A Rock Solid Century of Strategic Philanthropy

Let’s play the “Who am I?” game. With the lofty mission “To promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world,” and seeded with an initial $35 million, this philanthropist started his namesake foundation which eventually eradicated deadly diseases from the map, restructured public health service delivery and backed a new generation of doctoral scholars to imagine and develop solutions to the world’s intractable health challenges (some of whom were awarded Nobel prizes). Who am I?

Bill Gates? No. Warren Buffett? No. Bono? No.

In 1913, already the world’s wealthiest man at 39 years old, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. launched the Rockefeller Foundation. The founder of Standard Oil Company, where he made his fortune, Rockefeller was extremely strategic and global in his approach to giving. He used his wealth, power and relationships with trusted colleagues to literally change the world. Through his philanthropy, the scourge of Hookworm Disease in the US was eliminated, paving the way to next eliminate malaria in the southern United States. The work extended to other continents and was followed by an effort to then eradicate deadly Yellow Fever.

The solution approach was multi-pronged, and its elements served as the basis for much of today’s centers of academic and medical excellence, included funding of research programs and colleges of public health at Johns Hopkins University, Harvard, Yale, University of Michigan and Peking Union Medical College in China, just to name a few. The endowments were pointedly directed and metrics-based, not gifts to general operating funds.

Once the science was established, the foundation created new ways to deliver healthcare services globally. The famous Thai boat of 1925 reached thousands of people in far flung communities, with staff inoculating residents against Hookworm and cholera.

That was just the beginning of a century’s worth of collaboration and innovation from Rockefeller’s foundation. Eventually it expanded beyond disease research and management. In the 1990s it initiated a 10-year long Population Sciences program to make quality family planning and reproductive health available to every couple in the world who wants it. It also launched the Next Step: Jobs initiative with the Corporation for Supportive Housing to integrate employment services into supportive housing centers in three cities. By 1997, employment rates doubled in these 3,000 supportive housing units.

Today’s Rockefeller Foundation focuses its resources and energies on five interconnected issue areas: Basic Survival Safeguards (providing food security, water, housing and infrastructure), Global Health (accessible, affordable and equitable health services and systems), Climate and Environment (sustainable growth and resilience to climate change), Urbanization (solutions for fast-growing cities) and Social and Economic Security (stronger safety nets, reinvigorated citizenship, re-imagined policy frameworks). What will a second century of this foundation’s philanthropy bring?

One imagines even Bill and Melinda Gates gape at the success of the Rockefeller philanthropy. Yet it was a model for their own foundation, which can claim success in helping India to be free of polio for the first time. Their work continues in vaccination, global health, agriculture and sustainability.

Even pop star Lady Gaga has taken a page from the Rockefeller song book. She garnered headlines this year when she established the Born This Way Foundation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education aiming to stop bullying.

Indeed these are breathtaking initiatives. Nascent philanthropists should dream big. With patience and determination they can make impactful social change in a climate where public funds are diminished and politics are divisive. It starts with having a clear purpose, a finite mission. It is nurtured by gathering with trusted advisors to help build a  program that includes not just funds but also strategic collaborations and visionary thinking to succeed. Those are the lessons that Rockefeller left that will be building blocks for the next century of strategic philanthropy.


About christengraham

President of Giving Strong, Inc. Christen advises businesses, foundations and families for how to make a greater social impact.