A recent announcement from the President of the Rockefeller Foundation states:
“In 1913, John D. Rockefeller endowed The Rockefeller Foundation with $100 million, to pursue scientific philanthropy. That initial endowment of course was the product of oil refining and the Standard Oil Company Rockefeller built into an empire. For the whole of its history, the Foundation has funded most of its works—totaling $22 billion for charitable causes and projects over the last 107 years—out of that and other early bequests… we are divesting our $5 billion endowment of fossil fuel interests while refraining from any future investments in that sector. We believe it is time to officially align our internal investment strategy with our external values and mission.”
This is a rather bold re-direction from a historic international foundation fueled by the oil industry and named for one of the early 20th century industrialists whose fortune was derived from big oil. So, the question must be asked – what would John D. Rockefeller think?
Hard to say. He was a man of great vision and his initial fortune came by providing the wonders of light to households by providing an alternative (kerosene) to fuels such as whale oil. He was a man of science and his Foundation has contributed to advances against disease – especially diseases effecting poorer countries as exemplified by the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) effort against the Great Neglected Diseases. The RF has supported controversial programs in population and was an early proponent of the green revolution. Perhaps he would have seen this day coming and embraced it?
More importantly – from his articulation of the principles of scientific philanthropy – it is likely he would be less concerned in the optics of the endowment investment and more concerned with the meaningfulness of the philanthropic investment – identifying important societal problems that can be solved by both deep understanding and shrewd programs. Making a true, deep, and lasting difference is a challenge facing every philanthropic institution – but the RF has always been a leader so the stakes are high. We wish them continued success.