Legacy: A Big Gift in Arkansas, With Rockefeller Wealth

Little Rock, Arkansas. photo: mnapoli/shutterstock

Little Rock, Arkansas. photo: mnapoli/shutterstock

Let’s play a word association game. If I say “Arkansas philanthropy,” what immediately comes to mind?

That would be “the Walton Family,” of course, which makes tens of millions of dollars in grants within its home region of Northwest Arkansas.

The Waltons, though, aren’t the only well-known philanthropy brand in the state. Arkansas’s nonprofits have also enjoyed considerable support from another family whose name may ring a bell: the Rockefellers.

Winthrop Rockefeller, one of six children born to John D. Rockefeller Jr., moved to Arkansas in 1953. He served as governor for two consecutive terms, from 1967 to 1971—the first Republican to hold the office since Reconstruction. He passed away in 1973.

Family giving flows through the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, which focuses on education, economic development, and racial/social/economic justice in Arkansas, and the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust. The latter entity was established with $67 million that Rockefeller designated upon his death, and has since donated roughly $247 million to mostly Arkansas-based charities.

Recently, the trust made a $100 million commitment to the University of Arkansas System and the University of Arkansas’ (UA) Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.

The newly formed Governor Winthrop Rockefeller Endowment, to be held at the University of Arkansas Foundation, will continue funding for the institute, which brings together experts to brainstorm solutions to issues facing Arkansans.

“The Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust is pleased to invest in the work of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and we look forward to the opportunities for innovative education and civic-related purposes the endowment will provide, and to its contributions for the mission of the UA System,” said Marion Burton, the executive trustee of the trust.

The institute was established in 2005 when the trust granted the UA system a 188-acre campus that was once part of Rockefeller’s home and cattle farm. Areas of interest include Agriculture, Arts and Humanities, Civic Engagement, Economic Development, and Health—”the kinds of issues,” the institute’s website notes, “for which we believe Gov. Rockefeller would seek solutions.”

Past programming includes the Rural Health Summit and the Uncommon Communities initiative, the institute’s leadership, community and economic development program.

The gift will allow the institute to create long-term plans to tackle larger problems, said UA System President Donald Bobbitt. Previously, the institute relied on annual grants, but now it will have a consistent stream of money, as the foundation will take the endowment and invest it, portioning out a yearly percentage for the institute and its programming.

The financial security will also enable the institute to plan ahead and reach more national experts, many of whom require a year's notice to attend a conference.

"It's an investment of faith,” said Marta Loyd, the executive director and CEO of the institute.

The institute will have three events in 2018, including one geared toward medical students, focusing on what they look for in rural physician positions.

According to the Grantsmanship Center’s ranking of Arkansas-based foundations, the Winthrop Rockefeller Trust clocks in at No. 5, at approximately $5 million in annual giving. The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation is No. 7 at roughly $4.5 million. (The Walton Family Foundation, not surprisingly, is No. 1 by a long shot.) 

By providing Arkansans with innovative ideas to transform the state, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute also shares a lot in common with Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which aims to provide residents with access to world-class art.

This is what regional mega-donors do. They give big to put their respective locales on the national—and in many cases—international map. The Rockefeller gift comes at a time when the state's nonprofit institutions are enjoying some of the benefits of the surge in regional philanthropy. Arkansas State University, for example, raised a record $40.1 million in donations and pledges. The windfall included a $10 million gift from Texas businessman and ASU alumnus Neil Griffin.

There’s one big difference between the Rockefellers and Waltons, however.

The $100 million gift to the Rockefeller Institute represents a curtain call for the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust. Board member Wilson Jones told the Arkansas Times that the trust will begin winding down within 18 to 24 months, as Rockefeller’s will had not anticipated a perpetual trust.

Jones said about $15 to $20 million remains to be distributed.