The Rockefeller Foundation is doing everything to fight climate change. Could the others follow?

I’ve heard the line over and over in my two years covering climate and environmental grantmaking for Inside Philanthropy, from foundations supporting the arts, scientific research — and even conservation. Words vary and comments are usually confidential, but the message is always the same: “We are not a climate funder”.

Perhaps this week’s announcement by the Rockefeller Foundation marks the beginning of a new era. The 109-year-old grantmaker, founded by oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, was already one of the world’s leading funders of climate action. But now it plans to put climate change at the center of all its work, from its grantmaking to its operations and investments. In other words, it is no longer just a climate funder, but a climate funder in everything.

Coming a year and a half after the foundation announced it would divest from fossil fuels, the announcement not only marks the latest change for a foundation founded with oil wealth, but also makes Rockefeller the first (that I know of) large legacy foundation to publicly take such a step. Rockefeller aims to develop a plan over the next year to focus its future work, while maintaining its current commitments.

It is a gesture to be celebrated. It’s also unclear why it’s such a rare milestone, amid record-breaking heat waves in Europe, massive new fires across the western United States and weather-driven crop failures. worsening a global food crisis – some of the latest examples of escalating climate chaos. Time will tell if Rockefeller is a forerunner or an exception.

The value of public climate announcements

Like many such public statements, this one has been a long time coming. When I profiled Rockefeller’s climate grants in January, staff were already describing climate change as a factor in all of their program decisions. The foundation’s divestment announcement at the end of 2020, which also came after years of preparation, made it clear that its investment team was also weighing the climate emergency in its choices.

Rockefeller should be credited with using his bullying pulpit. As the largest of the Rockefeller-related philanthropies and the only one founded by the famous family patriarch, it attracts unique media attention. Few foundations, even those with billions in assets, can order an Associated Press story for a strategic decision.

By making his choice known, Rockefeller is giving staff from other donors a prominent peer to nominate during internal climate action discussions. This is a welcome contrast to the apparent reluctance towards climate change, particularly when it comes to asset decisions.

An example of this dynamic is provided by the recent Climate Report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy. Some 22% of foundations said they have divested from fossil fuels and a further 13% said they plan to do so in the future. While still a minority, it’s a far larger share than I’ve come across while covering this issue – and well above the level suggested by other sources.

For example, 350.org’s divestment campaign has only 190 philanthropic signatories worldwide, even though there are more than 100,000 private foundations in the United States alone, according to Candid. Even though the CEP survey is an overcount, the number of foundations saying anonymously that they have divested appears to be far higher than those announcing that they have.

If more foundations shared their decision publicly, would significantly more than a third of their peers choose or consider divestment?

Rockefeller gives the climate

Over the past decade, the Rockefeller family has taken various steps, both through their philanthropies and other channels, to confront the industry that has made their ancestor a household name – and one of richest men in history.

In 2014, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s public divestment from fossil fuels was considered a landmark decision due to the family’s wealth roots in oil, the relatively large size of the foundation, and the rarity of such a decision at the time. In 2016, the Rockefeller Family Fund followed suit.

In 2020, three third-generation members of the Rockefeller family started an organization, BankFWD, to pressure banks to stop funding fossil fuel companies. Like the Rockefeller philanthropies’ divestment decisions, BankFWD’s mission is intimately tied to the family’s history. A prime target is JPMorgan Chase, the world’s largest fossil fuel financier and the corporate descendant of a bank once run by a grandfather and great-uncle of the group’s three founders, David Rockefeller.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s decision to divest also came in 2020. It was a seismic change for a foundation that once counted oil assets as 100% of its endowment and which for decades accounted for about the half of his assets. And at the time, it was the largest foundation that publicly made such a statement. Although it is difficult to determine to what extent Rockefeller’s divestment played a role in their decisions, three other major foundations – MacArthur, Ford and McKnight – would separately announce similar plans in the following months.

irony and responsibility

The difference in the case of Rockefeller is that it is a foundation founded on one of the first and largest oil fortunes, and all these movements come in the shadow of this reality. In his letter about the change, the foundation’s president, Dr. Rajiv Shah, noted this historic irony.

Benjamin Soskis, historian of philanthropy and senior research associate at the Urban Institute, posted on Twitter that he sees the recognition of these ties as something of a trend, driven by a much deeper set of motivations.

“Whether or not [it’s] within an explicitly restorative framework, more funders are taking historical stock of how their wealth was built [and through] what harms [and] thinking [about] how this should shape their philanthropic priorities. Not in terms of irony, but in terms of accountability,” Soskis wrote.

Even as more funders look at the sources of their wealth, that phrase I’ve heard repeatedly – “We’re not a climate funder” – is a reminder that some don’t are still not looking to the future, or at least have not yet publicly understood how to tackle the carbon emissions on which almost all modern wealth depends, or the planetary emergency whose far-reaching impacts will only multiply in the years to come. coming.

It is not that these institutions are blind to the impacts of climate change – usually far from it. Their staff is knowledgeable, their publications refer to it often, and heck, some of their grants respond to it.

But this strange insistence, whether in public or in private, that they are not climate funders – and the corresponding abstention from accountability – suggests that on some level these institutions believe that their subsidization can exist separately from this existential threat. It’s also a sign of how normalized funding silos remain in the philanthroposphere, despite years of funders trying to break the habit.

Climate change cares no more about a foundation’s priority areas than, say, the pandemic. Maybe Rockefeller’s announcement will help more people in philanthropy see this reality.

Teresa H. Sadler