The Rockefeller Foundation
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NAIC: 813219 Other Grantmaking & Giving Services
One of the oldest and largest private charitable organizations in the world, The Rockefeller Foundation supports programs focused on making the world a better place for all humanity. The New York-based organization provides grants and fellowships as well as support for conferences; the foundation disbursed more than $170 million in 1999. Among the numerous programs and fields supported by the foundation are agricultural initiatives designed to reduce hunger by helping farmers in developing nations increase crop yields, arts and humanities projects, equal opportunity programs, global vaccination endeavors, environment studies, and family planning and population studies. As the foundation entered the 21st century, it modified its mission to adopt a more global approach and to focus more heavily on food security, creativity and culture, world health, and working communities.
Pioneering Philanthropy: Early 1900s
The founder of The Rockefeller Foundation, John D. Rockefeller, displayed an interest in philanthropy from an early age. During his teen years, Rockefeller, an avid member of the Baptist church, saved money from his first job to donate to his church. As the years passed Rockefeller expanded his charitable donations, regularly giving to Sunday schools, churches, and an orphanage.
In 1870 Rockefeller and his business partners founded Standard Oil of Ohio. The business was so successful that Rockefeller soon became one of the wealthiest men in the United States. With this prosperity came an increase in Rockefeller’s interest in charitable giving. Rockefeller also was influenced by steel industry magnate and fellow philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In an essay, “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie wrote, “The day is not far distant, when the man who dies leaving behind him millions of available wealth, which was free for him to administer during life, will pass away unwept, unhonored, and unsung.” This essay had a profound effect on Rockefeller, who read it in 1889 and then wrote to Carnegie to assure him that “the time will come when men of wealth will more generally be willing to use it for the good of others.”
Rockefeller then seriously committed himself to the task of philanthropy, beginning with a donation that helped to found the University of Chicago. Rockefeller gifted a total of about $36 million over the course of 25 years to help build the university. In 1901 Rockefeller established The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, which later became Rockefeller University. Two years later, to promote education, particularly of African Americans in the South, Rockefeller started the General Education Board. Continuing with his charitable giving, Rockefeller in 1909 created the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for Eradication of Hookworm Disease.
Although Rockefeller was prepared to start The Rockefeller Foundation as early as 1909, the organization was not created until 1913. Attempts to secure a federal charter were unsuccessful, and the foundation instead incorporated in New York State on April 24, 1913. Its mission and statement of purpose read, “To promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.” Rockefeller gifted $35 million to the foundation that first year, and the next year he gave $65 million. Despite Rockefeller’s ties to the foundation, however, he chose to stay out of the day-to-day business of running the organization and did not attend board meetings. Rockefeller’s son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was elected president, and the foundation became an organization independent of the Rockefeller family’s interests.
Late in 1913 The Rockefeller Foundation made its first grant when it provided $100,000 to the American Red Cross, enabling the Red Cross to acquire property in Washington, D.C., for its national headquarters. The foundation chose to focus on health and medical education, granting money to Johns Hopkins University to expand its medical school and facilities and providing $25,000 to establish the International Health Commission, its first overseas venture and an offshoot of the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for Eradication of Hookworm Disease. The foundation also lent financial support to the Bureau of Social Hygiene, which conducted research and provided education on birth control, sex education, and maternal health, and founded the China Medical Board to help develop a modern medicine system in China.
Active during its early years, the foundation also began a program to further the education of future leaders through the provision of international fellowships. The Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for Eradication of Hookworm Disease was integrated into the foundation in 1914, and in addition to researching hookworm, the foundation began studies of malaria and yellow fever. In the late 1910s the foundation became more heavily involved with public health education and the natural sciences. Three schools of public health were endowed by the foundation in the late 1910s and early 1920s—Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan—with plans to establish additional schools around the world. In addition, the foundation set up a Division of Medical Education to fund medical schools and provided funds to the National Research Council for fellowships in the natural sciences, particularly physics and chemistry.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., stepped down as president in 1917 and became the chair of the board of trustees. George E. Vincent was elected president. The foundation’s funds were enhanced by additional gifts from John D. Rockefeller, who gave the foundation a total of more than $182 million. In the 1920s the foundation continued its efforts to promote education by establishing the International Education Board, a counterpart to the U.S. General Education Board, backed with $20 million. In the late 1920s the foundation shifted its interests and reorganized into five core divisions: international health, medical sciences, natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Within social sciences the foundation chose to support programs in international relations, economic stabilization, and public administration.
The foundation’s early efforts in the humanities included gifts to the American School of Classical Studies, which assisted the progress of the excavation of the Athenian Agora; funding for the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, which helped train archaeologists; and support to Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum for the education of curators and art historians. In the 1930s the foundation supported library projects, American regional drama, and Far Eastern studies. It also developed new interests in the humanities, including radio and film, American studies, and the preservation of native cultural materials.
