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Philanthropy as the Backer of Brains

Each week, in the lead up to the Rockefeller Foundation’s Centennial anniversary on May 14th, Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin will reflect on the unique strengths and enduring lessons of 100 years of strategic philanthropy.

 In my second post on the unique attributes that have made the first 100 years of strategic philanthropy so successful, I highlighted the role of philanthropy as field-builder, drawing from the stories of the Rockefeller Foundation’s history of creating, defining and advancing fields, from public health, molecular biology, area studies, and public administration. We even had a role in launching the field of artificial intelligence by being the sole philanthropy to fund a Dartmouth conference on computational science in 1959.

“Backing brains has always been a key part of philanthropy’s strategy.”

But no matter the extraordinary technological advancements — and there have been many — since that conference, there is still no machine that can match the power of human ingenuity to solve truly human problems. And therefore, “backing brains” has always been a key part of philanthropy’s strategy.

In its early years, the Rockefeller Foundation invested heavily in fellowship programs, particularly in the areas of medicine, public health and natural sciences. It also invested in scientists and practitioners at the top of their fields, to help them carry their ideas into innovations.

This would be inherently risky work, as the Foundation would learn quickly.

In 1925, Hideyo Noguchi, a respected Rockefeller scientist from Japan known for his advancements in the studies of syphilis and Oroya fever, believed he had developed the first successful vaccine for yellow fever in his laboratory.

Dr. Hideyo Noguchi

Dr. Hideyo Noguchi in his laboratory

But in reality, Noguchi had in fact created a vaccine against a bacterial infection called Weil’s disease — not yellow fever. Regrettably, he would be infected with yellow fever in his work and die a few months after the discovery of his mistake was made.

The vaccine would eventually be developed a decade later by a team led by the Foundation’s Max Theiler who would be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1951. Such is the nature of innovation — often an incremental process of improving upon others’ invention.

The Rockefeller Foundation has been proud to support more than 220 winners of the Nobel Prize over the course of the century, as well as countless others who would push knowledge and fields to new limits, scholars such as Norbert Wiener, a mathematician who wrote the seminal text and firmly established the field of cybernetics, or H. W. Florey who developed the clinical use of penicillin.

In the 1950s, the Rockefeller Foundation funded community activist Jane Jacobs to write “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” which would redefine how the world thought about and addressed the challenges to urban areas.

The Internet has made it possible to identify those whose potential for innovation is great, no matter their geography or their backgrounds.

Today, philanthropy continues to invest in the power of human ingenuity. The democratization of the Internet has made it possible to identify those whose potential for innovation is great, no matter their geography or their backgrounds. For example, our Innovation Challenge aims to give rise to innovators from places where funding is not easily accessible, but could make all the difference.

One never knows where they’ll find the next Albert Einstein or the next Jane Jacobs, but philanthropy has the unique opportunity to fund good ideas and the people who have them, and shape the future of our world.

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