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The physicist Steven Hawking defined intelligence as “the ability to adapt to change.” This holds for intelligent philanthropy as well. Despite this, philanthropy has a reputation for being slow-moving and resistant to changing course. Today, challenges are dynamic and ever-changing—by the time a workable solution is in hand, conditions have often changed. That is why the ability to adapt and respond to change is a key component of The Rockefeller Foundation’s strategic approach.

This capability is deeply embedded in every phase of our strategic model, beginning with how we surface opportunities to improve the lives of poor or vulnerable populations and extending all the way to our monitoring and evaluation activities:

  • Through our Scan and Search function, a dedicated specialist team at the Foundation—the Strategic Insights Team—engages outside experts, practitioners, and innovators around the world to explore and evaluate potential opportunities. We are not looking for what is already working—although that is important for later partnership development or scaling efforts. In the scan and search phase, we seek out pressing problems and dynamism in these problem spaces. Using innovative tools such as crowd-sourcing, horizon scanning, and scenario planning, this team is able to identify, research, and analyze emerging trends and opportunities. This allows the Foundation to anticipate and take advantage of new dynamic spaces and tipping points to help the poor or vulnerable.
  • Once a problem is selected for possible implementation, it goes through a development phase in which several prototypes are developed for possible interventions. Once a preferred prototype has been selected, the final design is then refined to maximize impact and future sustainability. In one version of this approach, called “paper prototyping,” we provide grants to two separate cohorts of organizations working on similar problems. These grantees then work with a diverse team of Rockefeller program staff and external partners, engaging in an intensive process of ideation, iteration, and testing to develop paper prototypes for addressing a deeply rooted social or environmental problem. This approach was recently used with our Fresh Water initiative, producing a diverse group of potential solutions for protecting and sustaining our planet’s fresh water supplies and the ecosystems that depend on them.
  • Once an initiative moves into execution with full funding approved by the Foundation Board, we continue to adapt and pivot to maximize impact. This is where our monitoring and evaluation capacities are critical. If we find out that our strategies are not achieving the impact we predicted, we can either recalibrate substantially or make incremental changes to ensure that we are achieving our goals. The fact that we conduct reviews on a quarterly basis—a greater frequency than most organizations—further enhances our ability to adapt. At the same time, we also continue to scan for powerful innovations and trends that could amplify an initiative’s impact.
  • It’s important to note that the Foundation’s adaptability has been aided by our creation of new organizational structures and by our pioneering use of new tools and methods that enable us to better anticipate and respond more quickly and effectively to changes in the context we operate in. By basing our adaptation on insights and evidence gathered through a broad, empirically driven process, we are able to continually optimize the impact of our interventions.
  • Finally, the flexibility of our strategic model allows us to adapt by deploying the model’s different elements in a non-linear fashion as needed—for example, utilizing search-like activities or environmental scans in the execution and development phases of an intervention, if we determine that this will improve its implementation.

Adapting with Changing Conditions Enables Us To:

  • Search for and then respond to dynamic opportunities as they emerge. The central shift the Foundation has undertaken has been to move away from our former programmatic structure, which by its nature limited our ability to adapt. Our model now allows for multi-disciplinary interventions within broad focus areas. For example, through this model, the Foundation recognized the momentum in the investing community to align investments with values in order to improve the lives of the poor or vulnerable. We were able to convene stakeholders quickly to discuss this emerging area, mobilize funding, and catalyze the growth of a new field known as impact investing. More recently, the Foundation’s ability to move nimbly into new, promising areas has led to our YieldWise initiative to reduce food waste and spoilage—a major yet largely overlooked factor that threatens food security, environmental health, and livelihoods around the world.
  • Shift in real time to address new challenges within current spaces. Often this means a more nimble ability to quickly take on new challenges related to topical problems within our four focus areas. For example, our work in transforming health systems and in disease surveillance enabled us to respond quickly to support efforts to combat Ebola in West Africa. Rather than building an entirely new initiative from scratch, our model also provides a pathway for opportunistic responses, which in this case allowed us to mobilize a response rapidly, assemble an emergency meeting of experts to develop recommendations for addressing the outbreak, and award multiple grants to bolster the region’s disease surveillance capabilities. Once the emergency subsided, we were able to adapt our focus to efforts aimed at leveraging resources to build more resilient health systems in the region in a way that will help to prevent such outbreaks in the future.
  • Move—and scale up—quickly in critical moments. The Foundation’s approach allows us to quickly identify and design an intervention when a need arises that requires swift action. The Rebuilding New Orleans initiative, for example, took just three months to progress from initial discussions to the initiative’s formal announcement in April 2006. Other accelerated interventions include Rebuild by Design—a post-Superstorm Sandy resilience design competition that leveraged nearly a billion dollars in federal funding. We were able to launch this competition just six months after the storm.

