The Penny-Pinching Woman Who Gives Away the Rockefellers' Fortune

President of the Rockefeller Foundation Judith Rodin in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 25 Photograph by Michel Euler/AP Photo

Judith Rodin is the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which means she’s in charge of giving away one of America’s historic fortunes. One problem: “As rich as Rockefeller” doesn’t mean quite what it once did. The foundation ranks only 16th in assets among U.S. charities, according to the Foundation Center.

Today’s Rockefeller fortune is a shadow of the one that built the University of Chicago and Spelman College, created Rockefeller University and sprinkled Rockefeller Halls across college campuses. A century of giving money away has taken its toll. The Rockefeller Foundation had just $3.7 billion at the end of 2012, vs. $37.2 billion for the No. 1 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation Center says. (Rockefeller Foundation spokesman Neill Coleman says assets have since grown a bit, to $4.1 billion.)

But Rodin isn’t crying poor. In an interview this week, she said that since her foundation can’t hope to solve society’s problems by spending lots of its own money, it’s focusing on what it calls “impact investing”—highly targeted spending that opens the spigots of other sources of funding, including profit-seeking investment. Rockefeller may be one of America’s oldest foundations, but “we really believe that innovation is core to our DNA,” Rodin said. “I think we’re leading the latest trends. I don’t think old has to be working in old ways.”

In 2013, at the Clinton Global Initiative, the Rockefeller Foundation announced its 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which involves helping cities prepare for such challenges as global warming. Instead of going it alone, Rockefeller is partnering with the 100 cities (by helping them appoint “chief resilience officers”) as well as with Swiss Reinsurance, the World Bank, Architecture for Humanity, the American Institute of Architects, and Palantir Technologies, which specializes in data mining for national security.

Similarly, the foundation is spearheading a pilot project called Smart Power for Economically Sound Economic Development (SPEED) to electrify villages in India. Since Rockefeller can’t electrify all of India, the hope is to attract private funds by demonstrating the economic potential. Said Rodin: “Rather than fighting the markets, or undermining the markets through philanthropy, we’re trying to capitalize on market-based solutions.”

Rodin, a research psychologist by training, was provost of Yale and president of the University of Pennsylvania before joining the foundation in 2005. Her approach was praised in an article in the summer issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

“One philanthropic organization that successfully used an emergent approach to tackle a complex social problem is the Rockefeller Foundation. Beginning in 2008, the foundation launched a five-year, $42 million initiative to stimulate greater investment capital that could ‘improve the lives of poor and vulnerable citizens around the world’ through impact investing. At the time, the field of impact investing was small and disorganized. Over the next four years, despite the 2008-2009 worldwide financial meltdown, $6 billion of new investment capital went into impact investments. Three-quarters of this growth could be tied directly to Rockefeller’s efforts, effectively leveraging the foundation’s dollars one hundred to one. The foundation also had significant policy influence on the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. For the first time, international development agencies began to use impact investment as a promising new tool. All told, the Rockefeller Foundation played what one evaluation report called a ‘decisive role’ in activating a global movement that continues to grow even as the foundation shifts its support to newer forms of innovative finance.”

That goes to show that you don’t need to be as rich as Bill Gates to make a difference. As rich as Rockefeller is plenty enough.

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