Our Strategy A Global Strategy for the 21st Century

A Global Strategy for the 21st Century


For more than 100 years, The Rockefeller Foundation has adhered to a single mission, promoting the well-being of humanity throughout the world. While this original mission is broad, the vision of our founder was that it would enable each generation of leaders to interpret the mission in the context of their times. And with that, each generation of leaders would be able to organize the Foundation around a set of operating principles that allowed it to serve that mission best.

Today, we pursue our mission through two overarching goals: to build resilience and advance more inclusive economies. To those ends, we work to identify and pursue opportunities that ensure our finite resources are being used to achieve maximum impact.

This interpretation of a century-old mission did not come overnight. Rather, it’s been the result of a long, rigorous process of rethinking philanthropy in the 21st century, and The Rockefeller Foundation’s unique role within it.

It was also not sufficient merely to state our goals. In addition, we have restructured how we function in order to best serve those goals, given the conditions of the 21st century. This is an examination of that process.

A New Century

When Judith Rodin stepped into the role as president of The Rockefeller Foundation, the institution was grappling with the changing dynamics of the early 21st century. It saw the need to put in place a model that would position it to respond flexibly and nimbly to increasingly complex and interrelated problems, and to adapt as circumstances change.

“While the Foundation had achieved major successes with its long-standing, program-based model, the range of emerging global challenges required a more flexible, multi-disciplinary approach.”

A strategic review by the Foundation in the first decade of the new century identified a number of major global trends that are profoundly affecting the world’s vulnerable populations and that demand an adaptive, innovative model to drive impact:

  • Globalization and increasing connectedness.
  • Increasing pressure on natural resources and ecosystems, including the growing impact of climate change.
  • Significant population growth and dramatic urbanization, particularly in the developing world.
  • Growing inequities in income, health, and nutrition—both between richer and poorer nations, and within individual nations.
  • Advances in technology, including more open communication, and more open innovations, which has also resulted in a growing global technology divide between rich and poor countries.
  • The proliferation and increasing diversification of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector, the emergence of new types of philanthropies and bilateral aid donors, and the increasing role of the private sector in social issues.

And so, The Rockefeller Foundation undertook a significant reevaluation of its strategy. At that time, the Foundation found itself at a crossroads: While it had achieved major successes with its long-standing, program-based model—in which the Foundation’s fieldwork took place within well-established program areas such as agriculture and public health—the range of emerging global challenges required a more flexible, multi-disciplinary approach. At the same time, we recognized that the effect of our funding power was diminishing relative to the increasing complexity of global problems, the growth of the world’s government and private sectors as funders, and new sources of philanthropic capital.

As a result of this calculus, The Rockefeller Foundation recognized it had to reposition itself to do the following in order to utilize its resources for maximum impact:

  • Design interventions that were more adaptable and multidisciplinary in approach.
  • Focus its unique philanthropic capital to pilot, innovate, take risks, and leverage the capital of other actors and sectors.
  • Build and use its influence capacity more strategically.

All of this would require the Foundation to develop a new strategic and operational model, supported by new capacities and skill sets. The fundamental shift the Foundation made was from a program-based strategy to an initiative-based approach shaped by two overarching goals: building the resilience of people, organizations, and communities, and advancing more inclusive economies with more opportunities for more people.

The Foundation’s initial strategic review also concluded that it was particularly well positioned to address several key global challenges:

  • Weak health systems.
  • Environmental degradation and climate change.
  • Urbanization and the ability of cities to respond to demographic shifts.
  • Fraying social contracts.
  • Basic survival needs—access to adequate nutrition, clean water, basic healthcare, and shelter.

The Rockefeller Foundation's Strategic Model

At the end of 2011, the Foundation revisited the external environment to retest these assumptions. This analysis led it to sharpen its efforts further within four focus areas, representing the systems we currently work across and within:

Leveraging Tipping Points to Transform Systems

In addition to sharpening its strategic focus, The Rockefeller Foundation also developed and refined its operational model to focus on designing interventions, seeking innovations, and deploying its influence strategically to yield maximum impact.

This refresh was guided by three principles:

  • First, the complexity of the 21st century led to a focus on the whole system related to the problems we address, not just isolated parts. The Foundation studies the system’s complexities, identifies other actors in the space who can provide leverage, and then determines where and how it can potentially intervene to transform the system.
  • Second, it focuses on “tipping points” moments—trends or promising points of intervention that allow the Foundation to seize a wave already in motion or build its own, and/or fundamentally change how a system functions.
  • Third, the Foundation does not work in isolation of market forces, but instead aims to harness and work to capitalize on the market wherever possible, in order to assure greater sustainability of change.

Pathways to Impact

To achieve this impact, The Rockefeller Foundation utilizes three reinforcing levers for impact to varying degrees. These organizing principles, which were inspired by John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s tradition of scientific philanthropy, are the Three Pathways to Impact:

  • Intervention: Implementing time-bound initiatives that have specific goals and metrics, that directly impact people, and that can be scaled up or replicated more widely.
  • Influence: Leveraging The Rockefeller Foundation’s role and reputation as a catalyst, thought leader, and convening entity to support new solutions to global problems.
  • Innovation: Identifying, designing, testing, supporting and implementing novel solutions, processes, and technologies.

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