  • Become a go-to partner. Because of our adaptability, partners recognize they can come to us with emergent opportunities to improve the lives of the poor or vulnerable and that we have the ability to implement them quickly. For example, based on the success of Rebuild by Design, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) saw the opportunity to expand this approach nationally through the National Disaster Resilience Competition. With only weeks remaining before the program’s launch, the Foundation built an entire curriculum utilizing our resilience knowledge and experience, then created Resilience Academies based on this curriculum to train participants in the competition.

“Those [philanthropic] organizations that lean in and change are the ones that will make it and succeed, and those that don’t will find themselves on the ash heap of history.”

Diana Aviv, CEO of Feeding America

The Evolution of Adaptability

  • The Rockefeller Foundation’s emphasis on adaptability is rooted in our comprehensive strategic review conducted in the mid-2000s. That analysis noted that the major global trends of the 21st century are tied to the increasing pace of social, economic and technological change. The report concluded that the Foundation’s key capabilities moving forward should include, “forging new kinds of partnerships suited to a more fluid organizational landscape”, “broadening our program instruments”, and “learning how to be flexible and shift gears quickly to respond to changing circumstances.”
  • The Foundation’s adoption of a new strategic model in 2006 marked the first concrete step toward a more flexible and nimble approach. While that model has continued to strengthen, its essential elements—involving self-contained, time-bound initiatives that are designed to meet emerging global needs and can be implemented swiftly if necessary—were all present at this early stage.
  • The need for adaptability also influenced The Rockefeller Foundation’s formal establishment in 2012 of our four current focus areas: Revaluing Ecosystems; Advancing Health; Securing Livelihoods; and Transforming Cities. These areas were selected because they each frame important global trends as dynamic systems, giving the Foundation the ability to focus on emerging aspects of each system that offer opportunity for sustained impact.

The creation of three strong in-house teams has also contributed to The Rockefeller Foundation’s adaptability in important ways. The Foundation’s dedicated in-house Scan and Search team, which was formally established in 2013 as an outgrowth of our in-house research unit, has enabled us to identify and explore potential interventions much more nimbly. The Foundation also established an in-house Strategy team in 2009 to strengthen our strategic design and planning process. In 2010, the strategy team began holding regular “Strategy Soaks,” in which intervention strategies are tested and enhanced. Today every initiative receives support from the strategy team, helping to develop and shape prototypes, test strategies, and design interventions. In addition, the Foundation formed an in-house Monitoring and Evaluation team in 2008, to provide centralized coordination of the initiative monitoring activities and mid-term and post-term evaluation of specific initiatives that we work with third parties to carry out.

Adaptability in Action


U.S. Youth Employment Initiative—Launched in 2014

While overall employment is on the rise in America, many young adults who are trying to transition into the labor force are being left behind.

Why This Initiative

As America continues to emerge from the Great Recession of 2007-2008, it has become clear that the high level of youth unemployment in the U.S. remains a major obstacle to a more inclusive national economy. Roughly 14 million young people face employment challenges, including six million who are currently neither working nor in school. At the same time, there are 3.5 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. that do not require a four-year degree. These young people are often unaware of existing employment opportunities and do not know the steps needed to get these jobs, while many employers do not have clear strategies to effectively recruit, train and retain young workers.

