“A Celebration of Strategic Philanthropy”

“A Celebration of Strategic Philanthropy”
Global Philanthropy Forum
San Francisco, CA
April 15, 2013

It’s a true privilege to be back here at the Global Philanthropy Forum. It’s especially meaningful for me as we are one month and one day away from the Rockefeller Foundation’s birthday. But who’s counting? It’s not just any old birthday – the Rockefeller Foundation is turning 100 this year, though to tell you the truth, we don’t feel a day over 99.

In fact, we feel as nimble, flexible and full of energy as we did at 25, except with a little more wisdom and a much larger endowment. In the land of tech start-ups and young billionaires, 100 might seem down-right ancient. But, truly, we take great pride in our age – 100 is a tremendous milestone, and my colleagues and I feel so fortunate to be a part of our organization at the time of its centennial.

On the drive over from San Francisco, I was looking out the window, thinking of what our founder John D. Rockefeller, Sr., might have seen looking from his own window out onto the Bay a century ago. Fewer Google shuttles, for one! But some things are remarkably the same – the Victorian architecture and Painted Ladies, raucous Barbary coast bars, filled now with dot-comers rather than seafarers, entrepreneurs seeking their fortunes, although now with venture backing and angel investors.

One notable absence – the Golden Gate Bridge had yet to take its place on the landscape. In fact, John D. Rockefeller would pass away fewer than five days before the Golden Gate Bridge would open for traffic in May 1937. He had always dreamed of living to 100, but he was two years shy. So we take up the celebration in his honor – but there is so much more to celebrate tonight than just one founder’s vision or a single institution – indeed, we see our Centennial as a celebration of all strategic philanthropy and the organizations, the people, and the ideas that have made this century of philanthropy so successful.

And we thought, what could be a more fitting way to celebrate our birthday and a century of strategic philanthropy than what many centenarians have been known to do at their own parties: hold you captive in your seats, while we ramble on down memory lane. I did bring along some photographs, including this one of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and Jr., as well as memos, letters and other artifacts from our archives which I believe tell the story of strategic philanthropy more powerfully than any speech could do alone.

For the younger folks in the crowd who are used to aging their own photos via Instagram, I have two words for you: no filter. It’s been a privilege to be able to see what the curators and historians at the Rockefeller archive center in Tarrytown, New York, have unearthed in a massive undertaking to build a centennial website. I say massive because, if you were to take all the files, the letters, the strategy memos, the photos, the trip reports, the journals that have been saved over our century, and stack them up-right, they would stretch for 2 miles.

The visionary efforts of our forebears to meticulously preserve these materials has enabled us to learn from history while it happened. As historian David Carr said in an article in the Harvard Business Review on the importance of understanding your organization’s history: “The present gets its sense from the background of comparable events to which it belongs. Discovering or rediscovering the story, picking up the thread, reminding ourselves where we stand, where we have been and where we are going.”

What has emerged so clearly to us is that while the challenges facing the world have changed quite dramatically in just 100 years, the attributes that have made philanthropy so successful in helping to provide for their solutions are quite timeless. And so I’d like to take the next few minutes to walk through a bit of that history – to see what lessons continue to apply to our work as philanthropists today and into the future. Because in order to most productively talk about “The Future We Make,” we must first endeavor to understand the history that has made us.

For the Rockefeller Foundation, that history begins in 1913 when its charter was granted by the State of New York with the mission to promote the well-being of humanity. We were not the first to be given this kind of charter – Andrew Carnegie had been granted one two years prior and the Carnegie libraries and the great Carnegie institutions in the United States were born. But our founder, John D. Rockefeller, had his eyes on the whole world, and would focus his giving on addressing the root causes of the world’s ills – a search, he said, for finalities. His team coined this new kind of giving as “scientific philanthropy.” It was an innovative approach in its time – and for decades, philanthropy would be the only kid on the block doing this kind of work, until the emergence of development, multilateral organizations, and civil society in the mid-20th century, and the social enterprises and startups we know today.

What core lessons have we learned about along the way? I believe there are four.  First, philanthropy should be the go-to partner for risk. Indeed, when we look back over our history and pinpoint the moments when our philanthropy is at its best, it’s almost always at those moments when the work is the hardest, and the risk of failure is greatest. Want to experiment with a new spray that might kill off the local mosquito population of an entire island and thus eradicate malaria – but no business will take that risk? Call a philanthropy. Want to map the cultural monuments and artifacts across Europe to prevent Allied forces from bombing them during World War II– but your government won’t pay for it? Call a philanthropy.

Indeed, risk is our calling card – it’s what our philanthropic dollars, at least in the United States, are tax-advantaged to do. And because of this, we can take the risks others cannot — unlike governments, we don’t live or die by the polls or the next election. Unlike businesses, we don’t measure success in quarterly earnings. In fact, I’d say risk-taking is one of the ways philanthropic organizations do hold ourselves accountable to our stakeholders.

