The World's Greatest Philanthropists

"We're Living In A Time When Many Great Innovations And Opportunities Exist, Yet

David Rockefeller Jr. on his family’s enduring philanthropic legacy

Courtesy: The Rockefeller foundation

No family foundation in the world has the vintage or the recall of The Rockefeller Foundation. John D Rockefeller Sr. established the foundation in 1913 to promote the well-being of humanity around the world. This institutional philanthropy pioneer’s contribution to medical breakthroughs is largely unknown. Many scientists supported by the foundation have gone on to win the Nobel prize and it is possibly the only one with a 100-year history of publishing annual reports. The latter is a reflection of not only its archiving systems but also the foundation’s guiding principles. David Rockefeller Jr., the current board chair, is the great-grandson of the founder and guides the foundation with the same passion that he has for the environment, ocean conservation and his favourite pastime, sailing.


The Rockefeller Foundation is among the world’s oldest philanthropic institutions. Can you tell us how the foundation has evolved over the years in terms of thinking and approach? 

Last year, The Rockefeller Foundation celebrated its Centennial — 100 years of practising strategic philanthropy. When we looked back over the arc of our history, what became clear was that while the world has indeed changed a great deal since my great-grandfather John D Rockefeller Sr. started the foundation in 1913, many of our strengths have remained the same: the ability to back brains, which has led to some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century; our convening power, which brings together mighty and disparate stakeholders in the pursuit of a shared cause; and our constant search for what my great-grandfather called “finalities” -— in other words, how do we get to the roots of these problems and address the systems that shape them, rather than treating their symptoms? 

While our strengths have endured, the areas in which the foundation has worked have seen a good amount of change, in line with the pressing challenges of the time. In our earliest years, we began with a focus on medical education in the United States and China and, from there, moved into the sciences and then the social sciences, agriculture and biotechnology. Today, we pursue the dual goals of building resilience and advancing more inclusive economies. But while our goals and focus areas have been changing, we still approach problems with the same rigour and thirst for knowledge.

The foundation has many firsts to its credit. What is it that you are most proud of and is there anything that you think you could have done better? 

Well, perhaps I am biased because of my family’s long association with the foundation, but I would say my greatest pride comes from the fact that my great-grandfather was among the first, if not the first, to establish a philanthropy that sought to make an impact globally without concern for man-made borders. This was an innovation at the time. Of course, there are a great many things that the foundation probably could have done better in hindsight. But I think our forebearers would be the first to admit their own mistakes and, in fact, they do in many of the programme officer journals that we keep in our archives. Risk-taking and failure are part of the calculus of philanthropy — the important thing is to learn from those instances that did not go quite as expected. 

What mistakes of the past have you learnt from? Could you share an example where the learning was applied? 

While we consider the Green Revolution to be among our greatest successes, we recognize that the amazing impact of feeding a billion people throughout Asia and Latin America produced some unintended consequences; for example, the rise in the use and misuse of pesticides. Through the work of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), established in 2006 by The Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to catalyse the same kind of transformation in Africa, we’ve integrated many lessons we learned from the first time around, including building disease resistance into crops primarily through breeding, not pesticides, and making sure that the organic fertilisers we do use will be in small doses. Another criticism of the first Green Revolution was that it didn’t take into account local food preferences — so we have taken care to work with and around cultural norms and breeding crops to suit.

We’ve learned many important lessons from the Green Revolution in Asia and Latin America — although conditions in Africa are significantly different from the ones that prevailed in those other regions.  Certainly, the need for more environmental sensitivity is clear. In The Rockefeller Foundation’s role as co-creator of AGRA, we help to promote Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM), a set of soil fertility management practices that, among other things, limits the use of chemical fertilisers. This is just one example of our continuous efforts to monitor, self-reflect, self-correct, learn, change and relearn.

Among the foundation’s four focus areas of ‘revalue ecosystems, secure livelihoods, transform cities and advance health’, do you have a favourite focus area that you are very excited about? Which is it and why? 

All of our work is based on areas of dynamism, so all of these are inherently exciting and important. My wife Susan and I focus much of our own charitable giving in the area of ecosystems, specifically the world’s oceans, so I’m certainly interested in the continued learning of the foundation’s work in that area. 

How do you assess when a grant is worth making? The common sense answer would be by measuring impact but there is seldom clarity in the initial stages. Do you measure how it fits across your focus areas? For example, the SPEED project in India transcends three out of four focus areas. Is that something you look at? 

The Rockefeller Foundation has an extremely rigorous process by which we are able to search the global landscape for big problems, find points of dynamism and opportunity, and assess how the foundation can engage while remaining aligned to our focus areas. We begin by assessing dozens of pressing problems and use this lens to help us determine where The Rockefeller Foundation can have impact. When we find a promising area of effort, it moves into what we call our “development” phase, where we begin to test the impact through specific grants. If those grants are successful, we’ll then launch a full initiative with many grants working together in pursuit of a specific goal, such as impacting a million lives in Africa through jobs in the digital sector. 

