Patriot and native of New York City and State, she long worked for, supported, guided and in some cases helped found non-profit and government programs for the betterment of the natural and built environments of both urban and rural places; for the arts; and for civil liberties and social justice.
Her government service began in Washington DC, in the 1950s, as a staffer on the Senate Armed Services Preparedness Committee under Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson; continued on various public commissions in Portland, Oregon where she moved to as a young bride, then in Wrangell, Alaska, and years later in Albany at the New York State Council on the Arts (as Chair), the New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation (as Commissioner), and Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial Commission (as Chair). Earlier she had run for the New York State Senate as the Democratic candidate from the Upper East Side.
From 1977 to 1993, Joan Davidson was president of the J. M. Kaplan Fund. As president emeritus, she continued to advocate for the architecture, design, and quality of life of New York City and New York State.
In 1995, Joan Davidson founded Furthermore grants in publishing as a publication program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund. Furthermore supports publication of nonfiction books that concern the arts, history, and the natural and built environment. Since its inception, the program has assisted more than 1,400 books with grants that total over $8 million.
In addition to her leadership of Furthermore, in 2013 Joan founded the Alice Award, an annual prize for illustrated books, and in 2022 she instituted the Carriage House events program at Midwood, her property in the Hudson River Valley
Joan Davidson was educated at Cornell University and the Bank Street School. She lived in Manhattan and the Hudson Valley with many of her four children, twelve grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren in residence nearby.