A Legacy of Giving
been a central family value that
has spanned three centuries. The
strong belief of early generations
that wealth comes with great
responsibility continues to inform
the philanthropy of current generations,
helping to shape their priorities and
perspectives on giving. The family is
now entering its seventh generation
and has maintained its tradition of
giving within each generation.
John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (JDR) was born with the entrepreneurial spirit of his father, a farmer and patent medicine salesman, and the religious-driven generosity of his mother, Eliza Davison Rockefeller. Mrs. Rockefeller was a pious Baptist who taught her children to tithe, a tradition of giving 10 percent of one’s income to the church, that was passed down to subsequent generations. JDR was heavily influenced by his mother’s charitable practices and began his own giving the very first year that he started working, when he made just $45 a year.
JDR became involved in the petroleum industry, soon founding Standard Oil, which would become the dominant oil company in the United States. With the great success of Standard Oil, JDR explored new purposes for his unprecedented wealth. In addition to making many investments in different sectors of the American economy, he also allocated a significant portion to charity.
From 1855, when JDR gave his first philanthropic gift, until almost the turn of the 20th century, Rockefeller’s giving was spread across many individuals and institutions and largely focused on the Baptist church itself and universities founded as Baptist institutions, such as the University of Chicago and Spelman College. While this religious-driven giving certainly highlights JDR’s strong ties to the church, it also signifies the early state of the nonprofit sector at the time: There were few other secular organizations that he could have given to.
ROCKEFELLER FAMILY’S GIVING THAT COULD BE APPLIED
TO OTHER FAMILIES HOPING TO DEVELOP THOUGHTFUL,
PLANNED MULTIGENERATIONAL PHILANTHROPY:
the common good and a responsibility to humanity.
these values from generation to generation.
becomes more meaningful when personal experiences
create opportunities to give to a cause that resonates
with family values.
Although JDR’s giving was, at first, very narrow, he was soon overwhelmed by the sheer volume of request letters that he received from individuals all over the country. When founding the University of Chicago, JDR met Frederick Gates, an ordained Baptist minister who also had a flair for salesmanship. JDR asked Gates to work for him to assist him with his charitable giving. An organizational genius, Gates quickly transformed JDR’s giving and helped him to organize it “as though it were a business.” He discovered that many of the organizations that JDR had been supporting were dubious. As a minister, Gates shared JDR’s strong Christian imperative to engage with society and to help to solve its problems. But Gates had lost his faith and felt that much of what he had been taught, and, in fact, had himself preached, was simply not true. He felt that JDR’s giving to date did not address the underlying social problems with which this country was confronted:
Gates helped JDR to redirect his giving into a more fundamental kind of charity. This is the beginning of a move toward modern philanthropy.
The increasing volume of requests and JDR’s great wealth led to the creation of the Rockefeller Foundation. The Foundation had very specific programs:
LABOR RELATIONS IN THE UNITED STATES
The Rockefeller Foundation was not met with tremendous popular acclaim at the time. In fact, it was met with the opposite-tremendous suspicion. What are the Rockefellers up to now? This led JDR and Junior to understand that they had to operate the foundation in such a way that it would gain not only the grudging acceptance but also the trust of the American people.
Many families develop philanthropy programs out of the desire to give back to society in return for their own good fortune. Families successful in business wish to repay the society that helped to generate this success. The first two generations of the Rockefeller family were among the small group of individuals who created modern philanthropy by attempting to deal with the root causes of poverty, disease and ignorance rather than simply ameliorating their symptoms through charity. Current philanthropic programs pursued by family members, such as urban revitalization, youth employment and economic development, benefit various segments of the American population. Personal life experiences can also impact a family’s philanthropy:
Case StudyDavid Rockefeller
David Rockefeller, of the third generation, recalls two personal anecdotes that raised his awareness about the importance of recognizing opportunities to give. As a boy, he traveled with his family to Williamsburg, Virginia, where they visited an early American building undergoing restoration. This smallscale project inspired David’s father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to create Colonial Williamsburg. In another life-shaping childhood experience, his family traveled to France in the 1920s.
The family saw the damage that had occurred during World War I, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. decided to provide funds to repair the great monuments of France, including Chartres Cathedral, the Palace of Versailles and Fontainebleau. These philanthropic examples taught David to recognize an immediate need for generosity and to respond with grants that have great meaning because of their connection to personal experience.
