The S.H. Cowell Foundation was established in 1956 through a bequest from Samuel Henry Cowell (1861-1955). His father, Henry Cowell, migrated to California during the Gold Rush and made a sizeable fortune in the building materials, drayage and storage industries. S.H. continued and expanded the family business to include a significant real estate portfolio throughout Northern California - more than 80,000 acres of land in all.
Throughout his life, S.H. Cowell lived in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. The family's charitable interests and activities were significant in the region. Their philanthropic interests were widespread: underwriting the construction of the Ernest V. Cowell Student Health Center at the University of California, Berkeley; providing a scholarship fund for students from Santa Cruz to attend the University of California, helping to establish the San Francisco Earthquake Relief Fund in 1906 and building the Lighthouse for the Blind. The Cowell sisters, Isabella and Helen, contributed to the arts in San Francisco and were lead donors to a home for the aged. The family gave significantly to the Visiting Nurses Association, the Congregational Church of Santa Cruz and the City of Santa Cruz. S.H. Cowell worked extensively over his life to conserve California's coastal areas and donated land for the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz.
Upon S.H. Cowell's death in 1955, the bequest to the Foundation was primarily in real estate. The assets transferred from the estate to the Foundation were valued at more than $12.5 million dollars.
Making grants, managing the Foundation's investments, supporting grantees and their communities and partnering with other funders and non-profits are the Foundation's major responsibilities. As of December 2013, the Foundation's assets are valued at approximately $133 million. Since its inception, the Foundation has made more than $271 million in grants to 2,069 organizations.
The Foundation's work today is organized around a place-based grantmaking strategy, one that aims to support communities where residents, service providers, educators and civic leaders are able to create a common vision and work effectively together to improve the quality of life for children and families living in poverty.
Nearly all of Cowell’s grants invest in underserved towns, communities and neighborhoods throughout Northern and Central California. Within this place-based framework, Cowell’s grants are focused around five program areas — Family Resource Centers, K-12 Public Education, Youth Development, Affordable Housing, and Responsive Grantmaking.