The Solution

As the dimensions of this emerging problem became apparent, The Rockefeller Foundation moved quickly to define the crisis and explore possible solutions. This included funding a 2014 workshop by the Institute for the Future that brought together professionals in hiring services, city government, education, corporate HR, and labor market research to map out a vision of a successful working future for the nation’s vulnerable youth. The workshop’s results were presented in a Foundation-sponsored report, The Future of Youth Employment. Since then, building on these findings, the Foundation has supported a number of innovative, catalytic interventions designed to create new employment opportunities for American youth, and to help employers find successful matches from the nation’s youth talent pool for entry-level, career-building positions.

Adapting for Increased Effectiveness

In 2014, The Rockefeller Foundation formally launched our U.S. Youth Employment initiative, aimed at identifying and implementing effective, innovative approaches to securing career-building jobs in U.S. companies for underemployed American youth. From the start, the initiative has been marked by a readiness to seize new opportunities as they arise. In 2015, the Foundation responded to an emerging youth-employment effort among major U.S. companies and helped spark a new effort called the 100,000 (or 100K) Opportunities Coalition. This employer-led coalition of nearly 40 leading corporate employers including Starbucks, Hyatt, FedEx and others, is committed to providing jobs, internships, apprenticeships and training programs to 100,000 “opportunity youth” between the ages of 16 and 24 who are currently out of work and out of school.

  • Youth filling out job applications at Opportunity Fair and Forum in Chicago
    Youth filling out job applications at Opportunity Fair and Forum at McCormick Place Chicago, Ill. Thursday, August 13, 2015. (Photo by Peter Wynn Thompson/AP Images for 100,000 Opportunities Initiative)

Recognizing that this program dovetailed with our own efforts to implement new and complementary strategies for unlocking demand for young workers, The Rockefeller Foundation moved quickly to support and guide 100K Opportunities as one of the earliest members of the coalition’s governing committee. The specific jobs target embedded in the initiative was particularly important, since the Foundation’s experience has shown that specific goals play an essential role in driving philanthropic organizations and their business partners to adapt and coordinate their own activities in a nimble fashion.

The Foundation is also providing grant support to the two organizations that serve as anchor intermediaries for this effort. In the fall of 2015, we awarded $400,000 to the Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions to provide on-the-ground leadership, technical assistance, and programmatic support in core 100K focus cities. This involvement builds upon the work of Aspen’s Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund (OYIF)—a national program established by recommendation of the White House Council for Community Solutions, of which Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin was a member. Also in the fall of 2015, the Foundation awarded a $600,000 grant to the social impact consulting firm FSG for its work as the convener of the 100K employer community of practice.

Since the launch of the 100K Opportunities Initiative in July 2015, the program has hosted large-scale job fairs (“Opportunity Fairs”) and convened key company leaders in a community of practice in Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Seattle. These events drew thousands of participants, who had the opportunity to meet with corporate representatives and polish their job-seeking skills and portfolios. The fairs also resulted in over 3,000 on-the-spot job offers.

In addition, the Foundation has adapted some of our own approaches to the 100K Opportunities endeavor. For example, we’re working with coalition members to share and disseminate best practices around the novel concept of “impact hiring“—an approach that enables employers to find better, more successful matches for entry-level positions from the youth talent pool by promoting recruitment, candidate assessment, and retention strategies that unlock additional business value while expanding employment opportunities for disadvantaged young workers. Impact hiring draws on tools such as predictive talent analytics, which help employers identify promising talent from a larger pool than they might traditionally consider, and to make hiring decisions based on data rather than intuition. In particular, the Foundation is working closely with a select cohort of 100K Coalition employers and our grantee Incandescent, a boutique strategy and human capital consultancy, to develop company-specific impact hiring strategies that meet their entry-level hiring needs and expand opportunities for youth.

