In 2020 the foundation pledged that it would divest from fossil fuel, notable since the endowment was largely funded by Standard Oil.
The foundation also has a controversial past, including support of eugenics in the 1930s, as well as several scandals arising from their international field work. In 2021 the foundation's president committed to reckoning with their history, and to centering equity and inclusion.
John D. Rockefeller Sr. first conceived the idea of the foundation in 1901. In 1906, Rockefeller's business and philanthropic advisor, Frederick Taylor Gates, encouraged him toward "permanent corporate philanthropies for the good of Mankind" so that his heirs should not "dissipate their inheritances or become intoxicated with power." In 1909 Rockefeller signed over 73,000 Standard Oil shares worth $50 million, to his son, Gates and Harold Fowler McCormick as the third inaugural trustee, in the first installment of a projected $100 million endowment.
The nascent foundation applied for a federal charter in the US Senate in 1910, with at one stage Junior even secretly meeting with President William Howard Taft, through the aegis of Senator Nelson Aldrich, to hammer out concessions. However, because of the ongoing (1911) antitrust suit against Standard Oil at the time, along with deep suspicion in some quarters of undue Rockefeller influence on the spending of the endowment, the result was that Senior and Gates withdrew the bill from Congress in order to seek a state charter from New York.
On May 14, 1913, New York Governor William Sulzer approved a charter for the foundation with Junior becoming the first president. With its large-scale endowment, a large part of Senior's fortune was insulated from inheritance taxes. The first secretary of the foundation was Jerome Davis Greene, the former secretary of Harvard University, who wrote a "memorandum on principles and policies" for an early meeting of the trustees that established a rough framework for the foundation's work. It was initially located within the family office at Standard Oil's headquarters at 26 Broadway, later (in 1933) shifting to the GE Building (then RCA), along with the newly named family office, Room 5600, at Rockefeller Center; later it moved to the Time-Life Building in the center, before shifting to its current Fifth Avenue address.
In 1914, the trustees set up a new Department of Industrial Relations, inviting William Lyon Mackenzie King to head it. He became a close and key advisor to Junior through the Ludlow Massacre, turning around his attitude to unions; however the foundation's involvement in IR was criticized for advancing the family's business interests. The foundation henceforth confined itself to funding responsible organizations involved in this and other controversial fields, which were beyond the control of the foundation itself.
Junior became the foundation chairman in 1917. Through the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM), established by Senior in 1918 and named after his wife, the Rockefeller fortune was for the first time directed to supporting research by social scientists. During its first few years of work, the LSRM awarded funds primarily to social workers, with its funding decisions guided primarily by Junior. In 1922, Beardsley Ruml was hired to direct the LSRM, and he most decisively shifted the focus of Rockefeller philanthropy into the social sciences, stimulating the founding of university research centers, and creating the Social Science Research Council. In January 1929, LSRM funds were folded into the Rockefeller Foundation, in a major reorganization.
The Rockefeller family helped lead the foundation in its early years, but later limited itself to one or two representatives, to maintain the foundation's independence and avoid charges of undue family influence. These representatives have included the former president John D. Rockefeller III, and then his son John D. Rockefeller, IV, who gave up the trusteeship in 1981. In 1989, David Rockefeller's daughter, Peggy Dulany, was appointed to the board for a five-year term. In October 2006, David Rockefeller Jr. joined the board of trustees, re-establishing the direct family link and becoming the sixth family member to serve on the board.
Stock in the family's oil companies had been a major part of the foundation's assets, beginning with Standard Oil and later with its corporate descendants, including ExxonMobil. In December 2020, the foundation pledged to dump their fossil fuel holdings. With a $5 billion endowment, the Rockefeller Foundation was "the largest US foundation to embrace the rapidly growing divestment movement." CNN writer Matt Egan noted, "This divestment is especially symbolic because the Rockefeller Foundation was founded by oil money."
The foundation established the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Harvard School of Public Health, two of the first such institutions in the United States, and established the School of Hygiene at the University of Toronto in 1927, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom;. they spent more than $25 million in developing other public health schools in the US and in 21 foreign countries. In 1913, it also began a 20-year support program of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, whose mission was research and education on birth control, maternal health and sex education. In 1914, the foundation set up the China Medical Board, which established the first public health university in China, the Peking Union Medical College, in 1921; this was subsequently nationalized when the Communists took over the country in 1949. In the same year it began a program of international fellowships to train scholars at many of the world's universities at the post-doctoral level. The Foundation also maintained a close relationship with Rockefeller University (also known as the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research) with many faculty holding overlapping positions between the institutions.
The Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease was a Rockefeller-funded campaign from 1909 to 1914 to study and treat hookworm disease in 11 Southern states. Hookworm was known as the "germ of laziness." In 1913, the foundation expanded its work with the Sanitary Commission abroad and set up the International Health Division  (also known as International Health Board), which began the foundation's first international public health activities. The International Health Division conducted campaigns in public health and sanitation against malaria, yellow fever, and hookworm in areas throughout Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean including Italy, France, Venezuela, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, totaling fifty-two countries on six continents and twenty-nine islands. The first director was Wickliffe Rose, followed by F.F. Russell in 1923, Wilbur Sawyer in 1935, and George Strode in 1944. A number of notable physicians and field scientists worked on the international campaigns, including Lewis Hackett, Hideyo Noguchi, Juan Guiteras, George C. Payne, Livingston Farrand, Cornelius P. Rhoads, and William Bosworth Castle. The World Health Organization, seen as a successor to the IHD, was formed in 1948, and the IHD was subsumed by the larger Rockefeller Foundation in 1951, discontinuing its overseas work.
While the Rockefeller doctors working in tropical locales such as Mexico emphasized scientific neutrality, they had political and economic aims to promote the value of public health to improve American relations with the host country. Although they claimed the banner of public health and humanitarian medicine, they often engaged with politics and business interests. Rhoads was involved in a racism whitewashing scandal in the 1930s during which he joked about injecting cancer cells into Puerto Rican patients, inspiring Puerto Rican nationalist and anti-colonialist leader Pedro Albizu Campos. Noguchi was also involved in an unethical human experimentation scandal.Susan Lederer, Elizabeth Fee, and Jay Katz are among the modern scholars who have researched this period. Researchers with the foundation including Noguchi developed the vaccine to prevent yellow fever. Rhoads later became a significant cancer researcher and director of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, though his eponymous award for oncological excellence was renamed after the scandal reemerged.
During the late-1920s, the Rockefeller Foundation created the Medical Sciences Division, which emerged from the former Division of Medical Education. The division was led by Richard M. Pearce until his death in 1930, to which Alan Gregg succeeded him until 1945. During this period, the Division of Medical Sciences made contributions to research across several fields of psychiatry. In 1935 the foundation granted $100000 to the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago. This grant was renewed in 1938, with payments extending into the early-1940s. This division funded women's contraception and the human reproductive system in general, but also was involved in funding controversial eugenics research. Other funding went into endocrinology departments in American universities, human heredity, mammalian biology, human physiology and anatomy, psychology, and the studies of human sexual behavior by Alfred Kinsey.
In the interwar years, the foundation funded public health, nursing, and social work in Eastern and Central Europe.
In 1950, the foundation expanded their international program of virus research, establishing field laboratories in Poona, India, Trinidad, Belém, Brazil, Johannesburg, South Africa, Cairo, Egypt, Ibadan, Nigeria, and Cali, Colombia, among others. The foundation funded research into the identification of human viruses, techniques for virus identification, and arthropod-borne viruses.
The Rockefeller Foundation continued funding German eugenics research even after it was clear that it was being used to rationalize discrimination against Jewish people and other groups, after the Nuremberg laws in 1935. In 1936, Rockefeller fulfilled pledges of $655,000 to Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, even though several distinguished Jewish scientists had been dropped from the institute at the time. The Rockefeller Foundation did not alert the world about the racist implications of Nazi ideology, but furthered and funded eugenic research through the 1930s. Even into the 1950s, Rockefeller continued to provide some funding for research borne out of German eugenics.
The foundation also funded the relocation of scholars threatened by the Nazis to America in the 1930s, known as the Refugee Scholar Program and the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars. Some of the notable figures relocated or saved, among a total of 303 scholars, were Thomas Mann, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Leó Szilárd. The foundation helped The New School provide a haven for scholars threatened by the Nazis.
After World War II the foundation sent a team to West Germany to investigate how it could become involved in reconstructing the country. They focused on restoring democracy, especially regarding education and scientific research, with the long-term goal of reintegrating Germany into the Western world.
The foundation also supported the early initiatives of Henry Kissinger, such as his directorship of Harvard's International Seminars (funded as well by the Central Intelligence Agency) and the early foreign policy magazine Confluence, both established by him while he was still a graduate student.
