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Creating Real Change by Empowering eople to Help Shape Public Policy.

The History of the Arca Foundation


Foundations need to be experimental. They need to take risks... and face some of the more critical and controversial issues.  We must be prepared to venture into areas of uncertainty if we are to remain a vital instrument in the field of philanthropy.

- Nancy Susan Reynolds, Founder


Ark Definition

ark (ärk)

noun [OE, earc<L. arca]

  1. Bible, the huge boat in which Noah, his family, and two of every kind of creature survived the Flood: Genesis 6
  2. formerly, a large, flat-bottomed river boat
  3. a place or thing furnishing protection: refuge
    1. same as ARK OF THE COVENANT
    1. an enclosure in a synagogue or temple for the scrolls of the Temple
  4. a chest or coffer

In 1952, progress was synonymous with industrialization.

Segregation was enforced by legal statute in the South and unwritten law elsewhere. Much of Central and Latin America was in turmoil, and the Iron Curtain was locked down over much of Eastern Europe. Birth control was still illegal in some states. And a woman’s place was firmly in the home.

But Nancy Susan Reynolds had her own ideas — some decidedly modern ideas for a Southern woman, a wife and a mother of four — about what the world should and could be. She put those ideas into action in 1952, by founding the Nancy Reynolds Bagley Foundation, which later became the Arca Foundation. She wrote at the time, “I have been troubled and dissatisfied with the manner in which I have given to charitable enterprises. Each cause may be worthy in itself, but such isolated giving does not achieve the results that the same amount could realize if concentrated in one field or a few related ones. Foundations do not work in such a haphazard fashion. The natural diversity of opinion found in any group leads to more thorough planning and eventually achieves more continuity and sustained interest.”

In 1968 Mrs. Reynolds renamed the foundation Arca, from the Latin word for treasure chest and the Italian word for ark, a vessel affording safety and protection.  She felt strongly that foundations should not attempt to substitute for government; they should avoid taking the safe path. 

Over the years, the Arca Foundation has looked to activists, academics, policy makers, and intellectuals to inform its grant making. Many of these individuals have served on the board, helped to educate trustees, and introduced the foundation to a wide arena of philanthropy.  Trustees of the Arca Foundation have embarked upon educational journeys, often at the height of conflict, to learn first hand of the challenges confronting the world.

Whether in El Salvador, South Africa, the former Soviet Union, Cuba, or the Middle
East, the Arca Foundation has shown a desire that its philanthropy is deliberate and focused.

Throughout its 55-year history, the Arca Foundation has achieved that continuity and sustained its commitment to experimentation, while helping transform ideas into action. Since 1952, the Arca Foundation has made grants totaling more than $50 million dollars to over 1,700 organizations. The foundation’s grantmaking has grown from $100,000 in 1952 to over $3 million in 2006.  From population policy to toxic waste disposal, Central American conflicts to campaign finance reform, the Arca Foundation has carefully chosen areas of concentration in which to invest its resources, remaining committed to specific principles.

  • To use its resources to empower the experts on the front lines
  • To ensure transparency and honesty in government and enterprise
  • To engage in affecting public policy
  • To pursue social justice and equity
  • To advance the principle that all persons have the right to a secure and dignified life