He Played the Long Game: David Rockefeller's Philanthropy and Legacy

After David Rockefeller’s death on March 20, at the age of 101, the New York Times ran a full-page obituary about his life and career. The article made much of his time at Chase Bank, but gave only passing attention to Rockefeller’s long and varied involvements in philanthropy. It was an odd oversight, given that the last remaining grandson of John D. Rockefeller stands as a key figure in the annals of modern civil society. What’s more, according to those who knew him well, philanthropy “was the thing that gave him the most satisfaction in his life,” as Stephen Heintz put it.

Heintz got to know David Rockefeller over 15 years while running the Rockefeller Brothers Fund—the foundation that David’s generation of Rockefellers created in 1940. He found that for all Rockefeller’s passions—such as business, art, Maine, and New York City—philanthropy was one that he seemed most devoted to. “Philanthropy is a joyful experience,” Rockefeller once told Heintz, adding: “It’s important we use our heads but also follow our hearts.”

Rockefeller was known to make the same point to others about giving—that it should not be seen as a scientific endeavor. While he was plenty strategic, he wasn’t the kind of metric-hungry funder that’s become familiar today. Nor was he a micromanager who kept nonprofits on a short leash with program grants. “He gave unrestricted funding,” says Marnie Pillsbury, who worked closely with Rockefeller on his philanthropy for 27 years. “When he believed in an institution, he never tried to use his funds in ways that were controlling.”

Rockefeller was also a big believer in “patient capital,” says Pillsbury. He recognized that institutions took years to build, and that systemic problems could take decades to solve. He was the kind of funder who was in for the long haul. And he worked hard at philanthropy. “David went to the meeting, and stayed at the meeting,” says Pillsbury. “He showed up prepared. He did the reading.”

Rockefeller dedicated almost $2 billion to philanthropy, including bequests from his estate. Even these impressive numbers, though, don’t capture his large footprint in postwar civil society, including the most rarefied precincts of the nonprofit sector.

A Philanthropic Dynasty

Born in 1915, he was part of America’s most famous philanthropic family, and had a front row seat to some of the greatest hits of Rockefeller giving over the decades—as his father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., built on the legacy that his father had created, after retiring from Standard Oil as one of the richest men in America.

Among the third generation of Rockefellers, of whom he was the last remaining member, David did more than any of the others—including his brothers John, Nelson, Winthrop, and Laurence—to advance the family’s philanthropic legacy, in no small part because of his remarkable longevity and a high level of energy that barely flagged to the very end of his life.

Rockefeller was 25 years old when his older brothers created the Rockefeller Brothers Fund as a foundation intended to let the third generation put their own stamp on family philanthropy outside the much bigger Rockefeller Foundation. David became the secretary of the board, taking notes at the meetings, and “was very active with the fund from the beginning,” according to Stephen Heintz. He served for decades on the board of the RBF, including a stint as chair in the 1980s. He was the last brother to chair the board and “was very instrumental in the professionalization of the foundation, and the transfer of the foundation to the next generation.”  

Another of Rockefeller’s contributions to the RBF was expanding its international work with grantmaking that supported multilateral approaches to global security and diplomacy. This area was a great passion for Rockefeller, and not just because he was a banker who created one of the world’s first truly global banks in Chase. Rockefeller was a young man during the run-up to World War II, spending a summer in Germany in 1933 as a Harvard undergrad, just after Hitler came to power. Later, after doing his military service, he keenly followed the efforts to create a lasting peace in the aftermath of a global war. In fact, the Rockefeller family donated the parcel of land on the East Side of Manhattan where the United Nations was built.

David Rockefeller joined the Council on Foreign Relations in 1941. He would remain a member for 76 years, and a major donor, serving on the board for 36 of those years and as board chair for 15. He remained honorary board chair until his death. The organization is among the groups that will receive a bequest from his estate.

Today, amid the failure of globalization to deliver steady economic gains to all in advanced nations, it can be hard to remember that the vision of an integrated world was among the great causes of postwar liberals—and a key priority of top foundations. Their success in fostering a (so far) lasting peace among major powers was eventually taken for granted, and global security faded as a focus of philanthropy. But it never faded for David Rockefeller, who designated the largest bequest from his estate to the RBF, one of the major U.S. foundations still engaged in international affairs.

Under Heintz’s leadership, the RBF played a critical role in promoting a negotiated conclusion to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear programs—a deal that, so far anyway, looks like it has a good chance of surviving under a Trump administration. Recently, the RBF announced that it would be stepping up its grantmaking in response to Trump policies, so Rockefeller’s bequest comes at a fortuitous time. The value of that bequest is not yet known, although it was estimated at $225 million in 2006 when it was first announced. It’s likely to push the RBF’s endowment over the billion-dollar mark, and Heintz told me that it could increase annual grantmaking by as much as 50 percent.

