Columbia Foundation was established in 1940 "for the furtherance of the public welfare" by Madeleine Haas Russell and her brother, William Haas. Mr. Haas died in 1943. Mrs. Russell led the foundation until her death in April 1999.
The original board of directors included only their uncle, Samuel Lilienthal, and their attorney, John C. Altman. Leon B. Russell, who had married Madeleine Haas, served as a director from 1947 to 1958. Subsequently, family members Walter A. Haas and Daniel E. Koshland served on the board, each for 20 years. Willard Ellis was a director in the early years and served as the foundation's legal counsel until 1988.
The three Russell children have served on the board since 1977. The current board of directors consists of Alice Russell-Shapiro, Charles P. Russell, and Christine H. Russell. Susan R. Clark has been the executive director of the foundation since 1979.
The foundation's broad philanthropic purpose has given it flexibility to respond to changing social conditions. Long-standing interests in world peace, human rights, the environment, cross-cultural and international understanding, the quality of urban life, and the arts have evolved to reflect current conditions and opportunities.