David Rockefeller, Chairman Emeritus, Chase Manhattan Bank: Philanthropy and the Rockefeller Legacy

November 8, 2006
David Rockefeller, Chairman Emeritus, Chase Manhattan Bank: Philanthropy and the Rockefeller Legacy

Sixteen-year-old John D. Rockefeller landed his first job, as a bookkeeper in the booming metropolis of Cleveland, Ohio, on September 26, 1855 — a date Rockefeller would celebrate the rest of his life as "Job Day." Thrifty, punctual, and industrious, the young Rockefeller, according to his biographer Ron Chernow, was "a fervent adherent of the gospel of success." Devoutly religious, he also believed that work and charity were two sides of the same coin. "I was trained from the beginning," he told William O. Inglis, a New York newspaperman, more than half a century later, "to work and save. I have always regarded it as a religious duty to get all I could honorably and to give all I could."

Rockefeller succeeded spectacularly at both. By the mid-1890s, when he began in earnest to step back from his responsibilities at Standard Oil — the company he founded with his brother William and built into the most powerful and feared industrial concern in America — he was the wealthiest man in the country and its second most famous philanthropist, after Andrew Carnegie. Unwilling to settle for peaceful retirement, Rockefeller, according to Chernow, then did an extraordinary thing. With his wealth accumulating at "an astonishing rate," he set out, with the help of Frederick T. Gates, his chief philanthropic advisor, and his only son, John, to give that fortune away.

Spelman Seminary (later Spelman College), the University of Chicago, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (later Rockefeller University), the General Education Board, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm — the philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller was unprecedented in its scale, broad-mindedness, and imagination. It also created suspicion, for many years, among his critics, who viewed it as a thinly disguised vehicle for Rockefeller economic interests.

John D. Rockefeller did not succeed in giving his fortune away, though not for lack of trying. By the 1920s, the Rockefeller Foundation was the largest grantmaking foundation in the world, and Rockefeller, in Chernow's words, had "established himself as the greatest lay benefactor of medicine in history," having given $450 million — out of a total of $530 million given during his lifetime — to institutions active in the field. Instead, starting in 1917, he began to transfer his remaining assets, roughly $500 million (close to $10 billion in today dollars), to his son John, who would spend the rest of his life working to extend his father's philanthropic legacy while creating his own.

Born into wealth and privilege and raised from birth to excel, the children of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife, Abigail — Abby (known as Babs), John, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop, and David — leveraged their unique advantages into storied careers in business, philanthropy, politics, and the arts. And the Rockefeller family itself came to embody, as much as a single family could, the ambition, generosity, and genius of America in the 20th century. As Joseph Persico, a speechwriter for Nelson and, later, his biographer, put it, "the seed capital that they planted in philanthropic endeavors gave them greater national and international influence than did their profit-making enterprises and was certainly more lasting in effect....They were responsible enough, and wise enough, to underpin their own position by strengthening, through their giving, those institutions in society that they found worthy of perpetuation."

Recently, Philanthropy News Digest sat down with David Rockefeller, retired chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, to talk about his father's and grandfather's philanthropy, the origins and evolution of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the motivations behind his personal philanthropy, and his family's philanthropic legacy.

Mr. Rockefeller retired as chairman of Chase Manhattan in 1981 and served as a member of the International Council of JP Morgan until August 2005. In 1987, he stepped down as chair of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a grantmaking organization founded in 1940 by Mr. Rockefeller and his brothers. He is, in addition, the former chairman of the Museum of Modern Art and continues to serve the museum as chairman emeritus and life trustee.

Mr. Rockefeller has wide-ranging interests and involvement in the fields of international relations and civic affairs. He served as chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations from 1970 to 1985 and now chairs its international advisory board. He also was instrumental in creating the International Executive Service Corps (IESC), a volunteer group of retired people that provides technical and managerial assistance to private enterprise in developing nations, and helped found the Trilateral Commission in 1973, stepping down as its North American chairman in 1991 and now serving as honorary chair. In 1979, he co-founded the New York City Partnership, which is dedicated to economic development and effective governance in New York City through private-public partnerships.

In addition, he is honorary chair of the Americas Society — which he served as chair from 1981 through 1992 — and the Council of the Americas, which he founded to promote closer inter-American cooperation as well as better communication between the public and private sectors in Latin America.

