The Rockefeller Brothers Fund has left its mark on America. Founded in 1940 by five sons of John D. Rockefeller Jr.–John 3rd, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop, and David–it has been a major supporter of New York’s Riverside Church (where the family worshipped), the Museum of Modern Art (which their mother co-founded), Colonial Williamsburg (where JDR 3rd and Winthrop chaired the board) , a national park in the Virgin Islands (where Laurence developed an eco-resort), the Asia Society (where John 3rd was the first president) and Spelman College (named in honor of Laura Spelman Rockefeller, wife of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.). Who says philanthropy isn’t personal?
Lately, though, the RBF, as it’s called, has been better known for its investments than for its grant-making. In 2014, RBF made headlines everywhere–The Times, The New Yorker, CNN, The Guardian–by announcing plans to divest from fossil fuels; the decision to stop investing in oil and gas by the heirs to a vast oil industry fortune was an irresistible story. While the divestment campaign is symbolic — it has produced no more than at blip, if that, on the world’s financial markets — it has set the stage for productive debate on college campuses and in foundation boardrooms as well as, to a lesser extent, on Wall Street. As Stephen Heintz, president of the RBF, told me in 2015: “This is largely symbolic, but symbols have power. They motivate people. They inspire people. They can change behavior.”
Last week, I sat down with Stephen Heintz to get an update on fund’s divestment process and to discuss RBF’s mission-aligned investing which, we agreed, has more immediate impact than divestment. We also talked a little about the fund’s grant-making and about why a foundation built by a 19th century fortune should persist into the 21st century. (Speaking of persistence, on a personal note: Stephen and I were meeting for the first time since the early 1980s, when he was Connecticut’s welfare commissioner and I covered state government for The Hartford Courant.) Continue reading