Passing on Values

Another much smaller bequest is said to be going to the David Rockefeller Fund, which David and his wife Peggy created in 1989. The initial motive for establishing this foundation was to organize the couple’s annual giving, which supported a range of causes dear to David, including New York City, the arts, Maine, and the Hudson Valley. Over time, though, the fund became a way to continue the Rockefeller legacy of giving. When David’s grandchildren had grown up, he wanted to bring them into family philanthropy, and in 2001, this generation took a leading play in piloting the fund. The main priorities they established—art, the environment, and criminal justice—still guide the fund today, which is currently chaired by a fifth-generation family member, Michael Quattrone.

David remained active in the fund even as he passed the baton. “He never missed a board meeting,” says Lukas Haynes, who serves as the fund’s executive director, succeeding Marnie Pillsbury in that role. “It was an incredible pleasure watching him at the board table with all his children and grandchildren.” Haynes adds: “David was very clear about passing down the values he inherited.”

Rockefeller was also keen to promote philanthropy more widely, serving as an informal advisor to emerging donors. Pillsbury remembered when David met in the late 1990s with William Gates, Sr. and Patty Stonesifer, as they worked to establish what soon became the world’s largest foundation. There would be other conversations about the Gateses' plans, and it’s no coincidence that the goals of the couple would closely track with those of John D. Rockefeller, who had set out a century earlier to conquer the dread diseases of his day. Last week, Bill Gates tweeted that he had "learned a lot" from his conversations with David Rockefeller about giving. 

Rockefeller also played a role in launching the Giving Pledge, one of the most important events in contemporary philanthropy. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett asked Rockefeller to host the first dinner they convened with other billionaires to discuss the idea. David said later that the request was “a surprise but a pleasure,” and the May 2009 event was held at the President’s House at Rockefeller University in New York City.

Since the pledge was launched, over 150 people have signed, committing to give away at least half their fortunes, including some of the richest people on the planet. David Rockefeller was among the first people to join. In his pledge letter, Rockefeller wrote, “Our family continues to be united in the belief that those who have benefitted most from our nation’s economic system have special responsibility to give back to our society in meaningful ways.”

So what happens now to the Rockefeller philanthropic legacy? Well, in many ways, it remains robust. Beyond the David Rockefeller Fund and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the family also controls a third grantmaking entity, the Rockefeller Family Fund. The continuing heft of Rockefeller philanthropy has not just been underscored recently by the RBF’s role in the Iran nuclear deal, but also its help in funding investigative journalism about ExxonMobil’s deceptive practices on climate change—work that’s drawn enormous attention and sparked investigations of ExxonMobil by two state attorneys general (as well as a counter-probe by Texas U.S. Representative Lamar Smith.)

Meanwhile, a number of fourth and fifth generation Rockefellers are engaged in important work in the social sector. For example, one of David's children, Peggy Dulany, is founder and chair of the Synergos Institute, which works on global poverty, and also created (with her father) the Global Philanthropists Circle, a network of leading philanthropic families worldwide. 

Still, neither the Rockefeller fortune nor its brand are what they once were. David Rockefeller was the last Rockefeller to go into business in a serious way and to be a major wealth creator in his own right. Forbes has estimated the Rockefeller family’s collective net worth to be $11 billion—a pile dwarfed by some of the gargantuan fortunes of our new Gilded Age. The Kochs are worth nearly 10 times as much. In any case, Rockefeller wealth is spread across 174 heirs, says Forbes. David’s estate, the last large intact chunk of a fabled family fortune, will soon be distributed to the institutions he believed in most deeply.  

Institution Building

These gifts are likely to stand as a kind of final act of more than a century of Rockefeller mega-giving, at least on the order of nine-figure donations. Beyond the bequests to the RBF and the David Rockefeller Fund, as well as the Council on Foreign Relations, Rockefeller also set aside $100 million for the Museum of Modern Art, which his mother helped found.

MoMA was an institution to which Rockefeller was deeply devoted. As the youngest of six children, and one who didn’t have many friends, David spent a lot of time with his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and often accompanied her as she looked at art and built a world-class collection. Rockefeller came to share her love of art, and later amassed his own impressive collection of some 15,000 pieces, including work by Paul Cézanne, Willem de Kooning, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Pablo Picasso. He was present at MoMA’s founding in 1929 as a teenager, and would later serve for decades on its board, including years as chairman. Pillsbury said about the artistic side of his life: “He was very open minded and willing to try new things. Which was quite unusual for a man of his generation.” He didn’t like all the art that exhibited in MoMA, but he saw it as a place to experiment. Prior to his bequest, he had given MoMA a gift of $77 million to finance its renovation, as well as other gifts.

David Rockefeller was equally committed to Rockefeller University, which will also receive a $100 million bequest. He joined the board of that institution in 1940 and played a key role in building it up over the remainder of his life, serving as chair for 25 years. He helped establish its graduate program and chart its rise to become one of the top biomedical research centers in the world. Until very late in his life, he could be found on campus, talking with faculty, students, and staff. Rockefeller joined the university’s board around the time that penicillin was first used to treat infections. Today, Ph.D. students in the university's David Rockefeller Graduate Program are searching for breakthroughs in fields like genomics and computational biology. Not only did Rockefeller’s life parallel the rise of modern biomedicine, with transformative effects on society, but he played a hands-on role in advancing this work. As Rockefeller would once remark, “I’ve lived a rather interesting life.”

