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Investing in the Rockefeller Model of Philanthropy

We increased spending to accelerate our work when humanity’s well-being was tested in so many ways. As the 990PF makes clear, this has allowed us to temporarily increase our giving, leverage tools in new ways, and invest in our staff.

In 1964, The Atlantic began a review of The Rockefeller Foundation’s impact on its 50th year of operations with a series of questions: “An evaluation of the Rockefeller Foundation, as of any institution, must grapple with these four questions: What is the purpose? How important is it? Has the purpose been achieved? What does this experience foretell, if anything, of things to come?”

They were important questions then, and they are important questions now, as the Foundation embarks on a new five-year strategy. At a time when people around the world are facing the direct threat of climate change, we are looking at every part of our organization to identify what works and what we can do better. At the start of the year, I want to take a moment to share some of what we have learned.

The answer to The Atlantic’s first question is as clear as it was nearly 111 years ago. Our purpose remains unchanged since John D. Rockefeller founded the institution: we seek to promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world.

Of course, our mission remains unchanged because it remains unfulfilled. Today, climate change and other challenges threaten the well-being of too many people.

The Rockefeller model today is just about identical to the one described by The Atlantic. The Foundation, relying on its staff in New York and around the world—of around 300 in both 1964 and today—starts small and builds for scale and has remained, in our founder’s words, “more willing to risk criticism, even the possibility of failure.” To amplify our impact, our team proactively seeks to mobilize capital from others, works closely with our grantees and partners, builds institutions that can stand on their own, and attracts support from governments and others. The success of that model can be seen in the outcomes of what The Atlantic called “tens of thousands of bets, small and large, that the Foundation has placed on human progress.”

What has changed are the threats people must confront. The climate crisis is unlike anything we and everyone else have ever faced in its speed, breadth, and very nature—it is, and will continue to, make life far worse for billions of people. This is particularly true for the most vulnerable.

What has also changed are the tools at our disposal. We still give hundreds of millions of dollars in grants every year and still tie most of those grants to specific actions. In addition, we use programmatic contracts to hire companies and others to perform specific services, get advice from different kinds of experts, and leverage program-related investments to catalyze capital from others on the promise of a return. We also seek to inform others of our work to attract support and mobilize similar actions.

We also connect people who are working to solve humanity’s biggest challenges, giving them space and time to build trust and respect, and to develop new innovations and initiatives—together. For decades, we have done just that at our campus in Bellagio, Italy and now in our convening center in New York. And we launched a new public charity, RF Catalytic Capital, that allows us to accept contributions from partners and establish in-house institutions.

This model does not come without cost, as our 2022 tax filing, known as the 990PF and posted today, makes clear. We have invested in historic ways over the last three years. Much of our work still relies on our endowment. In 2020, looking at the challenges to humanity and the opportunity provided by lower interest rates, the Foundation also pursued our first-ever bond offering for charitable purposes. With nearly $700 million in proceeds, we increased spending to accelerate our work when humanity’s well-being was tested in so many ways.

This funding, as the tax filing makes clear, has allowed us to temporarily increase our giving, leverage tools in new ways, and invest in our staff. For example:

  • During the pandemic and its subsequent economic crisis, when every moment counted, we were able to engage with experts from many fields and use other types of investments in support of our mission and grantmaking. This continued as we shifted into new areas, including a larger commitment to meeting our mission as the climate crisis worsens.
  • We invested in modernizing and expanding our New York headquarters with more capacity and new capabilities. This was the first whole-scale renovation in more than three decades and provided, for the first time, a full convening space in the city.
  • We also fortified our team—bringing on new talent, maintaining competitive salaries, developing in-house skills and expertise, and transitioning others. This was especially true with the launch of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, which has since spun out, and the Pandemic Prevention Institute, which eventually transitioned to an initiative in our health program. You can read more about these decisions here.

As The Atlantic wrote 60 years ago, “It is easier to report what a foundation has done than what it plans to do, other than more of the same but in different directions.” Our 2020-22 Impact Report makes clear the Rockefeller model is still uniquely effective. Though we plan to leverage the same model—starting small, building alliances and institutions, and making big bets—we have a new, clear sense of a direction. Over the next five years, as outlined in our strategy, most of our grant-giving, hiring, and other spending will be focused on accelerating human opportunity and slowing the climate crisis.