and 1912, Carnegie gave the Corporation $125 million, making it the largest single philanthropic trust ever established up to that time. As the residual legatee under his will, the Corporation received an additional $10 million when the estate was settled. Carnegie earmarked a portion of the endowment to be used for philanthropic purposes in Canada and what were then the British Colonies. This part of the endowment was first known as the Special Fund, then the British Dominions and Colonies Fund, and later the Commonwealth Program. Charter amendments have allowed the Corporation to use 7.4 percent of its income in countries that are or have been members of the British Commonwealth.
In the Corporation's early years, Carnegie himself was president and a trustee. James Bertram, his private secretary, and Robert A. Franks, his financial agent, were also trustees and, respectively, secretary and treasurer of the Corporation. These three comprised the first executive committee and made most of the funding decisions. The other seats on the board were held ex-officio by the presidents of the five previously established Carnegie organizations in the United States-Carnegie Institute (of Pittsburgh) (1896), CIW (1902), Carnegie Hero Fund Commission (1904), CFAT (1905), and CEIP (1910). Shortly after Carnegie's death in 1919, the trustees elected a full-time, salaried president as chief executive officer of the Corporation and made him an ex-officio member of the board.
Initially, grants followed the pattern of Carnegie's personal philanthropies. Until 1917, gifts for the construction of public libraries and for the purchase of church organs were continued. The other Carnegie organizations in the United States also received substantial grants for their programs, as did universities, colleges, schools, and general educational agencies. In his letter of gift to his original trustees, Carnegie wrote (employing the simplified spelling he favored): "Conditions upon erth inevitably change; hence, no wise man will bind Trustees forever to certain paths, causes or institutions. I disclaim any intention of doing so. On the contrary, I giv my Trustees full authority to change policy or causes hitherto aided, from time to time, when this, in their opinion, has become necessary or desirable. They shall best conform to my wishes by using their own judgement." Thus, over the years, the Corporation's priorities for grant making have changed, while always remaining broadly educational.
Following Carnegie's death, the Corporation began to align its programs with the more scientific assumptions that were coming to dominate social initiatives in the early part of this century. Convinced of the nation's need to increase scientific expertise and "scientific management," the Corporation sought to build centers of excellence in the natural and social sciences. Large grants were made to the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Food Research Institute at Stanford University, and the Brookings Institution. At this time, the Corporation also developed an interest in adult education and lifelong learning as a logical sequel to Carnegie's preoccupation with libraries as "the university of the people." In 1919 it initiated the vast Americanization Study to explore educational opportunities for adults, primarily new immigrants.