How do you go about defining the foundation’s priorities? Can you articulate the dilemmas the board faced when firming up priorities and vision for the next 100 years? 

The visionary brilliance of my great-grandfather was to establish a mission that was broad enough in scope that subsequent generations could interpret it within the context of modern challenges and opportunities. So, with the promotion of the well-being of humanity as our guide, the foundation rigorously scans the horizon for emerging areas of dynamism to see where our expertise can be best deployed. Today, we’ve focused our work based on what we perceive to be the greatest challenge of our time — namely, a rapidly globalising world in which everything, good and bad, travels faster and can circle the world faster than a jet airliner. Cities are facing population growth at lightning speeds, and climate change is already having significant impact. We’re seeing more frequent and more ferocious weather events and natural disasters that have the potential to disrupt the lives of more people, particularly the poor and vulnerable who have fewer safety nets. And we’re living in a time when so many great innovations and opportunities exist, yet many don’t have access to them. 

In this landscape, The Rockefeller Foundation is focused on building the resilience of people, cities and systems to better prepare for, withstand and emerge stronger from these shocks and stress; and advancing  more inclusive economies that expand broadly shared prosperity. We believe solving these will make the greatest difference for humanity over the years.

How has Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) progressed? Are you happy with the progress with respect to individual initiatives? 

About 55% of Asia’s population is expected to be living in urban centres in just 15 years, and medium-sized cities, which are experiencing the fastest growth, are the least prepared for tackling climate change impacts. What’s more, it’s often the poorest and most vulnerable populations — those who live in informal settlements along riverbanks or coastlines, for example — that are most at-risk for these hazards, such as flooding or extreme weather.  The foundation launched the ACCCRN in 2008 in 10 cities across four countries, including India, to catalyse awareness, funding and action for building climate resilience, whether it is drainage and flood management, strengthening ecosystems such as mangroves for coastal protection or increasing early-warning systems. 

The participating cities in India are Gorakhpur, Indore and Surat. Through ACCCRN, Surat, has developed an end-to-end early-warning system and, in 2011, formed a multi-stakeholder body, the Surat Climate Change Trust. Now, when the city dam approaches capacity, an early-warning system is sounded and citizens learn via SMS starting 48 hours in advance of the release, which gives them enough time to respond and evacuate if necessary.

Surat was one of the first 33 cities to be named to our 100 Resilient Cities network, a $100 million effort to build urban resilience around the world. Launched on The Rockefeller Foundation’s centennial in 2013, 100 Resilient Cities builds off the success of ACCCRN on a global scale, aiming to help cities build the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems to survive, adapt and grow, no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they are threatened with.

As an early member of this network, Surat will be an important source of best practices that other cities can learn from to build their own resilience. The second round of applications for cities looking to join the network will open this summer, and we hope more cities in India will apply.

Why are institutional partnerships the new way forward for The Rockefeller Foundation? What is the learning that you have had so far through your collaborations? 

Well, the simple fact is that the big global challenges are far too complex — and often, frankly, expensive — for philanthropy to solve on its own. The only way to make a significant and lasting effect is to work alongside like-minded partners from other sectors, particularly in the private sector, and benefit from their expertise and their capital.

The private sector also contributes knowledge in how to shape and sustain markets. Some of our current work, for example, working with private sector partners to create new and digital job opportunities in Africa or developing partnerships with mobile phone carriers and energy services companies to bring rural electrification to villages in India, depends on finding market-based approaches that change the way these solutions are funded. 

Can you recall the best advice given by your father? What is your key learning from how your father and grandfather approached life?  

I have learned many things from my father and grandfather, of course. I was 20 when my grandfather passed away, and my father is still alive at 99 years of age! Among the best lessons from my father, I would include the importance of loyalty to friends, being on time for appointments, doing important things right away, not procrastinating and not regretting if what has been enjoyed in the past no longer exists. He laid equal emphasis on choosing first-rate leaders, engaging friends and other people of means in activities you care about. Combining creativity with rigour was another advice I cherish. My grandfather taught me to think about the bigger picture, to attend to the details of complicated projects and to be humble in the face of great challenges and opportunities. 

You are a keen sailor. Are there lessons from sailing that you have applied to philanthropy?

I have derived lessons useful to every aspect of my life from my experiences at sea. Whether it is insights about risk management, forward planning, team-building, weather watching, careful navigation, constant vigilance or, sometimes, simply remembering to enjoy being in the present moment — all of these lessons have all been informed by my experience as a racing sailor, a coastal cruiser, an expedition planner and a deep-sea adventurer.