Valerie Rockefeller, board chair of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and a member of the fifth generation of one of America’s most famous dynasties, discusses the changing meaning of philanthropy
At Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA), our goal is to accelerate philanthropy, to have a more just and equitable society. We have an office in Nigeria, where we have a gender institute. We’re helping women with training to develop skills; we’re also working towards greater financial inclusion. Everyone in the world deserves to be banked.
A lot of projects are about individual potential, so we do a lot in education, healthcare, the arts and expression. We do a lot around social justice and are very, very committed to the environment, which is a family tradition – ironic as that may sound, coming from a Rockefeller.
Obviously the source of the family money is oil. I am the fifth in seven generations of Rockefellers. It was one guy, John D Rockefeller Snr, who made the money – my great-great-grandfather. (His last surviving grandchild, David, died in 2017 at the age of 101).
John D Rockefeller Snr became a full-time philanthropist, but he was not aware of environmental damage and was not working on sustainability issues, for sure. His son – John D Rockefeller Jnr – was a conservationist and anonymously bought up plots of land and turned them over to be used as public parks.
Now of course, we understand what climate change is and so our philanthropy has evolved over time. At the Rockefeller Brothers Fund [the family foundation], we realised about half of our grant-making is in sustainable development. But when we started the process we had 6.6 per cent of our endowment in fossil fuels. We started a process of divestment and now we’re 99.7 per cent fossil fuel-free. And we’re doing better in terms of higher returns and lower risk. So that has worked out very well for us.
The whole notion of philanthropy is built on inequity, right? Just obscene concentrations of wealth. Therefore, RPA and I, we feel like we have this privilege – of the Rockefeller money and the money of the families, foundations, corporate foundations and sponsored projects we work with. But money is a values-neutral resource. It’s all in how you use it.
I happen to believe we need deep systemic change, because we do have such inherent racism, homophobia, and patriarchy baked into our systems that we need to reform those systems. I would not say ‘overthrow’, but reform – to really get to a point of stakeholder capitalism.[Just 5% of North American UHNW philanthropy is focused on public affairs. Click here to see which issues receive the greatest philanthropic inflows around the world.]
Most of my personal philanthropy goes towards protecting voting rights, because I do believe the system absolutely can work, as soon as we get rid of the corrupting influences like fossil fuel interests, for example. So I’m not a radical systems change person, but it just needs to happen so much faster. The challenges are so much more intense than they were even when I was growing up.
Family and the meaning of philanthropy
I grew up in West Virginia; I don’t think I ever really felt part of the family clan until my late twenties. I did end up moving to New York. We have family reunions twice a year, and we used to go once a year to one extremely formal Christmas lunch that we have, which is a beloved tradition. But it is also, by far, the most formal thing our family does. We are actually quite a rowdy and casual bunch overall.
My parents never, ever, ever talked about money, which is something my brothers and I have tried to change with our own children. My kids are 12, 14 and 16. So everything’s on the table all the time, including plenty of personal commentary about, you know, how I talk or when I’m being a hypocrite and all that sort of stuff. I’m a big believer in talking about everything. My children do not have the name Rockefeller, which I’m very grateful for. But they are very aware of the opportunities that they’re going to have – and therefore also the obligations.
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Valerie Rockefeller was speaking exclusively to Edwin Smith
Main image: Courtesy Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors
To find out more about the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, go to rockpa.org