Our History

The S.H. Cowell Foundation was established in 1956 through a bequest from Samuel Henry Cowell (1861-1955). His father, Henry Cowell, migrated from Massachusetts to California during the Gold Rush and made a sizeable fortune in the building materials, drayage and storage industries. S.H. Cowell 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.

S.H. Cowell lived in San Francisco and Santa Cruz throughout his life. He worked extensively to conserve California’s coastal areas, eventually donating land for the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz. He came from a charitable family whose interests and activities were widespread and significant in the region, including:

  • 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 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Relief Fund.
  • Funding a new facility for the San Francisco Association for the Blind (now known as the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired).
  • Contributing to the arts in San Francisco.
  • Helping fund a home for the aged.
  • Giving significantly to the Visiting Nurses Association, the Congregational Church of Santa Cruz and the City of Santa Cruz.

A $12.5 million bequest of primarily real estate was made to establish the Foundation after S.H. Cowell’s death in 1955. Since its inception, the Foundation has made nearly $300 million in grants to more than 2,000 organizations. Today, the Foundation’s major responsibilities include making grants, managing the Foundation’s investments and supporting grantees and their communities.