The Mellon Foundation Announces Transformation of its Strategic Direction and New Focus on Social Justice

NEW YORK, June 30, 2020 – The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation today announced a major strategic evolution for its organization, prioritizing social justice in all of its grantmaking. The Foundation’s board has resoundingly endorsed a refined mission statement and updated program areas. While Mellon’s strategic shift—under the leadership of Mellon President Elizabeth Alexander— has been two years in the making, current events make the Foundation’s new social justice lens even more relevant to Mellon’s philanthropic efforts supporting the arts and humanities. 

Since its founding, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has sought to strengthen, promote, and defend the arts and humanities as essential to democratic societies. An increased focus on just communities comes at a moment in which a national spotlight is shining on widespread—and longstanding—social and racial injustice. The new mission notes that the Foundation’s focus will be on building “just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking where ideas and imagination can thrive” and animated by a belief that “the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity.” 

“We have been evolving our work since I arrived as President, and we are unveiling it at a transformational moment in our history. At Mellon, we believe in the power of the humanities and the arts to facilitate a deeper understanding of the richness of human experience. Now, we urgently ask the question, ‘What does it mean to pursue social justice through the humanities and the arts?’,” said Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation. “We are a problem-solving foundation looking to address historical inequities in the fields we fund. Our mission clearly reflects our values, and the core of our philanthropic approach.”

Board of Trustees Chair Kathryn A. Hall said, “We are inspired by and deeply supportive of our reinvigorated mission and strategic direction for the Mellon Foundation. It not only builds on our historic commitment to the arts and humanities, but rightly emphasizes a desire to make the ‘beauty, transcendence, and freedom’ found there accessible and empowering to all members of society.”

The new strategic direction will engage the public in support of sharper critical thinking across America, expose more people to experience the power and value of learning and art, and in all of this, reflect the true heterogeneity of our communities. To achieve those goals, the Foundation’s grantmaking will be divided into four program areas: 

Higher Learning 
Higher Learning will support inclusive humanities education and diverse learning environments—spaces where the ideas that enrich our understanding of a complex world are created and elevated. Higher Learning will work with colleges, universities, and other organizations that embrace equity in higher learning and have built exemplary capacity to pursue this work, with a focus on historically underserved populations, including nontraditional and incarcerated students. 

Public Knowledge 
Public Knowledge supports the creation and preservation of our cultural record—the vast and ever-growing historical archive that helps us explore and better understand our intertwined humanity. The goal of Public Knowledge is to increase equitable access to deep knowledge— from scholarly texts to community collections—that helps build an informed, culturally diverse, and civically engaged society.  

Arts and Culture 
Arts and Culture celebrates the transcendent power of the arts to challenge, activate, and nourish the human spirit. We support exceptional creative practice, scholarship, and conservation of arts and culture, while nurturing a representative and robust arts and culture ecosystem.

Humanities in Place 
This new program will bring a variety of histories and voices into public, media, and memorial spaces, widening the range of complex public storytelling. Humanities in Place works with historic and memorial spaces, with institutions such as didactic museums, and with conveners of public experiences that may be digital or ephemeral. It broadens and deepens the range of how and where the stories of our histories and communities are told. 

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities. Since 1969, the Foundation has been guided by its core belief that the humanities and arts are essential to human understanding. The Foundation believes that the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity, and that everyone deserves the beauty, transcendence, and freedom to be found there. Through our grants, we seek to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where ideas and imagination can thrive.


As of June 21, 2021, the Million Book Project has a new name: Freedom Reads.

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