In addition to these 100K efforts, The Rockefeller Foundation’s U.S. Youth Employment initiative has also moved nimbly to collaborate with businesses on other novel job-promoting activities. The Foundation funded Incandescent and Knack—a startup that has developed mobile video game technology to measure talent markers and predict job performance potential—to conduct a pilot study testing the use of game-based talent analytics with 600 opportunity youth. The study’s results, published in 2015 in the report Impact Hiring: How Data Will Transform Youth Employment, validated the potential of video games to identify potential top performers from the opportunity youth talent pool who likely would have been overlooked using only traditional résumé-based hiring practices.

Since the initiative’s launch, The Rockefeller Foundation has also responded swiftly to opportunities for partnering with other regional actors around youth employment. For example, the Foundation is supporting strategic planning work by FSG to scale the employee retention efforts of the Consortium for Sustainable Workforce Practices. In addition, we are providing funding to the New Mexico-based company Innovate-Educate, whose 2015 Close It Summit and #YouthHire initiative are linking disadvantaged youth in Albuquerque, New Mexico to jobs based on competencies rather than credentials, and to the Portland Business Alliance, which is helping the small business community implement innovative programs for hiring and training poor and vulnerable youth in the northwestern U.S.

Learn More About U.S. Youth Employment

Ebola Response—Launched in 2014

Why This Initiative

The 2014–15 Ebola epidemic in West Africa spotlighted how The Rockefeller Foundation’s model allows us to respond in expedited fashion to an emerging problem. Taking hold in a matter of months, the epidemic caused massive disruption in the already frail health systems of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, and had a severe economic and societal impact in those three countries and across West Africa. Recent estimates state that West Africa stands to lose up to $15 billion over the next several years due to the impact of the Ebola outbreak on trade, investment and tourism.

The Solution

Responding to the emerging epidemic, The Rockefeller Foundation moved quickly to provide funding and leadership for the establishment of a West African Disease Surveillance Network to protect against future disease outbreaks. We also provided support to deepen understanding of regional health needs, guide regional rebuilding efforts (including helping to steer the investments of regional governments and other organizations toward recovery), and develop new approaches to health and economic system recovery that incorporate the concepts of resilience and inclusive economies.

Adapting for Impact

As noted above, the adaptability and nimbleness of The Rockefeller Foundation’s strategic model came into full play during and after the Ebola epidemic that struck West Africa in 2014. The Foundation was already ideally positioned to play a key role in responding to the crisis. We are a longtime leader in global health and have also done extensive work in Africa, and our Transforming Health Systems and Disease Surveillance Networks initiatives produced findings and expertise that could be directly applied to the Ebola epidemic and its aftermath.

Our response to the Ebola epidemic also reflected our focus on leveraging our own resources and expertise through strategic collaborations. The affected nations in the Ebola epidemic benefited from the significant capacities of many actors that were essential to the region’s response—including billions of dollars in financial resources, trained medical personnel, and extensive health care infrastructures. The Foundation brought several distinct capacities to the effort, particularly our experience in resilience and disease surveillance as well as our focus on working at the system level. These advantages, combined with the adaptability of our strategic model, enabled the Foundation to act swiftly and decisively as a coordinating force as the epidemic took hold. Following the outbreak, we quickly convened our regional partners to identify a number of clear goals, which would drive the group’s activities as it adapted to the challenges posed by the epidemic.

One of these goals was to develop a more robust and reliable regional response system, in order to detect, track and contain future infectious disease outbreaks more effectively. The majority of the Foundation’s early Ebola-related funding activity went to support the development of a West African Disease Surveillance Network. This network development is being spearheaded by Connecting Organisations for Regional Disease Surveillance (CORDS), a nonprofit NGO of which The Rockefeller Foundation is a founding funder. In 2014 and 2015, the Foundation awarded two grants totaling more than $3 million to support CORDS efforts in this area, as well as a $360,000 grant to Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a British think tank that is involved in planning the surveillance network. Today, CORDS and Chatham House are working closely with governments in the region as well as international organizations such as the World Bank, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Economic Community of West African States.

