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The legacy of a mid-century environmentalist socialite whose laser-focused philanthropy helped sow the seeds of anti-immigration policy

When people looked at the charities of the Scaife family, they nearly always tended to examine the charity of Richard Mellon Scaife (1932-2014).[1] But it turns out Scaife’s sister, Cordelia Mellon Scaife May (1928-2005), had just as much money as her brother and was probably more conservative than he was.

While Richard Mellon Scaife’s giving, through the Sarah Scaife and Allegheny Foundations, went to a wide variety of conservative groups, Cordelia Scaife May, through her Laurel and Colcom Foundations, was devoted to environmental issues and restricting immigration. Nicholas Kulish and Mike McIntire show the extent of her giving in a lengthy investigation for the New York Times.

We’ve always known that Cordelia Scaife May was a philanthropist, but that’s about all we knew. An example of the limits of our knowledge about her is a two-part series about Richard Mellon Scaife that ran in the Washington Post in 1999. Mrs. May was interviewed in the series; she explained that she hadn’t talked to her brother in nearly 30 years (although they reconciled before her death) and that her mother was a “mean drunk” and both she and her brother drank too much. We also learned something about Mrs. May’s troubled second marriage. But there is nothing in this exhaustive series about Cordelia Scaife May’s philanthropy.

Kulish and McIntire charge that Cordelia Scaife May’s “story helps explain the ascendance of once-fringe views in the debate over immigration over America, including exaggerated claims of criminality, disease, or dependency on public benefits among migrants…in many ways, the Trump presidency is the culmination of Mrs. May’s vision for strictly limiting immigration.”

Kulish and McIntire have uncovered a great deal of new information. They have obtained a large number of Cordelia Scaife May’s papers, and it would be interesting to know how they acquired them. The papers show that Mrs. May started off, like her mother, as a fervent advocate of birth control who gradually decided the best way to control population was severe limits on immigration.

Cordelia Scaife May began her career as a supporter of Margaret Sanger, a birth-control advocate, eugenicist, and founder of Planned Parenthood. “I have always admired and tried to take a part in the work you have started,” she wrote to Sanger in a 1961 fan letter the Times obtained.

In the 1960s, she and her relatives began to give money to the Population Council. I discuss the council’s activities in the 1960s in my book Great Philanthropic Mistakes. It should be noted that in this period population control was a cultural obsession. In 1959, for example, New York Times Washington columnist Arthur Krock wrote a column, based on the research of Population Council president Frank Notestein, stating that overpopulation “if unregulated, will crowd the planet by 2000 A.D. with millions more people than its resources can provide for…Our isolation from the effects of the population bomb is no more possible than isolation from the range of nuclear bombs.”

Up until 1970, the orthodox view of population controllers was that global population was a menace and should be controlled by policies created by white male mandarins in London, Washington, and the United Nations. These views were challenged by a younger generation of feminists who thought women should control their own bodies. John D. Rockefeller 3rd [2] switched sides abandoning population control in favor of feminism. The feminists also took over the Population Council with the election of George Zeidenstein as president in 1976. (Zeidenstein is still alive and was interviewed for Kulish and McIntire’s piece.)

Mrs. May’s reaction to these events was to take a harder line against immigration. She told Zeidenstein that the U.S. should seal its border with Mexico and Zeidenstein, in an internal memo, said that he believed she supported forced sterilization. India, inspired by population control ideas, sterilized 11 million people between 1975-77.

Cordelia Scaife May fell under the spell of John Tanton, an eye doctor and an advocate of severe immigration restriction, who persuaded her to give a $500,000 grant to start the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 1978. In 1986, FAIR spun off its research division to become the Center for Immigration Studies, and the legal branch of FAIR subsequently became an independent nonprofit. Another immigration restriction nonprofit created by Mrs. May’s wealth was U.S. Inc., which works on immigration reform at the state level.

In 1996 Cordelia Scaife May created the Colcom Foundation to pursue her ideas in perpetuity. (The name derives from Stella Gibbons’s novel Cold Comfort Farm.) Kulish and McIntire obtained a statement in which Mrs. May expressed her intentions.

“The issues which I have supported during my lifetime have not been popular ones in many cases,” she wrote, “nor do I anticipate they will be so in the future when the Directors of the Foundation will be called on to exercise the courage of their convictions in carrying out the program I have described in this statement. I urge the Directors not to fear controversy. The presence of controversy is often a certain sign that unexamined opinions are being challenged.”

Cordelia Scaife May ran the Colcom Foundation for nine years. A tribute to her in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005 notes she liked to sign directives “the queen” or “el bosso supremo.”

So what does the Colcom Foundation spend its money on today? Its 2016 Form 990 says the foundation gave $29.6 million in grants. There are a large number of small grants to Pittsburgh environmental groups[3], including a million to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. But the large grants include $1.7 million to the Center for Immigration Studies, $2.5 million to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and $6.8 million to Numbers USA Education and Research Institute.

I don’t agree with the positions taken by the groups the Colcom Foundation funds. But all donors can learn from Cordelia Scaife May’s laser-focused—and highly successful—effort to change public policy.


[1] I wrote an article about Richard Scaife, A Legacy Both Generous and Mysterious, for Philanthropy Daily back in 2014.

[2] Despite what the New York Times says, John D. Rockefeller 3rd preferred having a number after his name instead of a Roman numeral.

[3] Colcom made a four-figure grant to an organization called Group Against Smog and Pollution, who get the acronym prize.

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