No family foundation in the world has the vintage or the recall of The Rockefeller Foundation. John D Rockefeller Sr. established the foundation in 1913 to promote the well-being of humanity around the world. This institutional philanthropy pioneer’s contribution to medical breakthroughs is largely unknown. Many scientists supported by the foundation have gone on to win the Nobel prize and it is possibly the only one with a 100-year history of publishing annual reports. The latter is a reflection of not only its archiving systems but also the foundation’s guiding principles. David Rockefeller Jr., the current board chair, is the great-grandson of the founder and guides the foundation with the same passion that he has for the environment, ocean conservation and his favourite pastime, sailing.
The Rockefeller Foundation is among the world’s oldest philanthropic institutions. Can you tell us how the foundation has evolved over the years in terms of thinking and approach?
Last year, The Rockefeller Foundation celebrated its Centennial — 100 years of practising strategic philanthropy. When we looked back over the arc of our history, what became clear was that while the world has indeed changed a great deal since my great-grandfather John D Rockefeller Sr. started the foundation in 1913, many of our strengths have remained the same: the ability to back brains, which has led to some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century; our convening power, which brings together mighty and disparate stakeholders in the pursuit of a shared cause; and our constant search for what my great-grandfather called “finalities” -— in other words, how do we get to the roots of these problems and address the systems that shape them, rather than treating their symptoms?
While our strengths have endured, the areas in which the foundation has worked have seen a good amount of change, in line with the pressing challenges of the time. In our earliest years, we began with a focus on medical education in the United States and China and, from there, moved into the sciences and then the social sciences, agriculture and biotechnology. Today, we pursue the dual goals of building resilience and advancing more inclusive economies. But while our goals and focus areas have been changi