The Wheeler Centre hosted Giving for the Common Good, a talk with Stephen Heintz, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation (which shouldn’t be confused with the Rockefeller Foundation), facilitated by Peter Mares.
The Rockefeller Brothers Foundation was established in 1940, has a corpus of around $790million USD and focuses on three areas: strengthening the quality of democracy, sustainable development, and peace building.
The Foundation made a commitment to divest from its investments in fossil fuels in 2014 and freely admits the irony of this given they are a foundation whose wealth was built on the oil industry. Now 50% of their grants go towards preventing climate catastrophe. Their change in investment approach started as an ethical question and moral debate which was strengthened by the work of one of their grantee organisations, the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a London based think tank on the carbon economy.
For the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, philanthropy is about where their assets are invested as well as where their grantmaking goes. This is important given there is around $55 billion USD given away by foundations in the US each year, which is a large amount, but small in relation to the scale of national budgets in the trillions of dollars.
Stephen spoke about sincerity in philanthropy, especially in organised philanthropy and the importance of transparency where private wealth is used for the public good on an institutional scale. He also pointed out the level of transparency on the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation website which has a searchable grants database, the investment and divestment policies readily available, governance policies, and full biographies of staff and trustees.
Impact is an area even large foundations are careful about taking credit for. Given the large number of players working across various issues, Stephen emphasised the importance of the need to be careful about attribution and causality – (not saying “because of our grant we achieved ‘x'”). However, he acknowledged the need for qualitative evidence and independent assessment of grants and their effectiveness.
He also talked about the importance of leveraging support through strategic philanthropy and working in collaboration with other donors. He gave a quite clever metaphor of business and government as large ships of public and private policy being led in the right direction by the tugboats of philanthropy.
In concluding, Stephen returned to the theme of transparency and argued that when people see what philanthropy can do, then others will be more interested and enthused by it (for example the Giving Pledge). He also reminded us that philanthropy can and should be bold, as it is an opportunity to take risks, to test new concepts and even to fail some of the time.
Questions from the audience covered new and hybrid forms of philanthropy such as social enterprise and venture philanthropy, how the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation works with governments, the essential practices and attitudes of philanthropists – values, compassion, caring, humility and sincerity, and how to know when to stop funding something.
Stephen said that philanthropy can be bold and humble at the same time. I felt that his talk and presentation embodies that ethos. It was a stimulating talk reminding us of the power of the philanthropy and the role it can play in society.
What are your views on some of these issues like transparency and mission related investing?
I look forward to your thoughts. Please use the comments box!
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