Another goal was to improve communication and coordination among individual experts and institutions in the region with expertise in addressing epidemics. In a first step toward this goal, the Foundation moved swiftly to fund an emergency meeting of infectious disease experts in the summer of 2014 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The meeting, led by CORDS and the Southern Africa Centre for Infectious Disease Surveillance (SACIDS), brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to review experiences from previous Ebola outbreaks in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), examine the social, cultural, and risk communication aspects underpinning the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and make recommendations for clinicians and health officials who were dealing with the epidemic. Their findings were quickly conveyed to organizations involved in the Ebola response in West Africa.

A third goal involved gaining a better understanding of what was required to build and maintain resilient health systems, based on the Foundation’s extensive experience with health systems and with resilience. The Foundation awarded several additional expedited grants in 2014 and early 2015 to support research on resilient health systems that might inform the region’s resilience-building efforts moving forward. Grantees included Harvard University’s School of Public Health, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, and the National Academy of Medicine at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

During this same time period, The Rockefeller Foundation’s Strategic Insights Team also moved swiftly, together with the Health Team, to start planning a more sustained effort to support and help guide the region’s recovery—not just repairing and enhancing regional health systems, but also addressing the economic and societal effects of the epidemic. A key part of this work involved helping to steer the significant investments being made by others around the recovery effort. With the three Ebola-affected countries already devising broad recovery plans, and the World Bank and other major donors prepared to contribute billions of dollars toward recovery and development in the region, the Foundation determined that the best use of our resources would be to establish a post-Ebola recovery fund. This fund would be used to provide catalytic investments in targeted resilience-building efforts, and to develop new models and approaches to health and economic system recovery that might leverage the resources of other funders.

Again working in expedited fashion, the Foundation approved the proposed fund in April 2015. To date, our activities have included providing $1 million in funding to BRAC USA to support the provision of subsidized financial services to poor and informally employed communities in Sierra Leone and Liberia—a step that will help build resilience to the Ebola epidemic and strengthen these countries’ internal capacity to deliver crisis-related services. We’ve also provided funding of $900,000 each to the London School of Economics’ International Growth Centre and to Last Mile Health, to help support the governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia in developing a national strategic plan for a community health workforce—an integral part of those country’s efforts to build a more resilient health system in the wake of the Ebola crisis.

Learn More About The Ebola Response & Resilient Health Systems

NYS 2100 Commission—Launched in 2012

Why This Initiative

Following the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, it was clear that New York State needed to upgrade its infrastructure in order to both better prepare for the future impact of climate change—including flooding and other effects of increasingly destructive storms—and also enhance its overall resilience, especially in the New York metropolitan area. While New York had already implemented a number of steps in the previous five years to improve its resilience to this type of devastating storm, it still had significant vulnerabilities—many of which were exposed by Sandy. As a result of the storm, people lost homes and lives were upended: Power failures left most of lower Manhattan without electricity; backup generators, housed in building basements, failed due to the storm surge, putting hospital patients at risk; and flooded rail tunnels impeded subway operations for an extended period of time following the storm. Wall Street was also closed for two days, causing economic ripples felt around the world.

The Solution

To address this need for a more resilient infrastructure, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo moved quickly to form the NYS 2100 Commission in mid-November 2012. The commission was tasked with evaluating failures that occurred as the result of Sandy, and recommending changes to the state’s infrastructure. It was co-chaired by Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin, together with investment banker Felix Rohatyn, and included representatives from government, nonprofits, academia and the private sector. In addition to President Rodin’s leadership and expertise, The Rockefeller Foundation also responded rapidly as an organization to support New York’s resilience-building effort, providing staff expertise and leading the development of the commission’s report and recommendations.

Adapting for Increased Effectiveness

When Governor Cuomo turned to Judith Rodin and The Rockefeller Foundation for help on the NYS 2100 Commission, the Foundation had to react swiftly. The commission’s report was due in two months—a very short time frame in which to pull together a wide-ranging set of recommendations. Fortunately, elements of the Foundation’s strategic model—including, specifically, our Scan and Search function—enable an expedited planning process.

