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Stephen Heintz is president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a private family foundation. Before joining the RBF, he held top leadership positions in both the non-profit and public sectors, including Demos and the EastWest Institute.

Created in 1940 by the sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (John D. 3rd, Nelson, Winthrop, Laurance, and David), the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) advances social change that contributes to a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world. To date, three generations of the family have acted as trustees along with non-family leaders.

Why and when was the RBF established?

RBF was set up in 1940 so we’re actually celebrating our 75th anniversary this year. It was established by the third generation of the Rockefeller family – the sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It was his father, John. D Rockefeller, who amassed a great fortune in the 19th century from the oil business and who founded the Rockefeller Foundation with his son in 1913.

The reason the RBF was established is actually quite a practical one. As representatives of a high-profile and wealthy family, each family member was being approached for funding by a range of causes. So they came to see that cooperating with each other would be a more efficient way of maximising their philanthropy. In the beginning, their philanthropy was more like a donors’ circle where the five brothers would meet to discuss the requests they were getting and coordinate their response, share ideas and learn.

After they all returned from serving in the war, they came to see that a formal structure would be more beneficial, so in the late 1940s they began building an institutional framework as an independent foundation. They started bringing non-family members onto the board in 1952, and began to rely more on professional staff to support their philanthropy. In the early days, the board mainly comprised of family members, but by the 1980s it had evolved into a 50:50 split. 

What are the key benefits or challenges of a family foundation from the experience of the RBF?

In our experience, being a family foundation has been very positive. The family could be described as the ‘first family’ of philanthropy and they take their role extraordinarily seriously. This was especially important to John D Rockefeller, Jr. He encouraged his sons to organise the RBF. At the time they were all young men aged 25-35 starting out in big careers. John wanted his sons to be serious about philanthropy so he gave them an incentive – he said that if they could get organised and demonstrate seriousness of purpose he would provide additional funds. He made two endowment gifts, one in 1952 and another after his death in 1960.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr had a sense of obligation and responsibility that he expected from his own sons and they passed it on to their own children – a generation known as ‘the cousins’, who in turn have also passed it on to their own kids. It’s impressive how seriously they take the RBF and how they maintain the third generation’s values and approaches to philanthropy.

How are decisions made as to which members of the family can join the RBF?

There are now over 230 living descendants of John. D. Rockefeller and there are a variety of Rockefeller institutions – over 30 – some grant-making and some operating organisations. So family members have a variety of opportunities to serve on the board of a network of institutions.

I think many family members look at the RBF as the family’s premier grant-making organisation, so there is a good amount of competition to join our board. While the Rockefeller Foundation is larger, the family is no longer deeply involved in its work. At present there is one family member serving on the board.

The process for joining the RBF board is robust. We have a nominating committee made up of trustees – family and non-family. In my view it’s the most important committee of the board as it has to ensure that the governance is sound and that we create an exceptional dynamic between family and non-family member interests. The nominating committee carefully deliberates all candidates and communicates back to family members who have expressed an interest in joining the board. 


The very core values about the responsibility of wealth and the obligations that come with privilege have been consistent and remain powerful motivators today. 

How did the family go about defining the RBF’s mission and choosing what it supports?

A number of things have been consistent from the beginning and have shaped the work of the RBF.

John D Rockefeller did not come from a wealthy family himself. He left home to work at the age of 16 and we know from his financial records that in his first year of work he made $45 and in that year he made $5 of charitable contributions, so he was already giving away more than 10% of what he earned. His income then grew significantly and at the turn of the 19th century he was the world’s wealthiest person. He created what could be described as the world’s first truly global enterprise – Standard Oil’s profits were mainly generated from oil outside of the United States. So his son and grandchildren grew up with a very healthy international perspective. They travelled and were always meeting interesting people from business, diplomacy, government – and the RBF is still engaged with international issues around the globe.

A second very consistent interest has been the environment. The family started with an interest in conservation and made significant grants to preserve natural landscapes. In fact, they helped to create some of the national parks in the United States. Over the generations, this interest evolved into more of a focus on ecology and sustainable development – and more recently the focus has shifted onto climate change and energy.

A third area is the interest in citizenship and active engagement, community and civil society. Today, we also have an explicit interest in strengthening the practice of democracy, which has focused largely on democratic reform in the United States, but we have also been working in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Each of these core themes has emerged from our history and evolved to reflect contemporary conditions and the expertise and values of each generation.

How have the family’s values evolved over time?

The very core values about the responsibility of wealth and the obligations that come with privilege have been consistent and remain powerful motivators today. In fact, they were codified by John D. Rockefeller, Jr, who wrote a ‘Credo’, as he called it, that many of the family can recite from memory to this day. It is literally carved in stone on a wall in the plaza of Rockefeller Centre. It’s a very inspiring statement about the rights and responsibilities of individuals and those who have wealth.

