To Create an Inclusive Economy, Rockefeller Coaxes Business To Change How It Thinks

The concept of resilience is a great one to have planted in your brain early, and in fact, studies have shown that the more you know about and think about your own psychological resilience, the stronger you can become. But let's face itmany people don't really know what resilience means.

So what is resilience? It's a term most frequently applied in the psychological and medical lingo, describing a person's ability to withstand extreme hardship, trauma, or illness. The idea is that, constitutionally, people with more resilience are stronger.

In recent years, the Rockefeller Foundation has applied the concept of resilience in a different waynot to individual people, but to cities. The basic concept is that cities are in crisis in the 21st century. Due to the triple whammy of globalization, urbanization, and climate change, cities are facing more disruption and upheaval than ever. Meanwhile, acute stresses like poverty, crumbling infrastructure, and insufficient housing continue to make cities dangerous and unhealthy places to live.

Rockefeller first got into its work on cities and resilience when it launched the Asian Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) in 2008 to help 10 cities prepare for climate change. Since then, the foundation has bet more of its resourcesand reputationon making cities more resilient, while also expanding how it thinks about that term. In a clear sign that Big Rock has gone all in here, President Judith Rodin published a book on the topic last fall, The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong. The foundation's tag line these days is "Building Greater Resilience and More Inclusive Economies." 

John Irons is one of the people at Rockefeller responsible for moving the word resilience into the dialogue on how to change cities, and societies writ large, for the better. As a managing director at Rockefeller since 2012, he oversees employment initiatives at the foundation, and also helps chart the foundation's broader economic vision. Irons leads the foundation’s emerging work on youth employment in the U.S., which started in 2013. He also directs the Sustainable Employment in a Green US Economy (SEGUE) Initiative, the Brookings–Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation, and other economically focused efforts. He's a Ph.D. economist who quit academia to work in progressive D.C. think tanks before coming to Rockefeller. 

I talked recently to Irons about his work at Rockefeller and what resilience looks like in terms of specific grantmaking in his portfolio. As Iron sees it, resilience can be strengthened through greater inclusiveness, particularly in economic life, and the foundation is keenly interested in ways to create more broadly shared prosperity. "We want to expand opportunities for those most likely to be left behind," said Irons, and marginalized young people are a key focus. Irons sees private sector engagement in this challenge as all-important, and he described how, since beginning to focus on youth employment in 2013, the foundation has explored what it would take for companies to create more job opportunities for young people from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds. We've reported on these efforts both in the U.S. and in Africa. 


In the United States, Irons sees a lot of young adults who, since the Great Recession, never really had opportunities to find a job. To bring these young people into the job market, Rockefeller focuses on the demand side, helping employers look at things differently.

"If we can give employers the data they need, or if we can give companies better ways to differentiate the market and assess skills and find better matches, then we find those kinds of changes to the ecosystem might lead to a rethinking of how companies decide to staff their operations."

A case in point: Along with Kellogg and Annie E. Casey, Rockefeller supports the Employment Pathways Project and the Grads of Life program, both of which take on the issue of connecting "opportunity youth" with jobs that add value to their early career experiences. Companies like American Express, Verizon, State Street Financial, Walmart, and Salesforce are working with these programs, and are reporting payoffs in terms of bringing on qualified staff who are adding value to the company. Key to this effort is encouraging employers to expand entry level jobs that offer good career pathways.  

Rockefeller's work is not just aimed at large employers. In fact, it recently announced a new partnership with the Small Business Services department of New York City. The foundation and the government department are funding the 2015 Business Ambassadors for The Next Generation of Talenta group of eight small businesses leaders who will educate their peers, both in New York City and other parts of the U.S., about why it's so valuable to invest in hiring young workers.

Pulling back the lens, Rockefeller is also looking to stimulate dialogue across businesses about how they can take a more "shared value" or "inclusive capitalism" approach. "There are a lot of different names for it, but it's the same idea," said Irons. "Businesses have a role not just in making profits but in pursuing other social ends as well." This idea, of course, is red-hot right now, with business being pressed from multiple directions to look beyond a narrow bottom line. And we've written about the interesting work of other funders on this front, such as the Surdna Foundation. 

Related - How Surdna Is Pushing to Make Local Economies Work for Everyone

By making grants to organizations that help businesses consider the quality of the jobs they are creating and the inclusiveness of their hiring practices, the Rockefeller Foundation seeks to change the culture of business at the systems level. "Businesses respond to peer pressure like the rest of us, and we can harness that for good," Irons said. 

Recent Rockefeller grants in this portfolio include $310,000 to Right Management in Milwaukee to support a project to "test the potential of a staffing agency model for providing employment to disadvantaged young people in the U.S." Another recent grant of $200,000 went to the Social Progress Imperative in support of "bringing together local, cross-sector leaders to develop a framework for measuring and advancing social progress in five U.S. cities."

On a larger scale, Rockefeller recently gave $1 million to Incandescent for the purpose of "testing and developing a model to create more employment opportunities for disadvantaged youth in the U.S." It also gave Purpose a $1.3 million dollar grant for "designing, developing and implementing a national campaign to examine the issue of what makes a 'good job' in America, in order to influence a more inclusive economy." Neither of these organizations are nonprofits, by the way.

So both for-profit or nonprofit grantseekers can apply to Rockefeller for employment-related work. The biggest thing that Rockefeller is looking for is whether your work is going to get at the core of changing the business model in some way.

"You have to go beyond corporate responsibility," said Irons. "You have to get to the core of changing the business model. Otherwise it's just going to be a small program. It may be a good program, but it's not going to create lasting or systemic change."