(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets. For more information about George Lucas and other Giving Pledgers, visit Foundation Center's Eye on the Giving Pledge.)
The Force may not necessarily guide George Lucas’s philanthropic interests but it certainly has helped fund and spur his efforts to elevate education, arts and film, and healthcare and human services.
Lucas has leveraged his wealth from the enormously popular Star Wars franchise – he directed, produced, and wrote the first three movies in the series – into a series of philanthropic investments, many of them focused on education.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh installment in the Star Wars saga, launches today. Although Lucas only served as a creative consultant for the J.J. Abrams-helmed film, his fingerprints on the long-awaited blockbuster are evident and ticket sales for its opening weekend are likely to set records.
- Film director, writer, and producer
- Best known for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises
- Founder of Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic, and Pixar
- Modesto, California native
- Founded the George Lucas Family Foundation in 2005 ($1.1 billion in assets)
- Personal net worth estimated at more than $5.3 billion
Building a Legacy
Over the decades, the epic intergalactic tales of clashing Jedi and Sith in “a galaxy far, far away” have achieved cult status and, thanks to a licensing and merchandising empire running the gamut from T-shirts, toys, and books to gaming and other collectibles, earned Lucas a devoted multi-generational following – and a sizable fortune.
Lucas has used that fortune to support various organization and initiatives in the areas of education, art and culture, and civic and human services. He’s even building and endowing his own museum in Chicago, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, that will be dedicated to storytelling and the evolution of the moving image.
At one point, Lucas had considered San Francisco’s Crissy Field, historically the “front door” of the Presidio (now Golden Gate National Recreation Area), as a museum site. Negotiations with the Presidio Trust broke down, and Lucas eventually decided to build the museum in Chicago, where his wife, Mellody Hobson, was born.
“Our education system (is) little better than an assembly line, with producing diplomas as its only goal.”
Slated to open in 2018, the museum will be built on vacant lots between Soldier Field and McCormick Place, near the city’s famous lakefront Museum Campus (home to the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, and Adler Planetarium), and will house a portion of Lucas’s personal collection, which is valued at $1 billion.
Lucas, 71, amassed the bulk of his $5.3 billion fortune when he sold his film and television production company Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Company in 2012 for a reported $4.05 billion.
The original home of the Star Wars franchise, the legendary company also produced the popular Indiana Jones franchise (on which Lucas partnered with his friend Steven Spielberg) and was where the acclaimed animated film studio Pixar, producer of mega-hits such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Cars got its start as Graphix Group, a Lucasfilm computer division.
Early Life and Career
Lucas graduated in 1967 from the University of Southern California, where he often hung out with a young Stephen Spielberg, then a film student at nearby California State University, Long Beach.
After returning to USC as a graduate film student, Lucas had some early success with a short film and, in 1969, was one of the cameramen on Gimme Shelter, the award-winning Rolling Stones concert film by Albert and David Maysles. He then co-founded his own studio, American Zoetrope, in 1971 with up-and-coming filmmaker Frances Ford Coppola. His first feature film for the studio (an adaptation of his earlier short film) flopped, and eventually Lucas decided to go out on his own. In 1973, he founded Lucasfilm and directed American Graffiti (1973). Inspired by Lucas's teen years growing up in Modesto, California, the film featured a young Richard Dreyfus, Ron Howard, and Harrison Ford. The film received rave reviews and five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.
Lucas’s subsequent projects would include Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). In the 1980s, he primarily served as a producer or executive producer on other people’s films, including Body Heat (1981), Labyrinth (1986), and the animated film The Land Before Time (1988). He then teamed up with Spielberg for the Indiana Jones trilogy, reuniting with Harrison Ford (who had starred as Han Solo in Star Wars and played the title role in the Indiana Jones movies). Although he didn't write the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Lucas returned to direct The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005).
Philanthropic Efforts – Prioritizing Education Reform
Although Lucas has been relatively quiet about what inspires his philanthropy, he has articulated why he selected education as his chief giving priority. After Lucas and Hobson were among the first people to sign on to Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates’ Giving Pledge campaign, Lucas, wrote in his Giving Pledge letter: “It’s scary to think of our education system as little better than an assembly line with producing diplomas as its only goal. Once I had the means to effect change in this arena, it became my passion to do so — to promote active, life-long learning.”
“We need to promote critical thinking and emotional intelligence,” he added. “We need to focus on building an education system that promotes different types of learning, different types of development, and different types of assessment. We have an opportunity and an obligation to prepare our children for the real world, for dealing with others in practical, project-based environments.”
Even before he became a Giving Pledger in 2010, the Modesto native had regularly given large gifts to his alma mater, the University of Southern California, including one of his largest gifts, $175 million, to support initiatives at the film school. In October, Variety reported that $10 million of that gift will be used to provide financial support to African American and Hispanic students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Over the years, Lucas also launched half a dozen foundations, most of which are aimed at enhancing education via the development of innovative teaching models and the dissemination of best practices. The largest of these are the George Lucas Family Foundation and the George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF).
GLEF works in conjunction with Lucas’ online think tank and operating foundation, Edutopia, to share and promote educational innovations, including cooperative and project learning; mentorship; parental involvement; and technological advances. As an operating foundation, Edutopia runs its own programs and does not engage in grantmaking.
“Our goal has been to showcase bold successes and inspire others to further increase the appetite for education,” Lucas said of GLEF and Edutopia. “Our hope is that administrators, teachers, and parents will see the power of these collective efforts and join the fight for wider reforms.”
“It became my passion…to promote active, life-long learning.”
According to 2013 tax returns, the George Lucas Foundation distributed nearly $18.6 million to 161 organizations in the United States, including nonprofits in California, New York, and Washington, D.C. Although several of the recipients are based in Los Angeles, the majority are located in Northern California, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Lucas’s former companies are based.
The largest foundation gifts - $5.9 million, $2.8 million, two gifts of $2.1 million and $1.4 million - were all given to support USC’s Phase III expansion of the School of Cinematic Arts. The foundation also awarded general support grants of $525,000 and $11,600 to GLEF; $250,000 to the Film Foundation – Los Angeles; $200,000 to the Film Foundation – New York; $100,000 to the Center for the Education of the Infant Deaf in Berkeley, California; and $25,000 to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C.
Also in 2013, dozens of San Francisco-based education, arts and health and human services organizations received smaller grants and donations, ranging from $500 up to $25,000, including the San Francisco AIDS Fund/Breast Cancer Emergency Fund’s Trivia Night Fundraiser ($25,000) and the San Francisco Film Society ($25,000).
In addition, the IRS returns reveal that the foundation has approved $135.5 million in future payments. The largest portion of that, $100 million, will bolster the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s support for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
Other large future gifts include $25 million to the University of Chicago; $9 million to USC to endow three new faculty chairs in the cinematic arts; and $1 million to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art.
Lucas’ smaller foundations: the AEL, JWL and KRL foundations (likely named for his oldest children) each distributed a modest $20,000.
What’s next for the brilliant filmmaker, entrepreneur, and philanthropist? As Lucas himself puts it: “As humans, our greatest tool for survival is our ability to think and to adapt — as educators, storytellers, and communicators our responsibility is to continue to do so.”
We look forward to the convergence of Lucas’s passion for storytelling and philanthropy, and we look forward to learning more about his expanding philanthropic interests.