Neva Rockefeller Goodwin and the Role of the Activist Investor in Steering Social Change

Like many who follow philanthropy, I pay attention to the Rockefellers. No family has done more to shape modern giving over the past century. But what are the Rockefellers doing these days to change the world?

For one thing, as most of us have heard, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund took the major step not long ago of divesting from fossil fuels—a move that received enormous attention, given that the family's wealth is famously derived from Standard Oil. Less well known is that the Rockefeller Family Fund is also divesting. 

One member of the Rockefeller clan deeply involved in these issues is Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, a fourth-generation Rockefeller who previously served as a trustee and vice chair of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. She is also President of the Mount Desert Land and Garden Preserve in Maine.

Currently, Goodwin (originally her middle name, after an ancestor on her mother’s side) is co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. She is also a research associate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and director of Frontier Thinking in Sustainable Development and Human Well-Being, a digital Social Science Library that was created at Tufts for distribution to 100 low-income countries that have poor internet access.

Goodwin has published widely in the discipline of economics and has coordinated many conferences on a range of social and economic subjects. She has also served in leadership roles at the New Economy Coalition, the Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development, and the Sustainable Endowments Institute, among other educational and social policy organizations.

Goodwin started our conversation by invoking a metaphor of a former mentor, Buckminster Fuller, with whom she spent several years developing the Design Science Institute (a precursor of the Buckminster Fuller Institute) back in the 1970s. Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, often used the “trim tab” metaphor when talking about personal empowerment and leadership. 

In our conversation, Goodwin applied this metaphor to her approach of using wealth for good—including through philanthropy. (The trim tab, for those not schooled in sailing metaphors, is a mini rudder on the edge of a ship’s larger rudder which, with slight adjustment to its angle, can steer the entire ship.) 

Goodwin said, “If the ship whose course needs adjusting is the modern economy of United States, I saw corporations as the rudder.” She continued, “As I was getting my degree in economics, I was asking myself, if the corporate system is what I really want to change, what is the trim tab?”

Her conclusion was that the investor is the trim tab for the corporate economy. Investors—both individuals and (more importantly) institutions—could steer the course of the corporate economy in two ways: through direct interaction with corporations, such as proxy voting and dialogue, and by directing investments away from economic activities that do harm, and towards those that do good. 

In the case of climate change, Goodwin has, indeed, been part of the trim tab of investors who have worked to influence the direction of big energy companies. Steering the leadership of the Rockefeller family as they engaged in proxy voting and meetings with corporate leaders at ExxonMobil, Goodwin has worked tirelessly to persuade the company to shift away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable energy. It has been a long, uphill battle, with Goodwin advancing the frontlines as both an investor and a thought leader.

Now, there has finally been major movement on several fronts. Beyond divestment by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Family Fund, lawsuits have been filed by the attorneys general of California and New York against ExxonMobil, which will seek more information on just how much the company knew about climate change and when, and whether they chose to hide information from the public. That legislation emerged after investigative journalism by the Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News, in partnership with Columbia Journalism School, that the Rockfeller Brothers Fund helped support. 

“It’s very significant,” said Goodwin, of the litigation. “This may follow the same route as the tobacco fight. Over time, it became evident how much the tobacco industry had lied.” 

Goodwin believes a similar dynamic will play out with Big Oil as has been playing out with Big Tobacco for the past several decades. “If these companies cannot be persuaded to change what they are doing, then massive lawsuits and litigation can help with that. Pressure needs to be brought on them so that they will not extract the huge amounts of reserves that are still in the ground. Not doing so, of course, makes the company far less valuable. They gave no warning to their investors that such an issue could be coming along.” (Goodwin published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year on ExxonMobil's behavior.)

Goodwin believes the single most important role that philanthropy can play is to “get alternative energy sources moving along fast enough to compete economically with fossil fuels.” Grantmaking that catalyzes the progress of renewable energy technologies and on-the-ground systems for real-time use is a vital key.

Goodwin regards philanthropy that is building a cost-effective renewable energy industry as an important factor in persuading oil- and gas-producing countries around the globe, such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Russia—as well as the U.S.—to transition to renewable energy sources. “The turning point for these countries to really change to a renewable energy system will be when the demand for fossil fuels drops because the alternatives have become cheaper.”

The bigger issue, said Goodwin, is the overall dynamic of our economy. “We need to change the kind of economy we have. Our economy is now dominated by corporations and the profit motive. The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court threw politics wide open to being purchased. The role of money inhibits the people who are in Congress from voting their consciences. The corporate economy has been enormously corrosive to our political system, and the political system in turn is supporting the economy to continue as it is.” 

Goodwin believes an important step in stopping the corporate corrosion of our economy will be to make it mandatory for corporations to reveal their political giving. “As investors, philanthropists can put pressure on corporations to reveal where their political funding has gone. A number of this year’s proxy proposals address this issue.”

Over the years, Goodwin has worked to engage many constituents of “trim tab” investors. Early on, she assumed that universities and philanthropies would be the leaders on divesting in fossil fuels. “I thought they would take the lead because it was so obvious that they had missions which were not the same as the profit-driven missions of corporations, but they were quite disappointing for a long time, and in fact, it was actually pension funds that took the lead. I am very pleased to see foundations now following. Many universities still are lagging.”

Related: We'll Say It Again: Listen for Falling Dominoes on Fossil Fuel Divestment and Foundations

Goodwin sees strong organizational leadership from pension funds, and credits Ceres as a key broker, bringing together environmentalists and corporations, and steering big investors toward renewable energies and away from fossil fuels.

Philanthropy has many roles to play in climate change activism and research. As one example, Goodwin was enthusiastic about the recent push of foundations such as the Clinton Global Initiative to amplify the voice of the Association of Small Island Nations. “Realizing that their land is disappearing,” she said, “this association has raised early warnings about the importance of the energy transition. Those in the tropics have abundant resources for the transition to solar power, but that won’t do any good to the nations that simply disappear under the rising ocean.”

RelatedWhat's the Clinton Foundation Doing at the Nexus of Climate, Islands, and Women?

With regard to the future, I asked Goodwin if she saw reason to hope that women’s leadership might be a critical factor in advancing social policy around climate change. “If there is some reason to think that women often are more conscious of the future than men are, then that might be reason to hope,” she said. “Many men who are in power, whether in business or government, often have a somewhat short-term view. Their power base is in the short term. Fewer women are in power, but with women’s traditional interest and involvement in family, the future has much more salience.”  

Goodwin was glad to know of research by outfits like the Women’s Philanthropy Institute to identify how women’s giving and women’s leadership in philanthropy might be affecting change. Her curiosity seemed particularly piqued when I described research suggesting that women become more engaged in the idea of legacy than men, thinking in more detail about how their children and grandchildren will be impacted by their philanthropy. “That’s interesting,” said Goodwin, “The sensibilities that are traditionally associated with women include both immediate empathy and the long-term view. Both of those responses are critically important at this pivotal moment in human history.”