Through Gifts She Made a Difference

Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage (1828-1918), known as Olivia Sage, experienced extreme poverty and immense wealth. And she became “one of the greatest female philanthropists our world has ever known.” Through gifts she made a difference.

By Bain News Service, publisher –
Image available from the United States Library of Congress’s
Prints and Photographs division, Public Domain

Early Life

The daughter of Margaret Pierson and Joseph Slocum, Olivia grew up in Syracuse, New York. Her wealthy and devoutly religious family were members of the First Presbyterian Church. They opposed reform movements like those involving women’s rights and abolition of slavery. 

After the Panic of 1837, her father’s businesses and warehouses failed. He lost his fortune before she reached her teenage years. Sponsored by a wealthy uncle, she attended the prestigious Troy Female Seminary (now Emma Willard School). An academically rigorous school, it quietly advocated for women’s financial independence through education. This influenced Olivia greatly. She considered its headmistress her mentor. She graduated in 1847.


Olivia became a teacher (one of the few acceptable female professions at the time). She experienced firsthand the limited opportunities, underpaid, and overworked difficulties common for the 19th century woman.

The year 1948 sparked Olivia’s interest in women’s rights. It was the year of the “Declaration of Sentiments” in Seneca Falls. In 1852, the Third National Women’s Rights Convention was held in Syracuse while Olivia was living there.

She lived with her parents. In 1857, her father was fatally ill with tuberculosis. They sold their family home. And Olivia and her mother had to move in with relatives.

During the Civil War, Olivia moved to Philadelphia where she worked as a governess for wealthy families.


Olivia turned down a few marriage proposals “because she felt they were not to her advantage and two restrictive.”

 At the age of 41, she married Russell Sage. Sage was a widower, financier, and railroad baron. He was 12 years older than she. One of the richest men in America, he was also a miser. They had no children.

He died in 1906 and left his entire fortune to Olivia without restriction.  Most women of that time were not given that freedom.

 His estate was worth almost $75,000,000 (the equivalent of about $1.8 billion in today’s dollars).

Early Philanthropy

National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Common

Through gifts, she made a difference. She volunteered tirelessly even while a single working woman and always gave a portion of her small teacher’s salary to charity.

She volunteered at a military hospital during the Civil War. 

During her marriage to Slocum, she supported a variety of causes from social work to the human treatment of animals. She tried to get her husband to donate to her charities. Only rarely did she get more than token donation from him.

Aggressive Philanthropy

Inside Risley Hall, Cornell University. Portrait of Margaret Slocum Sage on the wall.
photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel, CC BY-SA 4.0

After her husband died in 1906, Olivia “began one of the most aggressive philanthropic binges in American history.”

She conducted serious investigations of potential beneficiaries. And she only gave to those who to helped themselves.

Olivia supported education. She gave many gifts to universities and colleges, founded a women’s college, and supported the women’s suffrage movement. And she donated Constitution Island to the federal government as an addition to West Point. 

She became a patron of E. Lilian Todd, the first woman in the world to design airplanes. 

A woman of her time, some of Olivia’s gifts revealed a morally elite attitude. Gifts for women’s education required that women abstain from dancing, drinking, smoking, and boys. She was a benefactor of the Carlisle School. It was a school determined to make Native Americans acceptable to mainstream white American Christians.

By the time she died, Olivia gave away over $45,000,000.


Olivia died November 4, 1918, at the age of 90. Her estate was worth close to $50,000,000. Almost all of it went to charities. Among her gifts, two showed she had changed. She bequeathed generous donations to the African American institutions—Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes.

She chose to be buried in Syracuse, next to her parents.


Olivia Sage was a born philanthropist and gave on a grand scale. She was a mix of conservative and female discontent, and she was a strong woman. She didn’t live long enough to see women vote. And many believe her donations did little because she gifted so many organizations and institutions. Did she cause a major change? Not on a national scale. But through gifts she made a difference. 