Mr. Rockefeller graduated from Harvard and holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, where he is a life trustee. During World War II, he served as an intelligence officer in North Africa and southern France and was an assistant military attaché in Paris at the time he was demobilized as a captain in 1945.

He has two sons, four daughters, ten grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter. His wife of fifty-five years, the former Margaret McGrath, died in March 1996.

Philanthropy News Digest: Over five generations, the Rockefellers have made philanthropy a family calling. How do you explain your family's ability to keep that tradition alive and relevant?

David Rockefeller: Well, it certainly started with my grandparents, Laura Spelman and John D. Rockefeller, both of whom were strong and ardent Baptists from an early age. In fact, Grandfather tithed regularly from the time he was a teenager. As he became a successful businessman beginning in the 1860s, he also maintained his charitable giving and expanded its scope well beyond Cleveland, Ohio, to include Baptist churches, colleges, seminaries, and missionary societies across the country. As a devout Christian, Grandfather believed, and even said, "God had given him his money." He did not mean this in a boastful way, but that he had been rewarded for his faith and was expected to use these resources wisely for the benefit of the broader community of which he and his family were a part. That is really the beginning of the Rockefeller tradition of philanthropy.

It was not until the late 1880s, however, that Grandfather began to consider supporting other organizations. And it was really the influence of Frederick T. Gates, whom he met during the effort to establish the University of Chicago — originally a Baptist organization — that made all the difference.

Gates was an ordained Baptist minister and a remarkable man. Among other things, he persuaded Grandfather to use the wealth he had accumulated more broadly for the benefit of mankind. Gates persuaded Grandfather to move beyond simple charity to find the root causes of disease, ignorance, hunger, all of humankind's afflictions, and to do something about finding solutions. That shift in emphasis and the embrace of science marked the transition to philanthropy. Gates was Grandfather's closest associate for more than thirty years, and his influence was enormous. But I think it's also clear that Grandfather was very receptive to the idea of using his wealth to help other people even before Gates arrived on the scene.

"...[Frederick] Gates persuaded Grandfather to move beyond simple charity to find the root causes of disease, ignorance, hunger...and to do something about finding solutions...."

Grandfather established the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913, around the same time Andrew Carnegie started his foundations, and that began an entirely new era of philanthropy, both for Grandfather and, I dare say, for the country. It's interesting, isn't it, that two men who played such important roles in the development and economic life of this country — my grandfather and Andrew Carnegie — were also early leaders in philanthropy?

So, the family tradition of philanthropy started with Grandfather and was kept going by my father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and subsequent generations of the family. It's been part of our upbringing, the feeling that with opportunity comes obligation, and in a way that sort of summarizes the spirit behind all of it. Certainly, my father, who for a short time worked for the Standard Oil Company, soon came to the conclusion that he would rather devote his life to not-for-profit activities, and he did so. And my brother John, my oldest brother, pretty much did the same. I don't think he ever had another activity or interest that inspired him in quite the same way as philanthropy did, and he devoted his life to it.

As for the rest of us — my sister, my other brothers, and myself — while we've had many interests, we nevertheless made philanthropy an important part of our lives. In fact, we realized that individually our financial resources, including those we might devote to philanthropy, were quite small compared to those that had been available to Grandfather and Father. Right before the outbreak of World War II, we got together to discuss ways in which we could cooperate to be more effective. One theme of our meetings was that it would be worthwhile for us to focus on areas where we had common interests, and one of them was the field of philanthropy — not least because, in more than a few instances, we were being asked to make contributions to the same institutions. It made sense to find a way to collaborate, especially in the case of organizations where we lived — here in New York City, in Tarrytown, up in Maine, and so on.

That was the origin of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which was founded in 1940. I think the concept of the Brothers Fund made a lot of sense at the time, and it's become a very useful organization that still has ties to the family and continues to be supported by new generations of Rockefellers, even though it has a life of its own apart from the family.

PND: Your grandfather, along with Andrew Carnegie and Frederick Gates, more or less invented modern philanthropy. What do you consider to be his greatest philanthropic achievement? And what was his greatest philanthropic innovation?

"...the Rockefeller Foundation was the first foundation that purposely looked outward to the world and had global objectives...."

DR: Well, the Rockefeller Foundation was the first foundation that purposely looked outward to the world and had global objectives. Grandfather, working with Dr. Gates and, later, other people, felt his business interests were global in nature and that therefore he had a philanthropic responsibility on that level. I think his recognition of that fact has to have been one of his greatest contributions to the field.

