Its central historical mission is to "promote the well-being" of humanity.
Some of its historical achievements include:
The endowment's assets were $3.7 billion at year-end 2006, and ranks 15th in total assets, out of all foundations in the United States. Although it is no longer the largest foundation by assets, the Rockefeller Foundation's pre-eminent legacy ranks it among the most impactful and influential NGOs in the world.
Rodin was also the first woman to have headed an Ivy League institution. She is a current director of Citigroup, and an honorary trustee of the Brookings Institution in Washington. The chairman of the fifteen-member board of trustees is James F. Orr, III.
Rockefeller's interest in philanthropy on a large scale began in 1889, influenced by Andrew Carnegie's published essay, The Gospel of Wealth, which prompted him to write a letter to Carnegie praising him as an example to other rich men. It was in that year that he made the first of what would become $35 million in gifts, over a period of two decades, to fund the University of Chicago.
His initial idea to set up a large-scale tax-exempt foundation occurred in 1901, but it was not until 1906 that Senior's famous business and philanthropic advisor, Frederick T. Gates, seriously revived the idea, saying that Rockefeller's fortune was rolling up so fast his heirs would "dissipate their inheritances or become intoxicated with power", unless he set up "permanent corporate philanthropies for the good of Mankind".
It was also in 1906 that the Russell Sage Foundation was established, though its program was limited to working women and social ills. Rockefeller's would thus not be the first foundation in America (Benjamin Franklin was the first to introduce the concept), but it brought to it unprecedented international scale and scope. In 1909 he signed over 73,000 shares of Standard Oil of New Jersey, valued at $50 million, to the three inaugural trustees, Junior, Gates and Harold McCormick, the first installment of a projected $100 million endowment.
They applied for a federal charter for the foundation in the US Senate in 1910, with at one stage Junior even secretly meeting with President William Howard Taft, through the aegis of Senator Nelson Aldrich, to hammer out concessions. However, because of the ongoing (1911) antitrust suit against Standard Oil at the time, along with deep suspicion in some quarters of undue Rockefeller influence on the spending of the endowment, the end result was that Senior and Gates withdrew the bill from Congress in order to seek a state charter.
On May 14, 1913, New York Governor William Sulzer approved a state charter for the foundation - two years after the Carnegie Corporation - with Junior becoming the first president. With its large-scale endowment, a large part of Senior's fortune was insulated from inheritance taxes. The total benefactions of both him and Junior and their philanthropies in the end would far surpass Carnegie's endowments, his biographer Ron Chernow states, ranking Rockefeller as "the greatest philanthropist in American history".
It was initially located within the family office at Standard Oil's heaquarters at 26 Broadway, later (in 1933) shifting to the GE Building (then RCA), along with the newly-named family office, Room 5600, at Rockefeller Center; later it moved to the Time-Life Building in the Center, before shifting to its current Fifth Avenue address.
In 1913 the foundation set up the International Health Commission (later Board), the first appropriation of funds for work outside the US, which launched the foundation into international public health activities. This expanded the work of the Sanitary Commission worldwide, working against various diseases in fifty-two countries on six continents and twenty-nine islands, bringing international recognition of the need for public health and environmental sanitation. Its early field research on hookworm, malaria, and yellow fever provided the basic techniques to control these diseases and established the pattern of modern public health services.
The Commission established and endowed the world's first school of Hygiene and Public Health, at Johns Hopkins University, and later at Harvard, and then spent more than $25 million in developing other public health schools in the US and in 21 foreign countries - helping to establish America as the world leader in medicine and scientific research. In 1913 it also began a 20-year support program of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, whose mission was research and education on birth control, maternal health and sex education.
In 1914 the foundation set up the China Medical Board, which established the first public health university in China, the Peking Union Medical College, in 1921; this was subsequently nationalised when the Communists took over the country in 1949. In the same year it began a program of international fellowships to train scholars at the world’s leading universities at the post-doctoral level; a fundamental commitment to the education of future leaders.
Also in 1914, the trustees set up a new Department of Industrial Relations, inviting William Lyon MacKenzie King to head it. He became a close and key advisor to Junior through the Ludlow massacre, turning around his attitude to unions; however the foundation's involvement in IR was criticized for advancing the family's business interests. It henceforth confined itself to funding responsible organizations involved in this and other controversial fields, which were beyond the control of the foundation itself.