In its other divisions, the foundation emphasized economics and social science research, with grants given to such research centers as the London School of Economics, the Social Science Research Council, and the National Bureau of Economic Research. The foundation also began its involvement with agricultural studies with a rural reconstruction program in China. The organization’s fight against disease, including schistosomiasis, continued, and the foundation also supported research in biology. In 1935 the foundation successfully developed the first effective vaccine against yellow fever; the importance of this finding was recognized in 1950, when microbiologist Max Theiler of The Rockefeller Foundation Virus Laboratory was awarded the Nobel prize in medicine and physiology for his work on the vaccine.
During the 1940s the foundation provided support for the development of nuclear science research tools, such as the electron microscope, and continued to support the humanities with funding to such activities as language studies, American cultural studies, and library development. The foundation created the Atlantic Awards, which provided grants to help young writers, particularly British writers suffering hardships following World War II. An interest in population studies was recognized with a grant to Princeton University’s Office of Population Research, which investigated ties between population and developing countries.
Postwar Shifts: Focus on Agricultural Studies
In the late 1940s The Rockefeller Foundation progressed in its efforts to better the world. To replenish the dwindling resources of the General Education Board, the foundation made its largest gift of 1946 with $7.5 million. The board’s focus had shifted to promoting education for blacks and whites in the South. The foundation funded a variety of programs and activities, including the development of the mechanical differential analyzer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a precursor to the modern computer; a 12-year program in area studies, which included grants to universities across the globe; and support for genetics research, which involved the building of genetics departments at leading universities, including Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology, and MIT. The foundation also was interested in the socioeconomic conditions of developing nations, and in 1948 it launched a research effort that combined the social sciences, health, and natural sciences divisions.
The Rockefeller Foundation is a knowledge-based, global foundation with a commitment to enrich and sustain the lives and livelihoods of poor and excluded people throughout the world.
By the 1950s a number of organizations focused on natural sciences and physics had emerged, the United Nation’s World Health Organization among them, leading The Rockefeller Foundation to disband its biology division in 1951. In 1952 John D. Rockefeller III became chair of the board of trustees, and the foundation adopted a more concerted interest in agricultural studies. The foundation had supported some agricultural work in Mexico in the 1940s, and it expanded on this work in the ensuing decades. The aim of the agricultural efforts, which later came to be known as the Green Revolution, was to boost crop yields in order to feed the world’s inhabitants. In 1950 the foundation created an agricultural development program in Colombia, where researchers worked with wheat seeds that had been developed through its Mexican projects. Participation in the agriculture program expanded to Chile in 1955 and Ecuador and India in 1956. In 1960 the foundation established the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. The institute hoped to develop new strains of rice and methods for increasing crop yields of rice, a staple in many developing countries. In 1966 the foundation lent support to the establishment of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, and in 1971 the foundation partnered with the Ford Foundation to set up the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research. The mission of the group was to develop better food crops for developing nations. The foundation’s efforts in agricultural studies in the mid-20th century resulted in increased crop output and several new strains of wheat, rice, and other crops. Its work also led to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 to Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, a Rockefeller Foundation scientist, for his efforts to modernize agriculture in the developing world.
Despite the foundation’s emphasis on agriculture in the mid-1900s, it did not neglect its other divisions. Among the causes supported by the foundation from the 1940s through the 1960s were population studies, including grants to the Population Council and the establishment of population research departments at major universities; the arts, including funding for the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford and New York’s Lincoln Center, as well as grants to novelists, playwrights, and dance companies; and education, which placed emphasis on promoting the education of African American students. In 1963, in fact, the foundation lent support not only to recruit African American students for colleges but to enhance the level of education and training available at historically black colleges and universities. The foundation also began its University Development program, later known as Education for Development and spanning 20 years, which supplied funding to universities all over the world. Also in 1963 the foundation implemented a reorganization to focus on five core concerns: Conquest of Hunger, Population and Health, Education for Development, Equal Opportunity, and Arts, Humanities, and Cultural Values.
As a result of negative economic conditions in the 1970s, the foundation’s assets declined to a low of $732 million in 1977, but this did not deter the organization from providing support to worthy programs and causes. The foundation supported population research, social history projects, and the arts and humanities, including grants to modern dance and ballet groups. In 1974 the foundation provided funds for the formation of the International Agricultural Development Service, which offered assistance in agriculture and rural development to developing nations. Three years later an international network of biomedical research groups was created to investigate key diseases affecting the developing world.
Health initiatives launched in the 1980s included the founding of an international clinical epidemiology network that focused on training physicians in developing countries, a grants program that supported biomedical studies in regard to the introduction of contraception in developing nations, and support for researching the newly discovered AIDS virus. The foundation also turned to the difficulties affecting the poor, launching a program that provided job training to single minority women in the United States in 1981 and creating a national research program to address poverty in U.S. cities in 1987. In agricultural studies, the foundation supported genetic engineering tests of cereal plants and in 1986 researchers developed a pioneering method of regenerating rice plants from rice protoplasts. In the late 1980s the foundation embarked upon three new initiatives—a global environment program, a school reform program in the United States, and an international security program, which addressed issues concerning destructive weapons.
