Aspen Institute

Last updated
Aspen Institute
Aspen Institute logo.svg
Formation1949;72 years ago (1949)
Type Research institute, think tank
Headquarters2300 N Street, NW, Suite 700
President & CEO
Daniel R. Porterfield
Revenue (2019)
$160,402,073 [1]
Expenses (2019)$147,137,098 [1]

The Aspen Institute is an international nonprofit organization founded in 1949 as the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. [2] The Institute and its international partners promote the creation of a free, just, and equitable society in a nonpartisan and nonideological setting through seminars, policy programs, conferences, and leadership development initiatives. The institute is headquartered in Washington, D.C., United States, and has campuses in Aspen, Colorado (its original home), and near the shores of the Chesapeake Bay at the Wye River in Maryland. It has partner Aspen Institutes in Berlin, Rome, Madrid, Paris, Lyon, Tokyo, New Delhi, Prague, Bucharest, Mexico City, and Kyiv, as well as leadership initiatives in the United States and on the African continent, India, and Central America.


The Aspen Institute is largely funded by foundations such as the Carnegie Corporation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, by seminar fees, and by individual donations. Its board of trustees includes leaders from politics, government, business and academia who also contribute to its support. A report by the Center for International Policy's Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative of the top 50 think tanks on the University of Pennsylvania's Global Go-To Think Tanks rating index found that during the period 2014-2018 the Aspen Institute received the fifth-highest amount of funding from outside the United States compared to other think tanks, with a total of more than US$8 million from donors that originated primarily in Western democracies but also "sizeable donations from undemocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates." [3]


The institute was largely the creation of Walter Paepcke, a Chicago businessman who had become inspired by the Great Books program of Mortimer Adler at the University of Chicago. [4] In 1945, Paepcke visited Bauhaus artist and architect Herbert Bayer, AIA, who had designed and built a Bauhaus-inspired minimalist home outside the decaying former mining town of Aspen, in the Roaring Fork Valley. Paepcke and Bayer envisioned a place where artists, leaders, thinkers, and musicians could gather. Shortly thereafter, while passing through Aspen on a hunting expedition, oil industry maverick Robert O. Anderson (soon to be founder and CEO of Atlantic Richfield) met with Bayer and shared in Paepcke's and Bayer's vision. In 1949, Paepcke organized a 20-day international celebration for the 200th birthday of German poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The celebration attracted over 2,000 attendees, including Albert Schweitzer, José Ortega y Gasset, Thornton Wilder, and Arthur Rubinstein. [5]

Doerr-Hosier Center at the Aspen Institute in Aspen, Colorado Front of the Doerr-Hosier Center at the Aspen Institute - 2.JPG
Doerr-Hosier Center at the Aspen Institute in Aspen, Colorado

In 1949, Paepcke founded the Aspen Institute; and later the Aspen Music Festival and eventually (with Bayer and Anderson) the International Design Conference at Aspen (IDCA). [6] Paepcke sought a forum "where the human spirit can flourish", especially amid the whirlwind and chaos of modernization. He hoped that the Institute could help business leaders recapture what he called "eternal verities": the values that guided them intellectually, ethically, and spiritually as they led their companies. Inspired by philosopher Mortimer Adler's Great Books seminar at the University of Chicago, Paepcke worked with Anderson to create the Aspen Institute Executive Seminar. [7] In 1951, the Institute sponsored a national photography conference attended by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Berenice Abbott, and other notables. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Institute added organizations, programs, and conferences, including the Aspen Center for Physics, the Aspen Strategy Group, Communications and Society Program and other programs that concentrated on education, communications, justice, Asian thought, science, technology, the environment, and international affairs.

In 1979, through a donation by Corning Glass industrialist and philanthropist Arthur A. Houghton Jr., the Institute acquired a 1,000-acre (4 km2) campus on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, known today as the Wye River Conference Centers. [8]

In 1996, the first Socrates Program seminar was hosted.[ citation needed ]

In 2005, it held the first Aspen Ideas Festival, featuring leading minds from around the world sharing and speaking on global issues. The institute, along with The Atlantic , hosts the festival annually. It has trained philanthropists such as Carrie Morgridge. [9]

Since 2013, [10] the Aspen Institute together with U.S. magazine The Atlantic and Bloomberg Philanthropies has participated in organizing the annual CityLab event, a summit dedicated to develop strategies for the challenges of urbanization in today's cities. [11]

Walter Isaacson was the president and CEO of Aspen Institute from 2003 to June 2018. Isaacson announced in March 2017 that he would step down as president and CEO at the end of the year. [12] On November 30, 2017, Daniel Porterfield was announced as his successor. Porterfield succeeded Isaacson on June 1, 2018. [13]

