Why So Many People Are Waiting for David Rockefeller to Die

Big-time philanthropists tend to fall into two categories: Those who give money away as soon as they get it, and those who hang on to it for as long as they can, and then create legacy foundations or pledge bequests to nonprofits late in life.

There are arguments for both approaches. Those who hold off on their philanthropy may tell you they’re better at building businesses, creating jobs and generating wealth than they are at deciding which causes are worthy of their support. They believe that the best use of their time and resources is building the biggest pile of cash they can while they can and letting someone else worry about distributing it later.

On the other side, the pay-as-you-go model is increasingly common. These folks believe in giving it away while you have it, and spending down their wealth before they die. In some cases, like Bill and Melinda Gates, philanthropists even set limits on how long their foundations will operate after their deaths.

Proponents of this philosophy will tell you that they want to control where the money goes and avoid creating a bloated grantmaking bureaucracy, but they will also tell you that giving sooner is better because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Just like a dollar invested in the stock market can increase in value and pay dividends, investing that dollar in a charitable cause early on can compound its effects. For example, vaccinating children now is better and cheaper than dealing with their health problems later.  

While some prominent financiers like David Gelbaum and John Arnold seem to be taking this approach, others like David Rockefeller still largely adhere to the former model.

It’s not as if Rockefeller hasn’t made large gifts—for example, the $25 million he gave in 1994 to his alma mater, Harvard, to create the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, or the $7.5 million he’s given for the historic preservation of Colonial Williamsburg.

The bulk of his giving, however, is set to happen upon his death—a legacy he began to create in 2005, when, for his ninetieth birthday, he pledged to donate $5 million a year to the Museum of Modern Art, and bequest another $100 million when he dies. He also made a $100 million pledge to the school that bears his family’s name, Rockefeller University, for capital improvements and the support of graduate studies. Harvard was added to the list in 2008 when Rockefeller pledged $100 million to give undergraduates more international opportunities and experiences in the arts.

His largest pledge, however, came in 2006, when he announced he would give $225 million to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which he started with his brothers John, Nelson, Laurance and Winthrop, all now deceased. The gift is a big boost to the total assets of that foundation, and will be used to create the David Rockefeller Fund for Global Development. (Or at least that was the plan eight years ago.) 

Rockefeller made another bequest of $25 million to the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. That brings the total set to go out the door upon David Rockefeller's death to $575 million.

And that’s just what we know of. As a signatory of the Giving Pledge, who is currently worth an estimated $3 billion, Rockefeller is sitting on a huge amount of money that he has yet to publicly pledge in bequests.

Which leads us wonder what other organizations might be receiving large gifts when Rockefeller passes. Some of the more obvious potential beneficiaries include the slew of charitable organizations that bear the Rockefeller family name. Maybe he'll increase his pledge to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund or beef up the Rockefeller Family Fund, which has only modest assets, or turn his own David Rockefeller Fund, which is tiny, into a full-fledged foundation. Or perhaps he'll drop a lot of money on the Rockefeller Foundation, where his son, David Rockefeller, Jr., serves as the board chair. 

He could possibly give big to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, started by his late wife, Peggy. MoMA also stands to gain even more than Rockefeller has already pledged, as the most likely recipient of much of his substantial art collection.

A look at the range of organizations that now receive support from the David Rockefeller Fund gives you an idea of where other chunks of bequest money might go. This is a man who has long been giving back to various organizations in New York City, Maine, and Westchester, the three places where he has spent most of 99 years. 

It’s not really clear why Rockefeller has chosen to conduct his philanthropy this way, keeping so much money on the sidelines until after his death.

According to a philanthropic advisor, a key part of the decision to make the gifts stemmed from the maturing of investments, but that still doesn't fully explain why he chose to make bequests rather than recurring gifts that would fulfill his pledges sooner. 

Whatever the case, there are number of organizations that will see their finances radically change after David Rockefeller dies.