In this case, the Foundation was able to bring our extensive expertise in urban resilience—gained from our post-Katrina experience in New Orleans as well as our work with the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN)—to bear immediately on the specific goals laid out in the commission’s mandate. Moving quickly, the Foundation’s teams of experts pulled together a set of recommendations within a matter of weeks. These recommendations included the establishment of a New York State Homeowner Buyout Program; the acceleration of Con Edison’s plans to deploy smart grid technology; and the creation of a $1 billion Green Bank to expand the use of green infrastructure. The Rockefeller Foundation also helped produce the commission’s 175-page final report, presented in January 2013. Other ideas presented in the report included building storm barriers with mobile gates, and enhancing the resilience of the natural shoreline by building dunes, wetlands and oyster reefs. The report was divided into five categories: transportation, energy, land use, insurance, and infrastructure finance. In addition, it highlighted nine major recommendations relevant to multiple sectors and systems, including protecting, upgrading, and strengthening existing systems; rebuilding smarter; creating shared equipment and resource reserves; promoting integrated planning and decision-making and enhanced institutional coordination; improving data, mapping, visualization, and communication systems; and creating new incentive programs to encourage resilient behaviors and reduce vulnerabilities.

The Rockefeller Foundation also helped produce the commission’s 175-page final report, presented in January 2013. Other ideas presented in the report included building storm barriers with mobile gates, and enhancing the resilience of the natural shoreline by building dunes, wetlands and oyster reefs. The report was divided into five categories: transportation, energy, land use, insurance, and infrastructure finance. In addition, it highlighted nine major recommendations relevant to multiple sectors and systems, including protecting, upgrading, and strengthening existing systems; rebuilding smarter; creating shared equipment and resource reserves; promoting integrated planning and decision-making and enhanced institutional coordination; improving data, mapping, visualization, and communication systems; and creating new incentive programs to encourage resilient behaviors and reduce vulnerabilities.

Many of The Rockefeller Foundation’s recommendations were included in Governor Cuomo’s legislative agenda for 2013 and beyond. The report’s findings were echoed in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal for a More Resilient New York, and in the recommendations of the federal government’s Sandy Taskforce. The private sector took up many of the report’s recommendations as well. The report also emphasized the importance of taking proactive action immediately—thereby positioning New York State as a model for resilience across the United States and around the world.

Since then, significant progress has been made in implementing the commission’s recommendations, including naming a Chief Resilience Officer for New York City, creating the proposed buyout program for affected homeowners, expanding the use of green infrastructure, and improving the resilience of New York’s waterways. While New York State and City focus on implementing these recommendations, The Rockefeller Foundation has continued to advance New York City’s resilience-building through other initiatives. In 2013, the Foundation funded the Rebuild by Design competition, which solicited innovative flood-mitigation proposals for the New York City area from around the world. Competition winners then had access to $920 million in federal funding to further develop their solutions. Also in 2013, the Foundation named New York City as one of the first 33 urban centers selected to participate in our 100 Resilient Cities initiative. As a result of this initiative, in April 2015 New York City released OneNYC, the city’s comprehensive resilience plan.This successful outcome illustrates the effectiveness of The Rockefeller Foundation’s strategic focus on adaptability: Our prior deep investments in New Orleans and ACCCRN and the knowledge we gained through these efforts, combined with the adaptability of our strategic model, enabled us to position the Foundation in a way that allowed us to employ our thought leadership and chart a tangible and impactful set of resilience-building recommendations for New York State.

This successful outcome illustrates the effectiveness of The Rockefeller Foundation’s strategic focus on adaptability: Our prior deep investments in New Orleans and ACCCRN and the knowledge we gained through these efforts, combined with the adaptability of our strategic model, enabled us to position the Foundation in a way that allowed us to employ our thought leadership and chart a tangible and impactful set of resilience-building recommendations for New York State.

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