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This interview has been edited for clarity.
Foundations are often taken to task for being too risk-averse but no one could apply that epithet to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. RBF, a 76-year-old foundation, played a huge and long-term role in brokering the U.S. and Iran nuclear agreement — which is now perhaps the most prominent and most committed philanthropic initiative to cease investing in oil, coal, and gas.
In this segment from the Business of Giving, Stephen Heintz, the fund’s president, tells the story behind its decision to divest from fossil fuels, despite its wealth being derived from one of America’s great oil fortunes. He also shares his thoughts on the Iran deal, how foundations can leverage and maximize its influence, their learning from grantees, the challenge of measuring the unquantifiable, and the history of Rockefeller family philanthropy.
The following is the full transript of the conversation between Stephen Heintz, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: We have had many guests on The Business of Giving who have expressed the wish their foundation would be bolder, take more risks, and not be so afraid of failure. They believe bold action is necessary to achieve the transformative social breakthroughs that the world so desperately needs. However, risk taking is not a problem for the the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. In fact, far from it. And it’s a great pleasure to have with us this evening their president, Stephen Heintz.
Good evening Stephen and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Stephen: Denver, thank you. I’m very happy to be here.
Denver: Before we get in into the work of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, I wanted to take a moment to discuss John D. Rockefeller. I don’t think many people have much of an idea of who John D. Rockefeller was, and even less so about his philanthropy. Tell us a bit about his story.
Stephen: It’s a wonderful story, so I am delighted that you’re interested. John D. Rockefeller was born in 1839 in upstate New York. He was born into a very modest family. He left home when he was 16 years old and went to Ohio; started work at that age, and in his first year of work, he made a total of $45. We know this because we actually have his ledger book because he kept very detailed ledgers from the very beginning.
Denver: Right from the very start… [laughter]
Stephen: So, he made $45 in income, and he gave away $5 in that first year. So he was already contributing more than 10% of his income to charitable causes because of his devout Baptist faith.
Denver: How interesting is that!
Stephen: It’s amazing, and then of course– so this was 1855…
By 1900, he is the wealthiest man in the world. A short period of time. He was an extraordinary entrepreneur and a visionary. He saw the future, and he saw that this newly discovered substance called petroleum was going to be transformative. He got to the head of the line and pushed through. And then of course, you know he’s been rightly criticized for very ruthless business practices along the way, but this was in an unregulated environment. He didn’t violate laws that we know of because the law didn’t exist.
But he also was giving away more and more of his wealth from the very beginning. And then of course, the wealth was just so enormous that a very close adviser of his said to him, “Mr. Rockefeller, if you don’t give away this money, it will ruin you and your family!” So, he set up the mechanisms to give most of it away.
Denver: And he gave it away to a whole host of institutions. One of the things that I never realized was that he actually started the University of Chicago, and he did it in an anonymous way. He never even set foot on the campus. (more…)