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An Ecological Web of Giving

Reorganizing for Changing Times

As the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) marked its 50th anniversary, President J. George Harrar instituted the most significant shift in program organization the Foundation had experienced since 1928. The 1963 reorganization transformed the Foundation’s structure from an academic model of divisions similar to university departments into “goal oriented programs in which each component was related to every other in an ecological pattern.”[1]

The Foundation’s new agenda laid out five interdisciplinary endeavors:

  1. Toward the Conquest of Hunger
  2. The Population Problem
  3. Strengthening Emerging Centers of Learning
  4. Toward Equal Opportunity for All
  5. Aiding Our Cultural Development

Harrar claimed that these new programs were “not a radical departure from the patterns of the past, but rather the sublimated product of program evolution, set in the contemporary context and projected into the future.”[2] But they did, in fact, constitute a radical conceptual shift.

Visit to Mexico (Niederhauser, Harrar, and Weaver), Chapingo (Mexico) 1953

Visit to Mexico (Niederhauser, Harrar, and Weaver), Chapingo (Mexico) 1953

The new programs addressed themes that had long been important to the Foundation, but they changed the Foundation’s approach to both defining problems and seeking solutions. Discussing these changes several years later, the RF staff noted, “[T]he Rockefeller Foundation had a long history of supporting science and scholarship for their own sakes; now it opted for the application of already existing knowledge toward the well-being of mankind throughout the world….in short,…the Rockefeller Foundation [moved] from the library and the laboratory into the fields and the streets.”[3]

Although in general the Foundation began to move away from promoting knowledge for its own sake, one key place in which it continued that work was its newly acquired Bellagio Center on Lake Como in Italy. From the 1960s onward, Bellagio has hosted RF-led collaborative meetings, independent scholarly gatherings, and provided space and time for renowned individuals to accomplish creative work.

By the 1960s the Foundation had turned its focus away from Europe, which it now considered sufficiently strong to stand on its own, and toward new and developing nations throughout Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Applied work was necessary in these regions because they lacked the institutional infrastructure, governmental systems and academic training prevalent in the U.S. and Western Europe. Furthermore, the RF was mounting more ambitious plans than the disease eradication programs, virus research, or medical training it had done previously in these regions. It was now looking to close the gap between developed and developing economies.

The Gospel of Ecology 

That Harrar described the new programs as an ecological pattern is typical of this era. By the early 1960s the rhetoric of ecology had extended beyond the environmental movement. Its concepts became commonplace in academic disciplines and even in popular culture. The ecological viewpoint, broadly put, cast social problems as complex, web-like systems in which everything was connected to everything else. In the earlier part of the century, taking care of the environment meant effective stewardship, not studying interrelationships. Ecology encouraged systems thinking across the board, and unseated the Progressive Era attitudes that had shaped the RF from the beginning, including older principles of practical management and benevolent stewardship.

Foundations Under Fire 

Harrar was the ideal candidate to shepherd this transition. A deeply respected leader steeped in the RF ethos, he remains the only RF President who has ever risen through the organization’s ranks from a modest beginning as a field staffer. He assumed the presidency of the Foundation against a backdrop that included the cultural and social upheavals of America in the 1960s and the controversial Tax Reform Act of 1969.

This legislation required increased public accountability from tax-exempt foundations as well as a significant “pay-out” of funds each year. While the new regulations created difficulties for other foundations, the RF had met most of the requirements of the new law for years. Nor had the RF engaged in the use of funds for political purposes that parts of the law were meant to crack down on. Probably the real damage the legislation did was to staff morale, as extensive Congressional hearings assailed public confidence in philanthropic institutions, and foundations felt compelled to defend their activities in public. Harrar chafed under the spotlight, arguing that “we consider ourselves a trust, a public trust. That is, we have a social responsibility, and we would like to be understood rather than advertised.”[4]

Crisis of Confidence 

Harrar’s retirement in 1972 marked the end of an era.  In the early decades of the Foundation, core personnel played a number of roles and typically served for long periods of time. Wickliffe Rose, for example, directed no less than three separate initiatives. Edwin Embree served first as RF Secretary and later as director of the Division of Studies.  Raymond Fosdick became a trustee in 1921 and assumed the Presidency in 1936. Alan Gregg began as an IHD field staffer in 1919 and became Associate Director and later Director of Medical Sciences until his retirement in 1953. By the 1970s such career paths were no longer the norm. After Harrar, only one RF President had any prior experience with the Foundation: Richard Lyman (1980-1988) had been a trustee. After 1972, the RF experienced increasing turnover of both staff and leadership.

Planting a sorghum experiment by hand, Nigeria, 1963

Planting a sorghum experiment by hand, Nigeria, 1963

The 1970s witnessed crises of public faith from the Vietnam War to the Watergate scandal to a foundering economy. Environmental degradation, persistent global conflict, crime, poverty, urban decay and racial inequity seemed intractable. Compounding matters, after the 1969 Congressional hearings, foundations were criticized in the press from every direction and were accused of being passive and conservative as well as profligate and partisan.

When John Knowles, physician and former head of Massachusetts General Hospital, assumed the RF presidency in 1972, the ideals that had guided the Foundation for most of its history failed to offer the assurance they once had. Scientific research no longer promised inevitable progress. Knowles referred to “a massive scientific and technological machine run wild” and dismissed quantitative methods as “numeracy and computerized cost-benefit analysis.” He urged a return to the humanities and answers that would emanate from “head, heart and intuition.”[5]

Knowles was widely thought to be a surprising choice for president. However, he was expected to give the RF “a new and less constipated style and its greatest shaking up in half a century.”[6] He was young, administratively experienced and outspoken. He immediately launched an intensive program review that took over two years to complete. The review produced several moments that reveal the anxieties of the early 1970s. The trustees realized that the Foundation’s traditional method of work with established institutions and government agencies failed to connect with new, grassroots nodes of political power. They also noted that, for the first time in RF history, no program contained the word “health” in its title. They attached that word to the Population program despite feedback that it was gratuitous.

In the end, the programs established under Harrar changed very little. Thematic, goal-oriented programs would continue and remain the practice today. The Foundation continued to be committed to its fellowship program, as well as to being simultaneously an operating and a grant-making body. These longstanding features would only gradually disappear in the years following the Knowles administration.

What had started to erode, however, was the Foundation’s clear sense of itself.  It adopted fundamentally new strategies and tackled enormously complex problems with less financial power than it had ever had. The stagflation of 1974 hit the philanthropic world hard, forcing Knowles to use the Annual Report to explain the impact of “the absolute increased cost of problem solving, the devastating effects of inflation, and the emergence of huge sources of public money.”[7] All of these factors would force the RF to forge a serious relationship with the concept of “leverage” from the 1980s onward.


[1]The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report, 1971 (The Rockefeller Foundation: New York, 1971) 10.

[2]The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report, 1963 (The Rockefeller Foundation: New York, 1963) 4.

[3]The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report, 1971 (The Rockefeller Foundation: New York, 1971) 5.

[4]NBC television interview transcript, 1968.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Waldemar A. Nielsen, The Big Foundations (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1972), p. 70.

[7]The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report, 1974 (The Rockefeller Foundation: New York, 1974) 8.

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