Kamira/shutterstock
Kamira/shutterstock

In our coverage of an evolving philanthropic sector over the past several years, we’ve often characterized the present period as a new Gilded Age. The parallels are numerous—gargantuan fortunes, rampant inequality, rapid technological and social change, and hard questions being asked about the influence and responsibilities of wealth.

Founded in 2002 and coming into its stride during this current Gilded Age, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors bears the name of an icon of the last one. It’s one of an array of nonprofits and grantmakers named for the philanthropic dynasty whose founder, John D. Rockefeller, amassed a fortune that, in today’s dollars, would still vastly exceed the wealth of today’s richest tycoons.

Among that diverse and still-growing group, RPA is quite unique. For one thing, it wears many, many hats. Services ranging from basic consulting to grant management, from fiscal sponsorship to research, are all within its purview. Its clientele is diverse and spans the globe. And its project roster is sizable—so much so that a good fraction of the big-name collaborative funding efforts we cover involve RPA in some capacity.

Like other 501(c)(3) funders in the Rockefeller universe, RPA serves a grantmaking function, but it might be best described as a kind of intermediary or middleman, one of a range of such consulting groups working in the happening space between those with the cash and those in need of it.

“RPA is a broad tent, and we work with a variety of donors with different approaches,” said RPA’s President and CEO Melissa Berman. “We’re not dogmatic, and that reflects the legacy of the Rockefeller family, who’ve always focused on values, not views, as well as respect for the nonprofit sector and a long-term approach.”

Berman has helmed RPA since the beginning, and in that time, she has shepherded it from a relatively modest Rockefeller family outgrowth to a pillar of professional grantmaking practice. Through its consulting, fiscal sponsorship and other offerings, RPA helps set the tone, serving as an entry point, implementation partner and font of wisdom for a funding world that just keeps growing.

Dynastic beginnings

Though it might not be fair to call RPA a patrician organization, it certainly arose from old money. By the early 1990s, the Rockefeller family’s multi-generational philanthropic project was already well over a century old. Numerous Rockefeller-branded grantmakers were humming along, from the long-independent Rockefeller Foundation to family-run and family-influenced entities like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Family Fund.

In 1991, members of the family’s Philanthropy Committee (when you’re the Rockefellers, you have that sort of thing) set up a vehicle called The Philanthropic Collaborative (TPC), a public charity meant to help the clan’s numerous and widely dispersed members convene resources around specific issues. Over the next decade or so, TPC—and the Rockefeller family office in general—became a hub of philanthropy expertise, serving not only the Rockefellers, but donors and affiliates outside the family, as well.

RPA was created in early 2002 “by spinning out a team of philanthropy experts in the Rockefeller family office into an existing charity,” Berman said. “By the time the spin-out occurred, that group was already doing consulting work in foundation management, funder collaboratives and fiscal sponsorship.”

Rockefeller family members were very much involved in this new organization, which was founded in New York City with a mission to “help donors create thoughtful, effective philanthropy throughout the world.” Its first board chair, Eileen Rockefeller Growald, is the youngest daughter of the late David Rockefeller, a pivotal figure in contemporary civil society. David Rockefeller was the son of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and grandson of the family patriarch. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 101. Growald is the founder of numerous nonprofit organizations and formerly headed the Rockefeller Family Fund’s board.

During a public symposium hosted by a newly founded RPA in 2004, Growald spoke about the organization as a kind of window into the global philanthrosphere, staffed by experts. “RPA enables all of us to see what other good projects are being carried out throughout the world, and how we as family members can best leverage our financial resources,” she said.

While Growald is no longer on the RPA board, a number of family members remain, although they are in the minority. Berman, however, has been a steadfast presence at the head of RPA going on two decades now. Before she came on board in 2001 to help build out RPA’s yet-to-be-launched strategic plan, Berman headed research and program development at The Conference Board. Research and thought leadership has been a hallmark of RPA’s offerings during Berman’s tenure. She also made our list of the 50 most powerful women in U.S. philanthropy several years back.