Through the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, established by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1918 and named after his mother, the family shifted the focus of philanthropy into becoming a major force in the social sciences, stimulating the founding of university research centres and creating the Social Science Research Council. To enhance consolidation, this memorial fund was subsequently folded into the foundation in a major reorganization in 1928/9.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. became the foundation chairman in 1917. One of the many prominent trustees of the institution since has been C. Douglas Dillon, the United States Secretary of the Treasury under both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. The foundation also supported the early initiatives of Henry Kissinger, such as his directorship of Harvard's International Seminars and the early foreign policy magazine Confluence, both established by him while he was still a graduate student.
Its overall philanthropic activity has been divided into five main subject areas:
A major program beginning in the 1930s was the relocation of German (Jewish) scholars from German universities to America. This was expanded to other European countries after the Anschluss occurred; when war broke out it became a full scale rescue operation. Another program, the Emergency Rescue Committee was also partly funded with Rockefeller money; this effort resulted in the rescue of some of the most famous artists, writers and composers of Europe. Some of the notable figures relocated or saved (out of a total of 303 scholars) by the Foundation were Thomas Mann, Claude Levi-Strauss and Leo Szilard, incalculably enriching intellectual life and academic disciplines in the US. This came to light afterwards through a brief, unpublished history of the Foundation's program.
Another significant program was its Medical Sciences Division, which extensively funded women's contraception and the human reproductive system in general. Other funding went into endocrinology departments in American universities, human heredity, mammalian biology, human physiology and anatomy, psychology, and the pioneering studies of human sexual behavior by Dr. Alfred Kinsey.
In the arts it has helped establish or support the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Ontario, Canada, and the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut; Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.; Karamu House in Cleveland, Ohio; and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. In a recent shift in program emphasis, President Rodin has now eliminated the division that spent money on the arts, the creativity and culture program. One program that signals the shift was the foundation's support as the underwriter of Spike Lee's documentary on New Orleans, When the Levees Broke. The film has been used as the basis for a curriculum on poverty, developed by the Teachers College at Columbia University for their students.
Thousands of scientists and scholars from all over the world have received foundation fellowships and scholarships for advanced study in major scientific disciplines. In addition, the foundation has provided significant and often substantial research grants to finance conferences and assist with published studies, as well as funding departments and programs, to a vast range of foreign policy and educational organizations, some of which include:
By 1943 this program, under the foundation's Mexican Agriculture Project, had proved such a success with the science of corn propagation and general principles of agronomy that it was exported to other Latin American countries; in 1956 the program was then taken to India; again with the geopolitical imperative of providing an antidote to communism. It wasn't until 1959 that senior foundation officials succeeded in getting the Ford Foundation (and later USAID, and later still, the World Bank) to sign on to the major philanthropic project, known now to the world as the Green Revolution. It also provided significant funding for the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. Part of the original program, the funding of the IRRI was later taken over by the Ford Foundation.
Costing around $600 million, over 50 years, the revolution brought new farming technology, increased productivity, expanded crop yields and mass fertilization to many countries throughout the world. Later it funded over $100 million dollars of plant biotechnology research and trained over four hundred scientists from Asia, Africa and Latin America. It also invested in the production of transgenic crops, including rice and maize. In 1999, the then president Gordon Conway addressed the Monsanto board of directors, warning of the possible social and environmental dangers of this biotechnology, and requesting them to disavow the use of so-called terminator genes; the company later complied.
In the 1990s the foundation shifted its agriculture work and emphasis to Africa; in 2006 it joined with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in a $150 million effort to fight hunger in the continent through improved agricultural productivity.
The Bellagio Center operates both a conference center and a residency program. The residency program is a competitive program to which scholars, artists, writers, musicians, scientists, policymakers and development professionals from around the world can apply to work on a project of their own choosing for a period of two to six weeks. Applications for the residency programs and conferences can be submitted via the Rockefeller Foundation's website: www.rockfound.org/bellagio
In October, 2006 the foundation announced that David Rockefeller, Jr. had joined the board of trustees, re-establishing the direct family link and becoming the sixth family member overall to serve on the board. This is unlike the Ford Foundation, which has permanently severed all direct links with the Ford family.
The foundation also has traditionally held a major portion of its shares portfolio in the family's oil companies, beginning with Standard Oil and now with its corporate descendants, including Exxon Mobil.
The early institutions it set up have served as models for current organizations: the UN's World Health Organization, set up in 1948, is modeled on the International Health Division; the U.S. Government's National Science Foundation (1950) on its approach in support of research, scholarships and institutional development; and the National Institute of Health (1950) imitated its longstanding medical programs.