In April 2020, the company received approximately $8 million in federally backed small business loans as part of the Paycheck Protection Program. The company received scrutiny over this loan, which meant to protect small and private businesses. The Washington Post noted their large endowment and membership of billionaires made this problematic. Dele Olojede, a fellow at the institute, called it "contrary to the stated purpose of this institute", that "one of America’s most elite institutions thinks it is okay to take the money", going on to say "Those who purport to be values-based and public-spirited leaders cannot at the same time put self interest first, when there is so much human suffering and death". [14] The day after Olojede and the Washington Post highlighted the funding, Aspen Institute announced they would return it, stating "Upon listening to our communities and further reflection, we have made the decision to return the loan". [15]


As of 2019 the Aspen Institute had net assets of $310,055,857. [1]

Funding details


Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence

Community Colleges which succeed in attaining exceptional results for all students during their time in college and as post-graduates are awarded the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. [16] [17]

Recipients to date include:

Aspen Institute Faculty Pioneers and Dissertation Proposal Award

The Financial Times called the Faculty Pioneers and Dissertation Proposal Awards the "Oscars of the business school world". These honor business school instructors with an outstanding track record of leadership and risk-taking in ensuring that the MBA curriculum incorporates social, environmental and ethical issues. [21]

Recipients in the Category "Lifetime Achievement" include:

Excellence and Equity in Community College STEM Award

Community Colleges which demonstrate the provision of outstanding technical education and successfully link students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, family income or gender, with STEM careers as a gateway to economic mobility, are eligible to receive the Excellence and Equity in Community College STEM Award. The prize, awarded in co-operation of the Aspen Institute and Siemens Foundation, provides leading college staff with a benchmark standard of development and technical programs which foster equitable student success by highlighting exemplary practices of the winning programs. [23] [24]

Recipients include:

See also

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Walter Paepcke was a U.S. industrialist and philanthropist prominent in the mid-20th century. A longtime executive of the Chicago-based Container Corporation of America, Paepcke is best noted for his founding of the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Skiing Company in the early 1950s, both of which helped transform the town of Aspen, Colorado into an international resort destination and popularize the sport of skiing in the United States.

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Dele Olojede is a Nigerian journalist and former foreign editor for Newsday. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his work covering the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. He serves on the board of EARTH University, in Costa Rica, and of The Markup, the New York-based investigative journalism organization focused on the impact of large tech platforms and their potential for human manipulation. He is the founder and host of Africa In the World, a hearts and minds festival held annually in Stellenbosch, in the Cape winelands of South Africa. He was a patron of the Etisalat Prize for Literature.

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The Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) is an international network of organizations that works to promote entrepreneurship in developing countries. Services and programming efforts focus on providing financial support for small and growing businesses and entrepreneurs whose organizations are too large for microfinance loans and too small for traditional bank loans. The organization was launched in January 2009, as a public policy initiative of the Aspen Institute.

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Charles de Ganahl Koch is an American billionaire businessman and philanthropist. As of April 2021, he was ranked as the 15th-richest person in the world on Bloomberg Billionaires Index, with an estimated net worth of $63.1 billion. Koch has been co-owner, chairman, and chief executive officer of Koch Industries since 1967, while his late brother David Koch served as executive vice president. Charles and David each owned 42% of the conglomerate. The brothers inherited the business from their father, Fred C. Koch, then expanded the business. Originally involved exclusively in oil refining and chemicals, Koch Industries now includes process and pollution control equipment and technologies, polymers and fibers, minerals, fertilizers, commodity trading and services, forest and consumer products, and ranching. The businesses produce a wide variety of well-known brands, such as Stainmaster carpet, the Lycra brand of spandex fiber, Quilted Northern tissue, and Dixie Cup.

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Founded in 2005, the Aspen Ideas Festival (AIF) is a week-long event held in Aspen, Colorado in the United States. The Aspen Ideas Festival program of events includes discussions, seminars, panels, and tutorials from journalists, designers, innovators, politicians, diplomats, presidents, judges, musicians, artists, and writers.

The Franklin Project was a policy program of the Aspen Institute from October 2012 to December 2015, that focused on advancing national service in the United States. Walter Isaacson called the project the "biggest idea" to come out of the Aspen Ideas Festival during his tenure as CEO of the Aspen Institute. In January 2016, the project merged with ServiceNation and the Service Year Exchange project of the National Conference on Citizenship to form Service Year Alliance.

Aspen Meadows Resort

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  15. Jonathan O'Connell (14 May 2020). "Aspen Institute to return $8 million in small business funds". The Washington Post. Retrieved 14 May 2020. “We believe that our application, which was made in the first week of the PPP, was consistent with the goals of the program. Upon listening to our communities and further reflection, we have made the decision to return the loan,” said spokeswoman Amy DeMaria in a statement. “The Aspen Institute is committed to doing our part to help the country and the world both recover from and rebuild after this global pandemic. We stand with all who are trying to make a difference in very difficult times.”
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