Another $100 million of his estate will go to Harvard University, where Rockefeller graduated in 1936, to give undergraduates more international opportunities and experiences in the arts. He was closely involved with Harvard over many years, serving on the board of overseers from 1954 to 1968, including two years as its president. In 1994, he gave a major gift to Harvard of $25 million to establish the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, which became one of the top centers for such research in the world. It was also the first university center of its kind at Harvard, drawing faculty from multiple disciplines.

In addition, a bequest—reported years ago to be $25 million—will go to the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, which is located near the Rockefeller estate in Westchester County, New York, and aims to foster “a healthy and sustainable food system.”

David Rockefeller’s long support for sustainable agriculture—which has only lately become a hot cause among other philanthropists—was one of his least well-known interests. It originated with his wife Peggy, who loved the farming life. For years, the couple raised cattle on farmland they owned in Columbia County, New York. When they put several thousand acres of that land in a conservation trust in the early 1990s, Peggy said, "If we don't protect our farms, we won't have anything to eat.” The 80-acre donation of land  in 2003 by the Rockefeller family for the Stone Barns Center was made in honor of Peggy Rockefeller’s memory. For many years, Rockefeller served as a trustee and donor to Historic Hudson Valley, a nonprofit his father had founded in 1951 to preserve one of America’s most historic and beautiful regions.

Playing the Long Game

It may not actually be so surprising that David Rockefeller isn’t better known for his philanthropy, since he didn’t draw attention to his good works. He was a person of “extraordinary modesty and graciousness,” says Marnie Pillsbury, a point echoed by many others over the years and in tributes over the past week.

Lukas Haynes tells the story of how the board and staff of the David Rockefeller Fund once wanted to have a retreat at the Pocantico Center on the Rockefeller estate in Westchester. Because of rules preventing self-dealing, the fund had to go through the formal process of applying to use the center. “Well, I hope they look kindly on our application,” David Rockefeller remarked.

Rockefeller’s philanthropic contributions came less in the form of big headline-making gifts than steady support for nonprofits over decades and, as importantly, personal involvement and sweat equity. He believed deeply in institutions as a way to make change—in contrast to many philanthropists today who are more fixated on near-term solutions—and the list of nonprofits that he nurtured is quite astonishing.

Beyond supporting Rockefeller University, MoMA, CFR, and Harvard, Rockefeller helped create the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, which fosters ties across the Western Hemisphere; the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association; and the International Executive Service Corps (IESC) in Washington, which promotes “equitable, sustainable economic growth in developing countries.” Rockefeller was also co-founder of the Trilateral Commission, created in 1973 to deepen interdependence between advanced nations. While the organization would generate endless conspiracy theories about plutocratic plots, the importance of its mission has lately become easier to grasp amid surging right-wing nationalism that threatens to divide the West and undermine the postwar liberal order.  

Just as David Rockefeller used his resources to advance the idea of global interdependence, he also championed public-private partnerships, well before this concept loomed large in philanthropy. He created the Partnership for New York City in 1979 at a time when the city was battered and in need of new kinds of collaborative efforts to solve big problems—like how to rebuild burned-out neighborhoods in the Bronx. Rockefeller wanted to engage business in such work, along with government and philanthropy. During the 1980s, an era remembered for its greed, he was an early proponent of corporate social responsibility. That idea, too, is now firmly embedded in the mainstream.

New York City was among Rockefeller’s great causes. One of his most formative experiences as a young man was serving for a year as an aide to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, after he received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. This experience would later inspire the creation of the David Rockefeller Fellows Program at Partnership for New York City in 1988, which is still going strong today and “prepares senior corporate executives for more active leadership in civic and public affairs” through a 12-month program.

Last week, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement: “No individual has contributed more to the commercial and civic life of New York City over a longer period of time than David Rockefeller.”

As with globalization, New York’s renewal as a world-class city over the past three decades hasn’t gone well for everyone. Inequality has worsened and the city’s middle class struggles to hold on. Some critics see the Partnership for New York City, with its business-friendly stance, as part of the problem, not part of the solution. So here, too, David Rockefeller’s record of civic leadership and philanthropy is not one of unvarnished success. The modern order he helped create has turned out to have more losers than he and postwar liberal elites anticipated. In this way, his career offers cautionary lessons for today’s establishment do-gooders—to watch for blind spots and not assume that the best version of their vision will triumph in the end.

In many other ways, though, David Rockefeller remains a model of what high-impact philanthropy looks like. In his Giving Pledge letter, Rockefeller said:  

In the end, success requires more than financial resources, although money, is of course, essential. Good ideas are just as important; otherwise, one risks wasting both the funds and the opportunity. Effective philanthropy also requires patience—patience to deal with unexpected obstacles; patience to wait for the slight stirring of change; and patience to listen to the insights and ideas of others.