At the same time, he understood that his philanthropic activities needed to be organized and that, even though his understanding of people and the world was impressive — despite never having gone to college — he needed to have people with a broad understanding of the world to help him. Of course, as time passed, he felt less and less of a need to be involved in the day-to-day details of grantmaking, and he was happy to let his associates handle the specifics.

But in some respects, it was my father, under Grandfather's tutelage, who really turned the foundation into a force to be reckoned with. Father chaired the foundation for more than twenty years and participated in the creation of its major program areas — supporting the development of the hard sciences, extending work in public health around the world, and applying the emerging knowledge of the social sciences to the problems of poverty around the world. He left a lasting imprint not only on the Rockefeller Foundation, but on American philanthropy as well.

PND: Did your father discuss his philanthropic activities with his children?

DR: Oh, yes, very easily and broadly. Not that he thought he had to discuss every detail, but he was very open in his interests and his discussion of them. Of course, a lot of his philanthropy related to the trips he took, and for me that's one of the interesting aspects of what he did. When he would go on trips — and he often brought us along — he would see things that needed to be done. For example, on our first trip out West, we spent six weeks traveling around and, of course, stopped to see the redwoods in northern California. At one point, we visited a spot where lumber companies were cutting down these enormous trees that had been around for two thousand years. Well, Father, while he recognized the importance of timber as an industry, felt it would be a tragedy if all those trees were cut down. So he gave $1 million — which at that time was a lot — to buy a huge stand of redwoods in northern California, and today that stand is called the Rockefeller Grove.

Similarly, when Father visited Versailles in France for the first time — again with his children — he discovered that this unbelievable monument was not being taken care of, either by the French government or the French people. The roof was leaking and some of the interior walls and even furniture was damaged. So he got an architect friend of his to work with the French government to replace the roof, and he followed that up with a lot of other improvements. Those are just two illustrations. He did that in many parts of the world, and I think it's one of the interesting aspects of his philanthropy: He simply wanted to help where he saw a need.

"...I think it's one of the interesting aspects of [my father's] philanthropy: He simply wanted to help where he saw a need...."

PND: When you and your brothers established the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 1940, did you have specific philanthropic goals in mind? Or did your goals and objectives evolve over time?

DR: To a large extent they evolved over time. On the other hand, a similar kind of thing happened with us. For example, when President Magsaysay of the Philippines was killed in a plane crash in 1957, it was a major disaster for the country and for Asia. We immediately decided that it would be desirable to do something in the region based on his legacy, and so we established — and it still exists — the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation, which has recognized the courageous efforts of many individuals — including the Dalai Lama — to bring positive change to the nations and people of Asia.

As time went on, of course, the RBF built up its staff, which increasingly became responsible for the direction and activities of the fund. But even today, younger members of the family — my nephew Steven, my son Richard, who just became chairman of the board, and many other cousins and members of the fifth generation — are very involved in the fund and in philanthropic activities in general. Richard is a medical doctor and has long been interested in responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. My daughter Peggy started an organization called Synergos, which is doing socially related work all over the world. She became great friends with Nelson Mandela and his wife, Grace Machel, the widow of President Samora Machel of Mozambique, who was killed in a plane crash in 1986. So, the interest of the family in philanthropy and in international causes is alive and well.

PND: Your brothers and sister were known to have strong personalities and varied interests. In terms of the RBF, did that make it difficult to reach consensus on specific programs or areas of interest?

DR: There were lively discussions, and we didn't always agree, but I don't think we disagreed on the basic principles. We might disagree about a particular project, but I think we were in general agreement about the broad areas we wanted to support. The remarkable thing, I think, is the degree of harmony in those conversations rather than the fact that occasionally we disagreed.

I also think it's remarkable that to this day members of the family continue to have their own interests, as well as shared common principles. For example, I've set up a foundation of my own called the David Rockefeller Fund that focuses its activities in places where I live, mostly in Maine and in Tarrytown. It's relatively small, but I've used it to give to institutions that are important in those communities and that need support. It's also a way to get the next generation, my grandchildren, involved. I have so many children and grandchildren — sixteen, not counting spouses — that we developed a process by which they rotate on and off the board at three-year intervals. I also made it possible for each of them to have responsibility for giving away a certain amount to causes or organizations that interest them. It's a wonderful way to encourage them to think philanthropically, and I think they've found it to be useful.

