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Catalyst, Collaborator, Convener

A changing global economy in the 1980s challenged the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) and other private sector organizations and changed their relationship with the public sector. Longtime RF trustee Richard Lyman assumed the Foundation’s Presidency in 1980 and steered the Foundation throughout a decade that included the emerging global crisis of HIV/AIDS and, in the U.S., the increasing privatization of social services, including those targeting urban development issues. Working with diminished financial resources, the Foundation nonetheless succeeded in devising programs that could provide both global leadership and effective strategies to “promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world.”

Forming Alliances

The economic downturn of 1974 precipitated a loss of capital resources for most charitable foundations in the United States, and the RF was no exception. At the same time, the Foundation recognized that one of its key assets was its own history. The Foundation’s long experience and its vast network of relationships rendered it uniquely positioned to identify both pressing issues and potential partners for solutions. The RF also continued to use many of the same research methods it pioneered almost a century earlier. These methods included creating networks of knowledge through meetings for scholars and practitioners, building expertise through training opportunities, maintaining connections to policymakers as well as local stakeholders, and structuring funding to enable organizations to achieve financial independence.

In the 1960s the RF had worked closely with the Ford Foundation to establish agricultural research institutes and to convene the summit that launched the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Acting as both convener and catalyst, the RF reactivated this summit through the 1980s and 1990s, including as participants other foundations as well as international governmental and non-governmental organizations. This group then shaped and helped fund independent agencies that supported research in agriculture, disease prevention, population issues, economic equity, and environmental sustainability. Because these independent agencies did not have the overhead costs of larger organizations with broader mandates, they were able to devote a larger percentage of the resources contributed by organizations like the RF to specific purposes.

RF-inspired organizations included the International Agricultural Development Service (IADS), the International Clinical Epidemiology Network (INCLEN), Partners in Population and Development, Leadership for Environment and Development International (LEAD), and the Energy Foundation. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Foundation consistently partnered with the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank. One of this collaborative group’s most notable creations was the Children’s Vaccine Initiative. In 2006 the RF partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to establish A Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA), which works across the African continent to boost small farm productivity and alleviate poverty.

Consistency and Change

Even as new strategies became crucial, the Foundation remained remarkably consistent in the focus of its commitments. Agriculture-related initiatives, for example, were called “Conquest of Hunger,” “Agricultural Sciences,” and “Food Security,” successively. But each phase addressed similar goals: to push research forward, to improve practices on the ground, and to increase farmers’ access to resources and knowledge.

New strategies did prompt change within the Foundation itself. In the 1980s the RF closed most of its field offices (Nairobi and Bangkok remain its main outposts outside New York). It eliminated or outsourced programs that it had operated directly. It no longer employed its own staff of research scientists or planned the details of research and educational programs. The Foundation sought instead to shape the research agendas of other institutions, identifying and supporting grantees to meet the Foundations’ larger objectives. It also phased out more than six decades of graduate and postgraduate fellowships in the sciences, social sciences and humanities.

Echoing new models in the corporate and non-profit sectors, the Foundation’s patterns of staffing and board membership also changed. Program officers stayed with the RF for shorter periods of time, working on particular issues or projects rather than spending their careers at the RF. Beginning in the 1980s, board membership likewise became term-limited rather than a lifetime appointment.

A “Knowledge-based Foundation”

The RF approach had always been thorough, careful, and highly informed, and under President Gordon Conway, appointed in 1996, the RF began to describe itself explicitly as a “knowledge-based” foundation[1]. Fostering knowledge production and exchange was a catalytic approach, a relatively low-cost investment that offered large returns to partner institutions and organizations.

While RF programs had often addressed poverty, in the 1990s the Foundation became more explicit about making the world’s poor its core focus. In earlier eras, the RF viewed the advancement of science as a means to improve the human condition generally. By 1999, it aimed expressly to improve poor people’s lives and livelihoods through the application of knowledge, science, technology, research and analysis. The Foundation had always concerned itself with supporting cutting-edge technology. As the twentieth century drew to a close, the rising digital age revealed that poor people’s opportunities suffered particularly from gaps in access to knowledge and technological resources. In the 2000s, the Poverty Reduction through Information and Digital Employment (PRIDE) initiative attempted to redress this inequity in Asia and Africa.

Investing in Community-based Organizations

When the RF was founded in 1913, it was one of a handful of large-scale philanthropies. By 1982 there were over 22,000 foundations in the United States. Yet these foundations (and their governmental and international counterparts) still struggled to eradicate poverty, hunger, and poor health. In the United States the 1980s promised significant federal budget cuts, and the RF pondered its most effective role in a complicated context. For the RF, especially, its historical contributions encouraged high expectations. As then-president Lyman explained in 1982:

To most people, names like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, and Mellon connote money, lots of it… Not only are the foundations' resources wholly inadequate to assume the burdens of the modern welfare state, or even a substantially reduced version thereof, but to look to them for this purpose is to misread their role in American life. That role is not a simple one, given the diversity of foundations as to size, stated aims, and methods of operation.[2]

In re-examining its role, the RF began to look to a different kind of grantee. In earlier decades, the foundation had generally channeled its funds through larger, more established institutions, from university research laboratories to international organizations like the Red Cross. The 1980s and 1990s introduced smaller community-based organizations that worked directly to help the poor gain access to essential goods, services, and economic opportunities. The RF began to support and collaborate within this smaller arena, particularly on the issues of urban poverty and livable cities.