There are other values that have shifted over time. A fundamental one was that the earlier generation had a great belief in the private sector and created businesses. The cousins’ generation that came of age in the 1960s were less interested in capitalism and more interested in social development and the role of the non-profit sector. Most of that generation worked in academia, philanthropy, or the non-profit sector – few have gone on to have significant business careers. One brother who did go in to business, David, had his 100th birthday this year and has been involved in RBF since the beginning.

What, in your view, are some of the key highlights of the RBF’s work?

There are too many to mention, but there are a few I could highlight.

One is an engagement that started in 2002 and formed a major strand in our Peacebuilding Programme. It is a great example of how modest amounts of philanthropic resources coupled with direct engagement, leadership and partnership have led to philanthropic impact.

The initiative focused on the US relationship with Iran. I was beginning to see how Iran would play an important and complex role in the Middle East. At the time, one of our trustees, William Luers, who had served as an American diplomat and ambassador, was then President of the UN Association (UNA) of the USA. He and I decided that we would enter into a partnership between RBF and the UNA to begin an informal track two dialogue between senior Americans and Iranians. We worked on this with the then Iranian Ambassador to the UN [Mohammad Javad Zarif] who is now the Foreign Minister that successfully concluded the negotiation on the nuclear programme. It was a very complex project. We had a European partner, the Stockholm Centre for International Peace Research (SIPRI), as we needed them to host the meetings. We had 14 meetings over a number of years and we communicated what we learned from the conversations to high level officials in the Bush then Obama administrations. The same was being done in Tehran. It has been acknowledged that this work was a significant contributor to the eventual success of the formal negotiations.

A second initiative and a great asset that we have to utilise is the former home of John D Rockefeller, which he built – Pocantico. The family left the home to the National Trust for historic preservation with the understanding that the RBF would maintain and utilise it as a conference centre  Over the past few years, we have also been building an artists’ residency programme for poets, dance companies, playwrights, videographers… They present their work at Pocantico  and engage with local schools, and when they come back to New York we help them progress. The Pocantico Centre been a great resource and force-multiplier to support all of our philanthropic activities.

A third highlight for me is some work that we have been doing related to climate change, an area of focus that makes up about 40% of grant dollars that we pay out. Given the scale of the grants we give in this area, we became increasingly uncomfortable that while we were trying to solve the climate crisis through our grant-making we remained invested [through our endowment] in the companies that were producing the greenhouse gases that are causing the climate crisis. It began to be morally very uncomfortable – it was like we were funding research on lung cancer and investing in tobacco companies. So we started a very complex dialogue with our key stakeholders about the proposal that we would divest from fossil fuels, a decision that we made public in 2014. It was quite an extraordinary step on our part given the irony of how the wealth was generated in the first place. The decision has made a very good contribution to helping build the momentum of the divestment movement that will no doubt grow significantly before and beyond COP21 in Paris in December 2015.



Try to think long-term, be ready to engage outsiders – you will benefit from the expertise and views of others. 

Do you think there is a growing trend in foundations considering environmental, social, governance or ethical factors as they invest their endowments?

I think this is one of the most exciting and growing trends in philanthropy. I think more and more people are beginning to feel constrained by grant-making that accounts for only 5% of financial assets, and they are increasingly thinking about how to deploy the other 95% [the endowment] in a way that preserves the corpus and generates the income for grant-making, but also in a way that advances mission. It’s a powerful new force in philanthropy.

What have been the key ingredients of the RBF’s success?

The wonderful combination of an extraordinary family, their openness and their insistence on working with professionals and real experts. They are very ambitious and at the same time very humble. The family wants to do important things and have impact, but they know that they can’t do it alone and know they need people with expertise they don’t have. So there is a creative and dynamic relationship between family and non-family trustees and professional staff.

Also, the ethos of collaboration and cooperation is in our DNA. This was there from the outset. There were five brothers, each with their own interests, high public profiles, lots of energy, some big egos – but they all realised that they needed to cooperate and collaborate to succeed. This approach provides the leverage we need if we are really going to have impact.

We have also taken the long view. We tend to be patient and realise that if you are to address major global challenges, you have to be in it for the long run and not lose energy - even if you don’t always see a lot of progress along the way.

We’ve also maintained what I describe as an experimental disposition. We in philanthropy have flexibility and independence that gives us the opportunity to take risks and do things others, including the private sector and government, can’t or won’t do. We can try experiments, like a laboratory, and learn from those that work and those that don’t. We can be out on the cutting edge in a variety of ways. 

What advice would you give to families that have the capacity to give at a significant level and are just at the beginning of their philanthropy journey?

Try to think long-term, be ready to engage outsiders – you will benefit from the expertise and views of others - and take prudent risks. Do things that you really care about and don’t spread yourself too thinly – stick with a few areas.

What needs to happen to grow philanthropy in the US?

We need to do a better job of communicating and demonstrating the impact of our work. This is hard – we are all struggling with it. But in order to persuade those with significant wealth to deploy that wealth to philanthropy, we have to show the efficacy of our work. Over the next several decades there is going to be a significant transfer of wealth from one generation to the next, so there is a great opportunity for a significant portion of that wealth to be deployed in philanthropy.