Rockefeller Bros Fund Shows Nuanced Approach

In a recent post, I cited the 2006 Annual Report from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund as a striking example of an especially sophisticated approach to global grantmaking. To demonstrate, here's an excerpt from RBF's president, Stephen Heinz:

After extensive consultation with grantees, academic experts, independent consultants, and colleagues in the philanthropic community, the Fund's board approved a plan to focus grantmaking in just four areas: Democratic Practice, Sustainable Development, Peace and Security, and Human Advancement. But we still had the challenge of rationalizing the geographic reach of our activities. How could we remain globally engaged in a manner commensurate with our human and financial resources? Part of the answer is inherent in the specific goals and strategies we have articulated for each of our thematic programs. But we also found inspiration in the work of Yale University historian Paul Kennedy and his colleagues, who in the mid-1990s proposed an intriguing conceptual framework to make international development assistance more focused and effective.

In a 1996 Foreign Affairs article that was later expanded into a book, Kennedy and his colleagues argued that with the end of the Cold War and growing pressures to reduce overseas development assistance, "it is vital that America focus its efforts on a small number of countries whose fate is uncertain and whose future will profoundly affect their surrounding regions. These are the pivotal states." As the RBF grappled with the challenge of geography, we invited Professor Kennedy to a meeting with staff to discuss how we might adapt the concept of "pivotal states" to philanthropy.

Given our programmatic interests and the realities of global interdependence, it quickly became clear that the nation-state is not the only logical geographical space in which to concentrate work. In the field of sustainable development, for instance, an ecosystem that stretches across national boundaries might be the appropriate jurisdiction-the Mekong River valley and the Amazon basin are good examples. With most of the world's population growth concentrated in urban areas, globally significant cities can surely be viewed as pivotal. For the purposes of our work, the RBF concluded that we would consider "pivotal places", subnational areas, nation-states, or cross-border regions that have special importance in relation to our program goals.

I won't claim to know anything about RBF's impact, to date, but here's what I like about what I'm reading:

- While their four major areas (Democratic Practice, Sustainable Development, Peace and Security, and Human Advancement) are each worthy of a whole foundation's attention, they have narrowed their focus. Having done that, they searched and found a framework that could credibly guide that approach.

- Naysayers can easily point to the tendency foundations have to take the "next big idea", like Kennedy's, and to craft their reality around it. For those of us who believe solid philanthropy is as much or more art than science, I see Kennedy's framework as a metaphor that can inform action, not unduly restrict it.

- While this framework points to specific geographic focus, Heinz is speaking to the importance and value of looking to cross-border efforts. Further in his letter, he also speaks to the importance of aligning their efforts across the four RBF program efforts. The nation-states they focus on may be big but the forces that isolate foundation grantmaking departments from each other is, in my experience, equally vast.

Whether you want to know more about "Transforming the Balkans" as this report is titled, or how one foundation is pursuing greater impact through strategy, check it out.

Susan Herr

Posted at 1:50 AM, Nov 15, 2007 in Cross-Sectoral Strategies | Global Philanthropy | High Net Worth Donors | Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink | Comment