Back in America, he dedicated the rest of his life to philanthropy, particularly for education. He set up a $500 million fund to help public school systems nationwide (including $50 million to the Philadelphia school system). He established communication schools (named for his father) at the Universities of Pennsylvania and Southern California (USC). He financed, in 1986, the Annenberg Institute (successor to Philadelphia’s Dropsie College and later to become Penn’s Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies). He sold Triangle Publishing in 1988, putting most of the money into the M.L. Annenberg Foundation he founded the following year in Radnor. He was a hefty supporter of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (with $57 million in cash and eventually $1 billion worth of art), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($150 million), and the United Negro College Fund ($50 million). Besides Penn and USC, he gave $25 million to Harvard and $100 million to the Peddie School of Hightstown, NJ, his prep school alma mater.
In a 1995 profile by Mark Bowden in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Annenberg explained his focus on education: “I see it on TV and read it in the newspapers. Eleven year-old children shooting other eleven-year-old children, bringing knives and guns to school. Maniacal children…Society is breaking down completely in neighborhoods where this happens. It frightens me. I’m frightened for my country. Education is the only answer. It’s the glue that holds civilization together. I decided to concentrate on grades K through 12 because that’s where this needs to be attacked. I wanted to give an amount big enough to startle private and public leaders. I want to elevate it as a national priority. I feel it is my responsibility as a citizen.” Annenberg gave the money to programs for systemic educational reform, and he did so shrewdly, requiring matching funds from private and public sources.
Closer to home Annenberg supported the Academy of Music, Pennsylvania Hospital, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He bought the Zoo a baby elephant. In 1986 President Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom. He received the 1993 Philadelphia Award at its spring ceremony in 1994. At his death he was the 39th wealthiest American, with a fortune over $4 billion.