In 2021, Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, released a statement condemning eugenics and supporting the anti-eugenics movement. He stated that
"[...]we commend the Anti-Eugenics Project for their essential work to understand[...] the harmful legacies of eugenicist ideologies. [...] examine the role that philanthropies played in developing and perpetuating eugenics policies and practices. The Rockefeller Foundation is currently reckoning with our own history in relation to eugenics. This requires uncovering the facts and confronting uncomfortable truths, [...] The Rockefeller Foundation is putting equity and inclusion at the center of all our work: [...] confronting the hateful legacies of the past [...] we understand that the work we engage in today does not absolve us of yesterday’s mistakes. [...]"
Development of the United Nations
Although the United States never joined the League of Nations, the Rockefeller Foundation was involved, and by the 1930s the foundations had changed the League from a "Parliament of Nations" to a modern think tank that used specialized expertise to provide in-depth impartial analysis of international issues. After the war, the foundation was involved in the establishment of the United Nations.
The Cultural Innovation Fund is a pilot grant program that is overseen by Lincoln Center. The grants are to be used towards art and cultural opportunities in the underserved areas of Brooklyn and the South Bronx with three overarching goals.
The Rockefeller Foundation supported the art scene in Haiti in 1948 and a literacy project with UNESCO.
Rusk was involved with funding the humanities and the social sciences during the Cold War period, including study of the Soviet Union.
Agriculture was introduced to the Natural Sciences division of the foundation in the major reorganization of 1928. In 1941, the foundation gave a small grant to Mexico for maize research, in collaboration with the then new president, Manuel Ávila Camacho. This was done after the intervention of Vice President Henry Wallace and the involvement of Nelson Rockefeller; the primary intention being to stabilise the Mexican Government and derail any possible communist infiltration, in order to protect the Rockefeller family's investments.
Costing around $600 million, over 50 years, the revolution brought new farming technology, increased productivity, expanded crop yields and mass fertilization to many countries throughout the world. Later it funded over $100 million of plant biotechnology research and trained over four hundred scientists from Asia, Africa and Latin America. It also invested in the production of transgenic crops, including rice and maize. In 1999, the then president Gordon Conway addressed the Monsanto Company board of directors, warning of the possible social and environmental dangers of this biotechnology, and requesting them to disavow the use of so-called terminator genes; the company later complied.
In the 1990s, the foundation shifted its agriculture work and emphasis to Africa; in 2006, it joined with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in a $150 million effort to fight hunger in the continent through improved agricultural productivity. In an interview marking the 100 year anniversary of the Rockefeller Foundation, Judith Rodin explained to This Is Africa that Rockefeller has been involved in Africa since their beginning in three main areas – health, agriculture and education, though agriculture has been and continues to be their largest investment in Africa.
In April 2019, it was announced that the foundation would no longer be funding the 100 Resilient Cities program as a whole. Some elements of the initiative's work, most prominently the funding of several cities' Chief Resilience Officer roles, continues to be managed and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, while other aspects of the program continue in the form of two independent organizations, Resilient Cities Catalyst (RCC) and the Global Resilient Cities Network (GRCN), founded by former 100RC leadership and staff.
People affiliated with the foundation
Board members and trustees
On January 5, 2017, the board of trustees announced the selection of Dr. Rajiv Shah to serve as the 13th president of the foundation. Shah became the youngest person, at 43, and first Indian-American to serve as president of the foundation. He assumed the position March 1, succeeding Judith Rodin who served as president for nearly twelve years and announced her retirement, at age 71, in June 2016. A former president of the University of Pennsylvania, Rodin was the first woman to head the foundation. Rodin in turn had succeeded Gordon Conway in 2005. Current staff as of June 1, 2021 include:
David Rockefeller Jr., 2006–2016, chair of foundation board Dec. 2010- ; vice-chairman of Rockefeller Family & Associates; director and former chair, Rockefeller & Co., Inc.; current trustee of the Museum of Modern Art.
Group of Thirty – In 1978 the foundation invited Geoffrey Bell to set up this high-powered and influential advisory group on global financial issues, whose former chairman was longtime Rockefeller associate Paul Volcker, until his death in 2019
^Seim, David L. (June 1, 2013). Rockefeller Philanthropy and Modern Social Science. London: Pickering & Chatto. pp. 81–89. ISBN978-1848933910.
^Foundation withdrew from direct involvement in Industrial Relations – see Robert Shaplen, Toward the Well-Being of Mankind: Fifty Years of the Rockefeller Foundation, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964, (p.128)
^Mariani, Mike (28 May 2015). "The Guatemala Experiments". Pacific Standard. The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy. Archived from the original on 10 February 2020. Retrieved 7 January 2015.
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