There is no innovation without risk. And there is no risk without the possibility of failure. Let me give you just one example from our history. In 1928, George E. Hale, an astronomer and inventor, approached the Rockefeller Foundation about the possibility of funding the construction of a 200-inch telescope. If successful, the telescope would be four times as powerful as the next largest telescope in the world and expand our knowledge of the universe. Sounds pretty great, right? And it will only cost $6 million dollars. Might sound like a steal now, but at the time $6 million was more than a Rockefeller organization had ever awarded in a single grant. And there was no promise that the fused quartz Hale planned to use to construct the glass would work. So there was a high amount of risk. But the reward?  Quite literally in some ways, the universe. In the fall of 1928, the grant was approved and awarded to a school south of us, the California Institute of Technology.

After years of work and already $600,000 spent, the fused quartz proved infeasible. Even after Corning Glass in New York was called in to apply their new form of Pyrex glass, there were problems mounting the huge mirror. And then there was the matter of transport, which took 16 days in a slow moving train. And then the mirror had to be polished, which took several more years and then World War II brought all work to a halt. The Hale telescope at the Palomar Observatory would not be fully operational until 1948 – 20 years after the initial proposal was received, but it opened the heavens to discovery and exploration. Would we have the same patience today to continue funding a project such as this? Perhaps not. But that appetite for risk – that impulse for experimentation – lives on.  

There is the boldness of the MacArthur Foundation in reforming our juvenile justice system. Boldness like the California Endowment’s campaign to support the successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act in California. The boldness of the Grameen Foundation to empower the world’s poor through microfinance. Risk comes in different forms – with different rewards and implications for failure. But it must always be a part of our approach, as it has been for 100 years.

A second point of difference and strength in philanthropy is our ability and legacy of creating, building, and defining entire fields. Now, the story of how the Rockefeller Foundation began its field-building is not exactly polite dinner conversation. It involves a 2-inch worm and some outhouses. But the Foundation’s efforts to rid the Southern United States of hookworm would be among our paramount achievements. And not just because it was successful in eliminating the disease. You see, this particular infection was passed through bare feet under unsanitary conditions. We discovered that, in addition to treating the disease, wiping it out required improved sanitation and education that would change hygiene behaviors on a mass scale. And that’s exactly what we did. We helped to create what would become the new field of public health and the public health system we know today.

Our philanthropy helped to spark the development of countless other new fields, such as: molecular biology, a term coined by the Rockefeller Foundation’s Warren Weaver, which endeavored to apply the same rigor of chemistry and physics to the study of biological sciences, and area studies, which was the first interdisciplinary approach to world cultures, combining language training, geography, anthropology, history, economics, and political science, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation and the U.S. government, which sought to increase the competence of people working as civil servants at the state, county, and local levels. The list goes on, and grows still today, as we find new ways of connecting existing fields and domains to solve increasingly complex problems.

One contemporary example in our work is the current development of the field of OneHealth, which is making connections between human medicine, veterinary medicine and environmental studies to better prevent and control infectious diseases that we’ve seen can pass from animals to humans and spread quickly around the world – SARS, H1N1, among others. There are many other examples from institutions in this room, from the pioneering work of the Ford Foundation in instituting the field of public policy research and analysis, to the Skoll Foundation’s work to develop the field of social entrepreneurship. But not all fields are planned so deliberately by program staff. Often our talent in philanthropy is in spotting a compelling idea, even if we don’t fully understand it at the time, and giving it a chance to blossom.

In 1955, the Rockefeller Foundation received a proposal to fund a conference of mathematicians and machine learning pioneers at Dartmouth to be held the following summer. They had even coined a new term to help Rockefeller program officers better understand the nature of their studies: “artificial intelligence.” At the time, the Foundation was hesitant to fund such a gathering, noting in its response “this new field of mathematical models is still difficult to grasp very clearly.” But they went ahead and awarded funding – the sole philanthropy to do so, because the officers at the time found the mathematicians themselves so compelling. IBM, Bell, and Lincoln Labs paid the way for their own staff to attend – an early sign of private-philanthropic partnerships in action. The conference would come to be regarded as the Woodstock of artificial intelligence – everyone who was anyone in computation and machine learning was there. It was that good.

Over the course of our field-building experience we came to understand two important realities: The first was that government involvement was often critical, as we learned in our work with public health. The second was that in order for sustainable, lasting impact, there had to be trained professionals with the knowledge to advance these new fields, which segues nicely into the third strength unique to philanthropy: investing in people.