The Best Gifts are Given from the Heart

Hello, December! Tis the season for the hustle and bustle of gift giving and getting. But the best gift is given from the heart. Consider volunteering or giving to worthy charities instead of purchasing that impulse buy you’re thinking of gifting to yourself. Or ask your friends and family to donate in lieu of buying you a gift this season. But let’s talk about how you choose a worthy charity and about one of the charities I support, the American Humane Society.

Give Wisely

There are many, many worthy charities out there. Unfortunately, there are some organizations that call themselves charities but are less than well-organized or downright dishonest. Before you give to any charity, check them out.

There are three charity watch organizations.

BBB Wise Giving Alliance 

Charity Navigator 

Charity Watch

Be certain to understand their rating system.

Obviously, the watch organizations can’t cover every single charity, especially the small ones. But the ones they don’t cover, you can ask the questions yourself. Ask for the kind of information these charity watch organizations do.

Too much work to look up the organization on three different sites? Consumer Reports looked at each of the three charity watches to come up with a list of best-rated charities. You can find that list here.

The Best Gift is Given From the Heart

By that I mean, choose a cause or charity that means something to you. One that expresses and acts upon some situation you believe deserves attention. You know, the subjects that you are passionate about.

I’ve always been an animal lover but after working a few months at a pet rescue shelter—wow. People and situations can be unimaginably cruel. Critters need our help. Now, I’m passionate about ensuring humane treatment of all animals.

The American Humane Society

The Best Gifts are Given From the Heart. Won't you consider donating to the American Humane Society

The American Humane Society was founded 141 years ago. (Isn’t that amazing?) Before 1877 there were several organizations attempting to prevent cruelty to animals. But they had no unified voice. Delegates from 10 states, representing 27 organizations, met in Cleveland, Ohio and joined their efforts. Thus the American Humane Society was born.

The society “is committed to ensuring the safety, welfare, and well-being of animals. Our leadership programs are first to serve in promoting and nurturing the bonds between animals and humans.”

History of the Humane Society

The Humane Society’s history is so long I can only give you a taste of the things they’ve done.

They were instrumental in exposing unsanitary and inhumane methods in slaughterhouses.

They rescued and treated wounded horses from the battlefields of World War I.

The society investigated and brought cruelty to animals in the movies to the public’s attention.

When 1,400 lambs froze to death, they pressured the government to pass laws to protect animals during transportation.

The society considered that prevention of cruelty to children was part of their agenda. They campaigned for safety for children, for changes in the nation’s labor laws, and for safe, off-the-street playgrounds among many other things.

They’ve provided disaster relief in countless situations rescuing and/or feeding and housing pets, wildlife, and livestock.

After 141 years of work, their history is extensive. Read more about it here.


Today the American Humane Society has many programs.

The American Humane Lois Pope Life Center for Military affairs helps military service animals. They offer support and treatment for those animals serving in war zones, they provide or assist with service animals for veterans and military families, they offer healthcare and support for retired military service animals, and they recognize and honor animals that have served in the military.

In support of conservation, the society is the world’s largest certifier of the welfare and humane treatment of animals in working and other environments.

They provide grants and awards to support and facilitate efforts to rescue, shelter, and care for animals in need—whether homeless, injured, or abused. Some of those grants and awards help servicemen and women get service dogs. The application forms are on their website.

The society monitors more than 1000 film and TV productions per year. They are on set to protect animal actors.

They also actively educate people on humane treatment of animals and how best to care for their animals in difficult situations. See their fact sheets here.

How You Can Give

The American Humane Society takes one time or monthly donations, donations in honor of someone’s memory. Now, for a limited time, a donor has promised to double your donation. So any amount will help. Go here to donate.

They have a Visa signature credit card that when you use it a percentage goes to support the Society. Learn more here.

You can volunteer as a rescue team member.

You can target donations to former military service animals so they can retire in comfort and with the healthcare they need. Give here.

You can donate your vehicle. Here are the forms.

Or, you can spread the word about their good deeds.


It’s a gift-giving time of year. Thank you for considering making a gift to the American Humane Society.

The best gifts are given from the heart. What gifts have you made from your heart? Do you gift or volunteer for charities or causes? Which ones?