Evolution of a Foundation

The history of the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) is a story of continuity and change. The Foundation was born an international entity and remains global in scope. For 100 years, it has viewed health, food production, and education as keys to human betterment. It has worked with governments, created new international agencies, and fostered civil society worldwide. But foundations are malleable instruments. To stay relevant requires imagination and flexibility. Over the course of a century, the RF has responded to a changing world, confronted new challenges, and deployed human and financial resources in evolving ways.

These five introductory essays provide an overview of the Foundation’s goals and strategies, its changes in leadership, and the turning points in its quest to advance the well-being of humankind.

As the first essay explains, the establishment of Rockefeller University, the General Education Board, and the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm served as prologue to the RF.

The second essay details an early period of experimentation. Almost immediately, the Foundation was compelled to deal with World War I and its aftermath. It launched the field of public health and transformed medical education, including founding the Peking Union Medical College. Ultimately, its various programs became too sprawling, and prompted the consolidation of the philanthropic enterprise.

Following the 1928 reorganization, the Foundation geared its endeavors toward the advancement of knowledge. As the third essay describes, the RF created academic-style divisions to push research forward in the social sciences and natural sciences, the humanities, public health and medical education.

In the early 1960s the Foundation reassessed its approach again. Work in agriculture revealed the complexity of global issues. The fourth essay narrates the transition from distinct divisions to interdisciplinary campaigns addressing hunger, population, equal opportunity, cultural development, and higher education.

The concluding essay spans the recent past and moves into the present. The RF, born when few foundations existed and once unrivaled in its wealth, now must leverage more limited resources. Today, the Foundation collaborates with partners and stakeholders in an expanded civic sector, offers leadership based on long experience, and aims to catalyze systemic social, environmental, and economic change.