A ccording to family legend, it was on the porch of the Lilly family summer cottage at Lake Wawasee in north-central Indiana in 1936 that the idea for Lilly Endowment was conceived. Eli Lilly (center) broached the idea to his father, Josiah Kirby (J.K.) Lilly, Sr. (left), and his younger brother, J.K. Lilly, Jr. (right). In a 1967 memo, Eli Lilly recalled, “I suggested … that we should form such an organization if we wanted to continue the family tradition of being generous in public affairs.”

Lilly Endowment Inc. was formally established in 1937 with gifts of stock in Eli Lilly and Company. The pharmaceutical firm was founded in Indianapolis in 1876 by Col. Eli Lilly, father of J.K. Sr. The first donations of 17,500 shares were originally valued at $262,500, but the giving of J.K. Sr. and his sons did not stop there. By 1971 their combined gifts (after stock splits) amounted to nearly 32 million shares valued at about $94 million. Several non-family members contributed another 210,000 shares, valued at $1.1 million. And the Endowment was included in the estate plan of Ruth Lilly, the daughter of J.K. Jr., resulting in gifts from her beginning in 2003 totaling more than $200 million.

During the past 82 years, the Endowment has made grants totaling nearly $10.9 billion to 10,048 charitable organizations. At the end of 2019 the Endowment’s assets totaled nearly $17 billion, which will be used to benefit future generations.

The Founders

The benevolence of J.K. Sr. and his two sons was by no means confined to the Endowment. Each of them contributed millions of dollars to other charitable organizations, and a wide array of their possessions, including real-estate holdings and private collections, were donated for charitable uses.

Col. Eli Lilly, who founded Eli Lilly and Company, set the example for his son and grandsons. An Indianapolis civic leader, he helped organize the Commercial Club of Indianapolis, precursor to the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. He also was a major supporter of the Charity Organization Society, which led relief and employment efforts in Indianapolis during economic downturns in the late 1800s.

Among J.K. Sr.’s favorite charities were the YMCA, the Community Fund (which became the United Way of Central Indiana) and the Red Cross. He also donated significant time and resources to other educational, charitable and scientific endeavors, serving on the initial board of trustees for the Indianapolis Foundation and helping to establish and lead the Purdue Research Foundation. He contributed significantly to the Amelia Earhart Fund for Aeronautical Research, which supported the development of scientific and engineering data important to the aviation industry. The fund was used to finance Earhart’s “flying laboratory,” the Lockhead Electra airplane specially outfitted for long-distance travel, including the 1937 flight in which Earhart disappeared as she tried to circumnavigate the globe.

Young Eli – known as Mr. Eli in later years – gave millions of dollars to Indianapolis Episcopal churches, was a leader in organizing Indiana’s chapter of the United Way, and contributed heavily to countless colleges and charitable organizations. He left virtually his entire estate to charity, including gifts designated for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Indianapolis Children’s Museum, the Indiana Historical Society, Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral and several educational institutions.

The estate grounds of the home purchased by J.K. Jr., Oldfields, are now part of the campus of Newfields: A Place for Nature and the Arts, which includes the Indianapolis Museum of Art. In the 1950s, J.K. Jr. deeded extensive landholdings in northwest Marion County to Purdue University. The property was subsequently transferred to the City of Indianapolis, and it became Eagle Creek Park. With 3,900 acres of land, it is one of the largest city parks in the country. J.K. Jr. also aided the Library of Congress, Yale University and the Bibliographical Society of America in collaborating on a major bibliography of American literature.

The three founders shared a deep reverence for history. J.K. Sr. assembled the original musical works and memorabilia of Stephen Foster, now preserved at the University of Pittsburgh. Eli wrote or edited five historical accounts on Indiana and archaeological subjects and financially supported preservation projects in architecture, archaeology and literature, including Conner Prairie Pioneer Settlement at Noblesville and Angel Mounds State Memorial near Evansville.

J.K. Jr. collected rare books, coins, stamps, marine artifacts and military memorabilia – most now on display in museums and libraries around the country. For instance, in the mid-1950s, he gave more than 20,000 books and documents to Indiana University. Among the texts are a first printing of the Declaration of Independence, John James Audubon’s The Birds of America: From Original Drawings and a rare collection of William Shakespeare’s work known as the “First Folio.” Much of the collection is available for viewing at Lilly Library on the Bloomington campus. J.K.’s collection of more than 6,000 gold coins is now housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Another trait shared by the founders was a conviction that philanthropy was something to be quietly practiced and not heralded. J.K. Sr. summed it up for his sons with the admonition, “When you do something nice for people, do it in a nice way.” His sons interpreted that advice to mean they should give quietly, thus explaining why the philanthropic foundation that bears their name has typically maintained a relatively low profile and encouraged any attention to be given to its grantees, their staffs and volunteers who actually do the charitable work supported by Endowment grants.