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Three Timeless Lessons Donors Can Learn from the Rockefellers

November 10, 2017

The Rockefeller legacy helped usher our society into a new wave of modern philanthropy focused on the belief that with wealth comes responsibility to improve the lives of others. While their giving traditions were established over 150 years ago, modern philanthropists can still learn from their values and giving strategy.

  1. Reassess and readapt giving plans to meet the changing needs of the public

When making his first philanthropic gifts starting in 1855 until the turn of the 20th century, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. focused primarily on religious-driven projects, primarily because there were few secular organizations in the nonprofit sector at the time.

However, he soon began receiving many letters from all over the country seeking his assistance in many different issues and projects. In response to this overwhelming number of requests, JDR hired Frederick Gates to begin organizing his giving “as though it were a business” to focus on four primary social problems: poverty, ignorance, disease, and racism.

In today’s world, things are changing faster than ever and philanthropy is evolving with it. In the interest of maintaining a relevant and effective giving plan, donors should regularly reassess their projects and make updates if appropriate.

  1. Encourage and involve the next generation of philanthropists

After graduating from Brown University, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. began working alongside his father to help manage his philanthropic engagements. Recognizing that his son shared his commitment to public service, JDR, Sr. soon established the Rockefeller Foundation and appointed his son to be the chairman of the new organization in 1915, a title he held until the late 1930s.

Since then, philanthropy has been an enduring cornerstone of the Rockefeller family values passed down to each generation. Rockefellers have continually taught their children the importance of giving back by involving them in projects or allocating them the resources to launch their own.

  1. Collaborate for greater impact

As time went on, each member of later generations found themselves with fewer resources they were able to contribute to philanthropy. To continue their family legacy of creating the same impact as earlier generations, younger Rockefeller family members collaborated on several projects. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) was established by the five sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to combine their resources and continue providing funds and service to the public.

Intergenerational collaboration has since become key to Rockefeller family philanthropy. By pooling their resources, younger generations have an opportunity to forge deeper relationships while discovering new ways to increase their projects’ effectiveness.

From the 1800s to today, the Rockefellers’ “business-like” approach to philanthropy has withstood the test of time by instilling a culture of giving focused on accountability, generosity, and building an enduring legacy. To learn more about the Rockefellers’ history of philanthropy, read our Philanthropy Roadmap guide The Rockefellers: A Legacy of Giving.


Written by Melissa Blackerby of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors communications team.

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