Collaboration among groups of siblings, cousins and in- laws can be a great opportunity for sharing values, increasing impact, and developing richer programs. The formation of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) was the first example of Rockefeller family members sharing their philanthropic resources. The five sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., known as the “Brothers” generation, created the foundation before World War II, when they found their individual resources strained, and all were receiving requests for support from the same organizations. They decided to pool their funds designated for giving and to make collective decisions, as a more effective and meaningful way to give. The current programs of the RBF are strategic and reflective of the family’s central values. The New York City program demonstrates the family’s ongoing loyalty to the city, while RBF’s international development programs show the interconnectedness of different nations and cultures.
About 10 years ago, following some highly successful collaborative projects of the fourth generation (commonly known within the family as the “Cousins”), the young adult members of the fifth generation conducted a poll to identify areas of common interest. The environment and education emerged as the leading issues, and fifth generation family members chose to focus on community gardens in New York City.
Once this focus area was identified, the group operated as a collaborative “foundation.” They requested proposals, conducted site visits, participated in the public policy/advocacy process and made joint funding decisions. The fifth generation’s achievements were honored in the fall of 2004 by New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy organization in support of open, public spaces.
Combining the talents and skills of many different family members can also help expand grantmaking. Pooling resources allows family members to contribute to more sizable grants, and some of the issues addressed in family collaborations are broad enough to require diverse experience and skills.
Case StudyPeter O’Neill
As part of his involvement in running a capital campaign at International House, Peter O’Neill, a member of the fifth generation of the Rockefeller family, developed his skills as a fundraiser. This new perspective of asking for grants gave O’Neill greater insights into the other side of philanthropy. These skills make O’Neill an especially important asset to his generation group. His experiences also help his family members understand how effective fundraising is central to an organization’s sustainability and success.
also help his
is central to
Case StudyJohn D. Rockefeller III
The eldest son of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, JDR 3rd (as he was known) balanced the stewardship of a major philanthropic organization, the Rockefeller Foundation, with an equally strong program of personal philanthropy. As the only brother to pursue philanthropy as his primary interest, he had wide-ranging interests in the arts, education, agricultural development, and in the improvement of U.S. relations with Asia. However, for four decades he focused his work and giving on the danger of excessive global population growth. He believed that lowering population growth to sustainable levels would “improve the quality of people’s lives, and help make it possible for individuals everywhere to develop their full potential.” JDR 3rd pioneered the development of effective contraceptives and sought to implement public policies that would enhance the roles and status of women both in the U.S. and around the world.
sought to implement
that would enhance
the roles and status
of women both in
the U.S. and
around the world.”
Case StudyLaura Chasin
Ms. Chasin, the eldest daughter of Laurance S. Rockefeller and Mary French, is a social worker and family therapist. She is also founder and board chair of the Public Conversations Project (PCP). Founded in 1989 to explore the potential of adapting methods used with families in conflict to disputes in the public arena, PCP has worked worldwide to “promote conversations and relationships among those who have differing values, world views, and positions related to divisive public issues.” PCP aims to reduce the rancor in public squares and promote effective communication within organizations and communities. A notable accomplishment has been a dialogue on abortion among Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Leaders in Boston that PCP has facilitated. After the 1994 fatal shootings at two women’s health clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, the Governor and the Archdiocese of Boston asked that PCP facilitate an ongoing conversation to prevent further violence.
Over the next six years, PCP and Laura Chasin designed and facilitated meetings that encouraged communication and dialogue and helped to protect the safety of participants which, as reported in the Boston Globe, led to a lessening of hate-filled rhetoric and conflict.
The impact and continuity of the Rockefeller family’s philanthropy draws on four important forces:
OPPORTUNITY, COLLABORATION AND PERSONAL INVESTMENT,
THROUGH FAMILY TRADITIONS AND ORGANIZED MEETINGS;
FOCUSES ON ROOT CAUSES, UNDERSTANDING THE TIME HORIZON
AND BALANCING PATIENCE WITH ACCOUNTABILITY;
PROBLEMS THAT NEITHER GOVERNMENT NOR BUSINESS CAN ADDRESS
THROUGH STRONG AND SUSTAINABLE ORGANIZATIONS;
INCLUDING THE ROLE OF OPERATING SUPPORT,
GOVERNANCE VS. MANAGEMENT AND SHARED DECISION-MAKING.
These principles and practices, now reaching the seventh generation of Rockefellers, with more than 150 descendents of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., have transformed the landscape of philanthropy over the last century-and form a solid platform for continued innovation in giving.