Celebrating 70 Years: APF’s Early History

by Dorothy Cantor on July 10, 2023

In 1953, a group of seven past-presidents of APA, including Ernest Hilgard and James McVicker Hunt convened the first meeting of the American Psychological Foundation.  They saw it as an outgrowth of APA and envisioned the potential of a grant-making associate of the organization they had served. They contributed a total of $550 to get the new organization started. Their hope was that others would want to contribute and give back to psychology. The Board of the new Foundation would be made up of seven past-presidents, each serving a seven-year term, forming a bridge between the two organizations. They believed that past-presidents had already demonstrated their commitment to psychology and would be the most likely to inspire others to give as they had.  

They established the first program – APF’s Gold Medals for Lifetime Achievement in Psychology. For many years, those Medals served as the image of APF to the greater psychological public, and they still exist today in the form of APF’s Gold Medal Award for Impact in Psychology.  Beyond the Gold Medals, most of the contributions that were made were used to endow named lectures to be given at the annual APA Convention. There was no formal fundraising effort; they relied on word of mouth or their personal contacts to attract whatever donors they had. 

It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that APF received a major donation.  Esther Katz Rosen gave the Foundation over $700,000 to fund research on the topic of gifted children, which was her field of study.  The Board recognized that none of its members had expertise in that field and that they needed a Trustee who could evaluate the requests for funding that were submitted.  For the first time, they invited a person who had not been an APA President to serve alongside them for a three-year term.   

The Foundation continued to function in the same way until the early 1990’s, growing slowly, without much visibility outside of a small circle. Full credit for changing that goes to Jack McKay, the Chief Financial Officer of APA.  He envisioned the role that APF could play in funding important research and programs if it only had the funds to do it.  Jack recognized that the structure of the organization was not effective in reaching that goal, and so he presented the idea to the Board that APF needed a professional to work with it.  In 1992, at Jack’s urging, APF hired its first Executive Director, Lisa Straus.  For years after that, Jack would present a graph to the Board to show how the endowment was growing.  There was always an arrow pointing to 1992, the clear inflection point for the positive change in the size of the endowment.  With the clear and enthusiastic support of APA, a new direction for APF was established which would foster increased philanthropy in the world of psychology. 

APF Past President, Dorothy Cantor, PsyD