PND: Have you made a conscious effort over the years to connect your own philanthropy with your strong interest in international affairs? And has your personal philanthropy differed at all from the family's approach to philanthropy over the decades?

"...My personal philanthropy flows out of the family interests to which I've been exposed...."

DR: My personal philanthropy flows out of the family interests to which I've been exposed. Certainly, there are some areas I've been more interested in than others, but that doesn't mean there has been conflict among my interests. It merely means I've concentrated on specific issues and areas and, as a result, have had more of an interest in them than other members of the family. For instance, I have been involved with the Rockefeller University for more than sixty-five years as a trustee, chairman, and chairman emeritus. I find RU's scientific work into the causes of disease, molecular biology, and now genetics to be of enormous significance for the world. It is the principal reason why I donated $100 million to RU last year.

On a more personal basis, my interest in international affairs has been expressed through my involvement in organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations and the Americas Society. These organizations attempt, and largely succeed in my view, to inform Americans about what is going on in the broader world, and why it is important to remain engaged globally. This is philanthropy of a different kind, but it is just as important in its own way as the work of Rockefeller University or the Museum of Modern Art or any number of other organizations. An informed citizenry is the key to maintaining a free and open society — that is what both the council and the Americas Society do.

PND: The list of organizations you've been involved in and chaired over the years is, well, long. [Laughter.] But it's illustrative, I think, of your belief — a belief shared by your father and grandfather — in the importance of institutions as a stabilizing force in society. Are you worried that forces such as globalization and rapid technological change are undermining the influence and stabilizing role of institutions in society?

DR: No, not at all. I think, in a way, the existence of those institutions is one of the means by which we're better able to cope with the very problems you mentioned. If they didn't exist, I think we'd be in much more trouble than we are.

PND: Today, the endowments of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund are larger, in nominal terms, than they've ever been. But as a percentage of total philanthropic assets and gross domestic product, they're quite modest. Do private foundations like the Rockefeller Foundation and the Brothers Fund have the same ability today to promote new ideas and influence civic life that they had in your father and grandfather's day? And what, if anything, can private foundations do to preserve their unique role in American society?

DR: Well, one of the encouraging things that has happened in this country is that many other wealthy families have seen what our family has done and felt it was worthwhile — most recently and notably, of course, with Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett. In fact, at the event in New York City this summer at which Mr. Buffett made his announcement, he referred to the fact that in many ways he was inspired and influenced by the Rockefeller Foundation and what the family had done philanthropically. I am very proud of the fact that others have followed our lead and, in many cases, have created foundations that are substantially larger than the Rockefeller Foundation. That is excellent, and we couldn't be more pleased.

"...I am very proud of the fact that others have followed our lead...."

PND: If American philanthropy is the child of American capitalism, how likely is it that philanthropy in this country will change in the coming decades as capitalism itself changes in response to global economic forces?

DR: I do think philanthropy is a particularly American institution, in the sense that from the earliest days Americans tended to believe they had broader responsibilities than just making money. And while there are examples of successful and important foundations in other countries — in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere — for whatever reason, philanthropy seems to be something that fits Americans to a tee.

On a personal note, I couldn't be happier that my children and grandchildren share my interest in philanthropy. At the event in New York, Warren Buffett made a point of saying he was especially pleased he had been able to pass his values and interest in philanthropy on to his children. It is cause for optimism that people like Buffett and the Gateses and many, many others care about the world around them, are joining with others to try to find solutions to the challenges that confront us, and are passing on those values to their children and grandchildren. The world is a better place for it.

PND: And do you think fifty or a hundred years from now, someone from Philanthropy News Digest will be interviewing one of your great-great-grandchildren about the Rockefeller philanthropic tradition and the remarkable achievements of American philanthropy?

DR: I hope so. But I also hope that many of the problems we have been discussing will have been solved long before our successors meet for the interview! Certainly, philanthropy is important, but we should not lose sight of the fact that philanthropy is an instrument designed to find enduring solutions for the afflictions of humankind. It would be wonderful if they had nothing to talk about at the meeting.

PND: Well, thank you for speaking with us today, Mr. Rockefeller.

DR: It was my pleasure.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, spoke with David Rockefeller in October. For more information on the Newsmakers series, conta