Changing Times: A Global Approach in the Late 20th Century
The Rockefeller Foundation entered the 1990s as one of the largest and oldest charitable organizations in the world, and its aim was to continue addressing critical global issues. The foundation began the decade by forming the Energy Foundation with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Each contributor agreed to gift up to $100 million over the course of a decade to the Energy Foundation, which would explore alternative energy sources. The foundation formed another alliance in 1991 when it partnered with the United Nations Development Programme, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank to establish the Children’s Vaccine Initiative, designed to inoculate children all over the world against preventable childhood diseases. Other partnerships included the Partners in Population and Development program, formed with the United Nations Population Fund and designed to promote collaboration regarding family planning and reproductive health issues, and a program providing job training and job opportunities to poor, inner-city residents, developed with the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation as well as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Chase Bank.
- John D. Rockefeller establishes The Rockefeller Foundation.
- Foundation reorganizes to focus on five core divisions.
- The foundation’s Virus Laboratory develops a vaccine for yellow fever.
- Foundation establishes the International Rice Institute to research new strains of rice.
- Rockefeller Foundation scientist Dr. Normal Borlaug receives the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to modernize agriculture.
- The Energy Foundation, formed to study sustainable energy sources, is created in a joint venture with other foundations.
- British agricultural ecologist Gordon Conway is elected as the foundation’s 12th president.
- Foundation adopts a new global mission.
The emphasis on the importance of agricultural studies continued, and progress was made. In the mid-1990s scientists succeeded in cloning a gene that was resistant to bacterial blight, a disease that affected rice crops globally. Foundation-funded scientists also discovered, in 1997, that cereal plants were genetically similar, which meant that findings from the rice biotechnology program could be applied to other cereals, such as maize, sorghum, and wheat. Scientists also succeeded in developing a genetic engineering method that incorporated vitamin A and iron, two key nutritional vitamins, in rice.
In 1998 the foundation elected Gordon Conway as its 12th president. Conway, an agricultural ecologist who had pioneered the method known as integrated pest management, was the first ecologist to lead a major charitable organization. The timing could not have been more appropriate, for as the foundation’s agricultural studies grew, so did public objections to bioengineered food crops, the research of which the foundation supported. By the late 1990s the foundation found itself wedged between two opposing factions—those against the development of genetically engineered crops and large corporations hoping to cash in on genetically manufactured plants. Conway was equipped to speak to both, since he supported but also disagreed with aspects of each. Conway believed that bioengineered food was necessary to eradicate world hunger, but he also believed that companies in the biotech-food industry were not being responsible in their efforts and were ignoring the needs of farmers in developing countries. Ecologists, farmers, and biotech companies, Conway felt, needed to work together to start the “doubly green revolution,” a new agricultural revolution that would increase crop yields in developing nations and do so in an environmentally and socially sound manner. In an attempt to reach effective solutions, Conway set aside $3 million to support activists lobbying for product labeling of genetically engineered food ingredients, to fund the study of the ethical implications of bioengineered food, and to promote constructive and open dialogue between the differing factions.
By the late 1990s the foundation’s endowment had a value exceeding $3 billion. The foundation’s initiatives had evolved since its founding in 1913, but the organization found itself struggling with too many diverse initiatives. In response, The Rockefeller Foundation adopted a new global mission as it entered a new century. The new focus of the foundation centered on improving the lives of poor people around the world. The foundation’s giving would revolve around four themes—creativity and culture, food security, health equity, and working communities, which involved helping poor urban neighborhoods to become effective and safe communities.
The Ford Foundation; The Carnegie Corporation of New York; The Lilly Endowment; The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; The W.K. Kellogg Foundation; The J. Paul Getty Trust; The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; The Pew Charitable Trusts; The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation; The Anneberg Foundation; The David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
Brooks, Karen, “Genetically Engineered Rice Stirs Latest Debate on Biotechnology,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, January 12, 2000, p. 1.
Chernow, Ron, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., New York: Random House, 1998.
Fosdick, Raymond Blaine, A Philosophy for a Foundation, New York: Rockefeller Foundation, 1963.
——, The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation, New York: Harper, 1952.
Goldin, Milton, “Shaky Foundations: Institutions to Strengthen Society Became Personal and Political Tax Shelters,” Barron’s, July 12, 1999, p. 46.
Lagnado, Lucette, “Raising the Ante: For Those Fighting Biotech Crops, Santa Came Early This Year,” Wall Street Journal, December 14, 1999, p. A1.
Pennar, Karen, “Gordon Conway, Green Revolutionary,” Business Week, November 16, 1998, p. 191.
Shaplen, Robert, Toward the Weil-Being of Mankind: Fifty Years of the Rockefeller Foundation, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964.
Stipp, David, “The Voice of Reason in the Global Food Fight,” Fortune, February 21, 2000, p. 164f.