Despite the advances that the Dartmouth conference would bring to computational science – and all the hype around Google Glasses – there is still no machine that can match the power of human ingenuity to solve truly human problems. And therefore backing brains has always been a key part of philanthropy’s strategy. In our early years, the Rockefeller Foundation invested heavily in fellowship programs, particularly in the areas of medicine, public health and natural sciences. It also invested in scientists and practitioners at the top of their fields, to help them carry their ideas into innovations. This too can be inherently risky work, as the Foundation would learn quickly.

In 1925, Hideyo Noguchi, a respected Rockefeller scientist from Japan known for his advancements in the studies of syphilis and Oroya fever, believed he had developed the first successful vaccine for yellow fever in his laboratory. But in reality, Noguchi had in fact created a vaccine against a bacterial infection called Weil’s disease – not yellow fever.  Regrettably, he would be infected with yellow fever in his work and die a few months after the discovery was made. Despite his error, he is the only Rockefeller-funded individual, that I know of at least, to be depicted on his country’s currency! The vaccine would be discovered a decade later by a team led by the Foundation’s Max Theiler who would be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1951. Such is the nature of innovation – often an incremental process of improving upon others’ invention.

The Rockefeller Foundation has been proud to support more than 220 winners of the Nobel Prize over the course of the century, as well as countless others who would push knowledge and fields to new limits — such as Norbert Wiener, a mathematician, who wrote the seminal text and firmly established the field of cybernetics, or H. W. Florey who developed the clinical use of penicillin. And when a young Albert Einstein sent a request for $500 to John D. Rockefeller’s top lieutenant, Rockefeller instructed his deputy, “Let’s give him $1,000. He may be onto something.” In the 1950s, we funded the work of a community activist, named Jane Jacobs, to write “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” which would redefine how we thought about and addressed urban areas.

Today, philanthropy continues to invest in the power of human ingenuity. Amazing things happen when you bet on people – including entire transformations. And that is, of course, our fourth superpower – the ability to bring about transformations that not only disrupt but at times uproot entire systems and save millions of lives. The most obvious example from Rockefeller Foundation history is our work in scientific agriculture in Mexico, which would develop the seeds that launched the Green Revolution, and feed more than 1 billion people.

We see these transformations in modern day philanthropy – from the Gates Foundation’s work to rid the world of polio, which could save hundreds of millions of lives, to the work of Omidiyar, Rockefeller and others involved in impact investing and innovative finance to unlock trillions of dollars in private capital to improve the lives of countless people worldwide. But with this ability comes great responsibility, in all of our work, to grapple with the big moral questions of our day. Let me share one example of how we’ve been called upon in the past.

By 1933, many scholars and artists, most of them Jewish, and some of whom you see here, were losing their positions in Germany under Hitler. Through its Special Research Aid Fund for Deposed Scholars, the Rockefeller Foundation placed many of these individuals in universities in the United States, Canada, England, France and the Netherlands. By 1940, the program had placed 214 deposed scholars. Nonetheless, a program staff memo dated June 3, 1940, titled “If Hitler Wins” laid plain the implications of the escalating war, and noted that in the case of a Nazi victory, concentration camps and executions may well be the fate of “persons with capacity for independent leadership.”

In light of these realities, the program changed course and changed its name to the Emergency Program for European Scholars. It arranged for nearly 100 additional scholars and their families to come to the United States and take up positions at U.S. institutions. While the stated mission of the program was to save science and scholarship from fascism, it is clear from their diaries that the program officers understood, and were wrenched by, the life and death implications of the decisions they were making. Many added their own money and diverted foundation funds to do more.

Today, threats manifest in different ways, but we must remain acutely aware of their consequences and our potential role in mitigating them. From the death tolls caused by the rapid, global spread of infectious diseases, to the impacts of income inequality on life expectancy, to the fierce and deadly storms that hit some of our most populous cities, to the horror of slavery and human trafficking, it falls to us — to those of us in this room and our institutions — to continue the search to solve the world’s problems.

By providing the risk capital that oils the wheels of progress, by speaking truth to power, by listening and valuing the input and ideas of our grantees and those populations we serve, by striving to build their individual capacity for transformation, and by never losing sight of the gifts we’ve been bestowed by those who have done this work before us. Those who, whether it was changing the entire “machinery of benevolence” or building the world’s most powerful telescope, never let the way things had been done before preclude a better way to move forward. Who never let reality get in the way of aspiration. And who took the time to write it all down, so that we might learn from their successes and their missteps still today.

And so in closing, I encourage every one of us not only to do this amazing work, but to return to our organizations with a zest for capturing and recording our decisions and our thinking and our stories. Because 100 years from now, the challenges of a 22nd century world will be of undoubtedly different textures, but these same threads, with our care, will endure, and if we do it well, it will be because of all that we have learned and passed on.