The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation supports arts organizations, artists, and K-12 education in the Triangle region of North Carolina. Per Mrs. Biddle's direction, one-half of funding goes to Duke University. MDBF also makes grants to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and three churches, all institutions important to Mrs. Biddle's family.
Mary Duke Biddle
Mary Lillian Duke Biddle was born on November 16, 1887, in Durham, N.C., the only daughter of Benjamin Newton Duke and Sarah Pearson Angier Duke. She attended public schools in Durham and in 1907 graduated from Trinity College, later named Duke University in honor of her grandfather, Washington Duke. Mrs. Biddle developed an appreciation for the importance of philanthropy from her father, who was the guiding hand behind many of the Duke family’s charitable activities. Duke University, in particular, flourished in its early days thanks to the financial backing of her grandfather, father, and Uncle James B. Duke, who were successful entrepreneurs as well as philanthropists.
She took an active part in the civic and social life of Durham until her marriage in 1915 to Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle, Jr., after which she lived in New York City and Irvington-on-Hudson, NY. The couple had two children, daughter Mary and son Nicholas. Divorced in 1931, Mrs. Biddle and her children moved back to Durham for part of each year beginning in 1936. As she spent more time in Durham, her family and civic connections deepened.
In September 1956, she established The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation. She focused the foundation’s grantmaking in North Carolina and New York, in recognition of their significance to her and her family. She singled out three churches, in Durham, New York City, and Irvington, NY as institutions important to her. Mrs. Biddle also directed that at least one-half of the foundation’s grants be made to Duke University. Mrs. Biddle otherwise gave the foundation’s Board of Trustees broad discretion in determining how best to accomplish her objectives.
The Foundation Today
Mary Duke Biddle was intentionally broad in her directions to future trustees on how and where to distribute grants. Over its history, the foundation has given to a range of causes, including but not limited to arts and culture, education, and health and human services. Mrs. Biddle had the foresight to suggest that the trustees from “time to time” reconsider the best ways to accomplish her goals, recognizing the need to look forward and adapt to changing issues. Her vision for current and purposeful giving drives the work of the foundation’s trustees and staff.
The board and staff regularly scrutinize internal operations and grantmaking practices to ensure that the foundation retains its strong philanthropic practices. In 2023, the foundation is embarking on a year-long process to redesign our grantmaking approach to make more impactful grants and find ways to be a stronger partner to nonprofits. MDBF will continue to support our long-standing interests in arts organizations, artists, and K-12 education in the Triangle region of North Carolina. Changes will focus on how we can help nonprofits thrive, not just survive, and how we can build stronger relationships.
The Board of Trustees firmly believes that the foundation is well poised for the future, moving forward the mission developed by Mrs. Biddle, Dr. and Mrs. Semans, trustees, and staff, and carried out by those within the organizations we have been privileged to serve.
Continuing a Family Tradition
Mrs. Biddle valued the input and wisdom of her friends and trusted advisers, and, from the beginning, the foundation’s Board of Trustees has included family and non-family members. The foundation continues her practice of actively engaging members of the community to serve as trustees. Currently, the board is comprised of three family and four non-family members.
Since its inception, Mrs. Biddle’s family has played an integral role in guiding the foundation.The original trustees included her son Nicholas D. Biddle, daughter Mary D.B.T. Semans, and son-in-law James H. Semans, M.D. Dr. and Mrs. Semans both served on the board for nearly 50 years, as chair and vice-chair, respectively. Succeeding generations have continued to oversee Mrs. Biddle’s philanthropic legacy. Granddaughter Mary Trent Jones was a board member for 32 years, including eight years as chair. Today, family trustees are great-grandsons Ben Jones (Chair) and Joe Lucas and grandson George Biddle.
Mary D.B.T. Semans and James H. Semans, M.D.
For much of its history, The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation was led by Mrs. Biddle’s daughter, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans and her husband, Duke surgeon and urologist Dr. James H. Semans. Respected civic, artistic, and philanthropic leaders in North Carolina, they were champions for the arts, education, and Duke University. Both were founding trustees, serving on the foundation’s board for nearly 50 years until their retirement in 2004.
With a strong belief in the transformative power of the arts, they guided the foundation’s support for artists, arts education, and arts organizations. Two efforts are emblematic of their leadership. With the foundation’s support, in 1986 the Durham Arts Council established the Emerging Artists Award, a statewide model that continues to this day. One of the couple’s greatest and most enduring legacies remains the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA). Along with NC Governor Terry Sanford and author John Ehle, they were instrumental in establishing the nation’s first state-supported secondary school and conservatory for the arts. The Biddle Foundation continues to support both the Durham Arts Council and the UNCSA.
Together, Dr. and Mrs. Semans received numerous awards for their arts leadership and support, including the North Carolina Award for their distinguished contribution to the fine arts; the Presidential Award from the NC Association of Arts Councils for fostering the State’s first Emerging Artist Program; and the North Carolina Philanthropy Award, among others.
Mary Duke Biddle specified in the foundation’s charter that half of its funding go to Duke University. Her family was instrumental in bringing its predecessor, Trinity College, to Durham, and their philanthropy supported Trinity’s development into a thriving university named for her grandfather, Washington Duke. As the leadership of the foundation has passed to subsequent generations of family members and trustees, this relationship with Duke has been carefully cultivated to ensure that the foundation’s funding honors the family’s legacy while assisting the university in achieving its goals.
Together, foundation trustees and the university’s leadership work together each year to identify where MDBF’s awards can have significant impact. The arts have been a central focus, with consistent support for the music, dance, theater, film, and art and art history programs as well as for the Nasher Museum of Art and Duke Performances, the university’s performing arts presenting organization. In addition, grants assist the continued development of the renowned Sarah P. Duke Gardens, named by Mrs. Biddle in honor of her mother. In Duke’s world-class medical school and hospital, the foundation supports student scholarships and Arts and Health at Duke, a path-breaking program that makes art available to patients and staff at Duke Hospital. In recent years, the foundation has also funded innovative projects that demonstrate potential for having strategic impact at the university.
Proposals from Duke are coordinated through the Office of Foundation Relations in Duke’s University Development office. The foundation does not accept proposals from Duke faculty or staff outside of this process.
A Message from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation
The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation is guided by the Duke family’s longtime commitment to philanthropy that improves people’s lives. The Foundation has sought to improve the lives of marginalized and vulnerable people including the economically disadvantaged, differently abled, women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. The occurrence of the horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, motivate us now more than ever to work proactively to dismantle systemic racism and use our efforts to fight racism wherever possible.
Prior to her death in 2012, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, our matriarch and a founding trustee, told us that we need always “to be acutely conscious of what affects other people and try to do as much for them as you can…to fight for the right things, to have the courage to stand up for the right things, to fight discrimination all the time.”
We take to heart Mary Semans’ directive and challenge. We recommit to work for equity, diversity, and inclusion. We will take action to ensure that underrepresented voices are heard, that opportunities are equally shared, and that racial injustice ends.