The Global and Urban Turn

RF work had always been international in scope. In the 1990s the Foundation began to envision its work as not only international but also global, recognizing the interconnectedness of economies, markets, environmental factors, technology-driven communication, and populations. While once it might have seen itself as an American philanthropy working internationally, it came to conceive of itself as a “truly global foundation,” dropping distinctions between international and domestic programs.

At the same time, the RF recognized a global population shift toward cities. The Foundation turned its attention to urbanization’s interconnected web of poverty, race, gender, education and economics, as well as to city planning and environmental resilience. The complexity of urban concerns required the Foundation to work at a systemic level, often from multinational to local.

The Living Cities program of the 1990s was a collaborative, public-private partnership focusing on affordable housing and low-income neighborhood revitalization in 23 American cities. As it had in the fields of health and agriculture, the RF served as convener and catalyst, organizing the now-independent National Community Development Initiative (NCDI) to connect federal agencies, banks, and over 300 local community development corporations.

In recent years RF work in cities has become more global in reach, and more integrative in approach as it has tackled enormous, complicated issues such as transportation and natural resource consumption. In 2008 the RF launched another comprehensive, collaborative initiative, the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCRN) to enable the world’s most populous, growing, and environmentally threatened urban centers to withstand threats through better mobilization of knowledge for planning.

Gender, Diversity and Equity

Beginning with the 1972 appointment of its first female trustee, Mathilde Krim, the Foundation focused more overtly on women’s issues, particularly the special problems affecting single female heads of household. It appointed a cross-divisional President’s Task Force on Women’s Programming in 1981. But the Foundation concluded that integrating rather than separating women’s issues was more in keeping with its long tradition of tackling the full complexity of any problem. As then-President Lyman explained, this did not mean that the RF viewed gender inequity as a minor issue:

The Rockefeller Foundation does not pretend to be neutral on the questions of gender role or the exploitation and oppression of women. What we do seek is to operate on the basis of knowledge rather than stereotypes. Getting past the heat and into the light on gender issues is itself a worthwhile goal for a foundation. Most of our work is still in progress, but we have been able to demonstrate, for example, that it simply is not true that women are not interested in issues such as national security or that girls ‘naturally’ shun the quantitative sciences.[3]

Rather than establish a separate program dedicated to women’s issues, the RF chose instead to tackle gender inequity within its existing programs. A major initiative of the 1980s was a six-year demonstration program that trained women heads of household for employment in four cities. Similarly, the key role women play as small-hold farmers in Africa permeated AGRA’s work in the 2000s.

As it had with gender, the RF took an integrated approach to the root causes underlying racial inequity, focusing once again on cities. It connected and collaborated with community-based organizations and sought to improve public schools, access to resources, and employment opportunities. In the late 1980s the Foundation geared its ongoing Equal Opportunity (EO) program to examine persistent urban poverty. Based on studies it conducted, the Foundation identified school reform as the root cause that might effect the largest social change. By 1999 it phased out a general EO program in favor of the Working Communities initiative, which aimed to revitalize urban neighborhoods on multiple levels.

New Modes of Investing

The RF had always sought strategic investments that would yield the best return for dollars spent. In the increasingly complicated economic setting of the late twentieth century, however, it began to identify a need for new forms of philanthropy. No longer was the divide between the government and private foundations as clear as it once had been. No longer was there even a clear line between for-profit and not-for-profit charitable work or giving. In this context the Foundation began to partner with for-profit entities in order to effect change for the poor and vulnerable, who often depended on technologies and innovations that were in the hands of the private, for-profit sector. The RF pioneered collaborative solutions that reflected its new awareness of global realities.

Cooperation between private, public and nonprofit organizations was crucial to achieve lasting results. Working together, these organizations could achieve more than any one type could alone. The public sector tended to be slow and inefficient at problem-solving. Free enterprise, while more nimble, often deepened inequities. Community-based organizations, while “effective at the local level, [had] difficulty catalyzing change on a larger scale.”[4] Having begun the conversation under Conway, the RF under Judith Rodin pushed these ideas even further, convening four meetings in 2008 to address the new idea of “impact investing,” or the placement of capital with intent to generate positive social impact beyond mere financial return.

In 2012, in collaboration with the UN Global Compact, the Brazilian Development Bank, UNISOL, Initiative for Responsible Investment, and Insight at Pacific Community Ventures, the Foundation helped launch the Impact Investing Policy Collaborative. The Collaborative is designed to help investors, public officials, advocates, researchers, and related communities identify and support policies that might result in capital markets becoming more effective at producing intentional social and environmental benefits.

Full Circle

In the opening years of the twentieth century, when John D. Rockefeller and his associates attempted to secure a charter for their new foundation, much controversy erupted from the fear that this new foundation, derived from Standard Oil wealth, would lead to further private sector involvement in the public sphere. For almost a century thereafter, the Foundation strove to remain distinct from corporate enterprise and family business interests. The opening decade of the 21st century, however, saw the public sphere eagerly looking to business for solutions; the RF has responded by developing and supporting new collaborations between business and philanthropy. As a result, the RF now finds itself mobilizing its historic experience and reputation to join, on a global scale, the very corporate and public spheres that it once tried to keep so separate.


[1]“The Rockefeller Foundation: A New Course of Action,” by the Rockefeller Foundation, 1999.

[2]The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1982 (New York: The Rockefeller Foundation, 1982) 15.

[3]The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1984 (New York: The Rockefeller Foundation, 1984) 6.

[4]The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 2003 (New York: The Rockefeller Foundation, 2003) 3.

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