In many ways, RPA’s overall approach hasn’t changed all that much over the past 20 years. But the organization has certainly grown bigger. Beginning with net assets of around $32 million at the time of its inception, the amount of cash flowing through RPA rose steadily through the rest of the decade and then jumped up by leaps and bounds during the 2010s. By 2016, net assets stood at around $185 million. Today, RPA manages over $400 million in annual giving by individuals, families, corporations and foundations.

The practical and the theoretical

So what does RPA actually do? While a full account of its many projects is well beyond the scope of this article, Berman described four basic types of work, with many projects and clients availing themselves of RPA services across two or more of those categories.

The first is basic consulting work—strategic plans, landscape scans, advice on grants management and the like. The second is hands-on grantmaking services, in which RPA team members serve as outsourced program staff for a number of funders. Berman noted that actually going through the process of disbursing grants for clients gives RPA a practical basis to work from in its strategic consulting, not just a theoretical one.

A third category of work, and one that’s been growing quickly over the past several years, is RPA’s function as a fiscal sponsor, including for funder collaboratives. We’ve written about quite a few of those efforts, which often involve major grantmakers. They include ArtPlace America, a 10-year creative placemaking initiative that sought to elevate arts and culture in the field of community development; the Collective Future Fund, a pooled fund seeking to unite social justice moments, survivors and donors to end gender-based violence; and the Fund for Shared Insight, a funder collaborative dedicated to promoting listening and incorporating feedback in philanthropy.

Last but not least, RPA engages in numerous research and thought leadership projects, which have been a key part of the organization’s DNA since the beginning. Most of them are meant to help funders. For instance, there’s RPA’s Philanthropy Roadmap, consisting of numerous brief guides to aid donors in their giving, and deep dives like an impact investing handbook designed to give funders more thorough exposure to that space.

Earlier this year, RPA released a guide to prize philanthropy, complete with case studies on that interesting—and somewhat controversial—realm of giving. It also debuted an online self-assessment tool to help funders examine big questions about aligning their resources with “mission, vision and values.” RPA isn’t afraid to get theoretical—its “Theory of the Foundation” initiative encompasses practical tools like the Philanthropy Framework (designed with input from a whole host of major foundations) as well as case studies of individual grantmakers and papers examining key concerns for the sector, like growing criticism leveled against philanthropy.

Another aspect of RPA’s work to keep in mind is that some portion of its services have always been directed abroad. In this, it differs from many other more strictly U.S.-focused consulting groups and intermediaries. According to Berman, RPA’s projects are “still, by number, majority U.S., but a growing share is international.” In 2020, that fraction stood at about one-fourth of RPA’s total project roster.

International work has been a longtime interest of the Rockefeller family and many of their philanthropic vehicles. That includes a long history of commercial and philanthropic engagement in China during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At RPA, that tradition has lived on through, for instance, a recent partnership with the China Global Philanthropy Institute, funded by several Chinese billionaires as well as Ray Dalio and the Gates Foundation.

RPA is also engaged in numerous initiatives in the Global South, like projects around financial inclusion and fin-tech in African nations like Tanzania, Nigeria and South Africa. A new team based in Nigeria and focused on financial inclusion joined RPA earlier this year. RPA also does work in Europe, South America and elsewhere.

Two pandemics”

Both at home and abroad, the past year and a half has tested philanthropy’s mettle. “We’ve been working with donors on two pandemics: the public health pandemic, and the racial equity and justice pandemic,” Berman said. In terms of COVID-19, she said,“What we are helping people do is align their COVID giving with the areas of focus that they’ve already embarked in.”

Early on, RPA hosted a COVID-19 Early Treatment Fund to back trials of drugs that might reduce the severity of infection while vaccines were still under development. It also supported an initiative to develop an emergency ventilator that could be produced more quickly and at lower cost than the traditional ICU ventilator. In addition, RPA assisted clients with hefty emergency giving plans, including one healthcare foundation’s rollout of $150 million in emergency relief, as well as an initiative at the James Irvine Foundation to fund recession resilience for its grantees.

Throughout 2020, RPA and its staff frequently sounded off on philanthropy’s COVID-era successes. In a guest op-ed in Inside Philanthropy, Olga Tarasov, director of knowledge development, pushed back against criticisms of the sector, writing, “It is a scary time, but hopeful, because philanthropy has proven itself a sturdy thread when the fabric of society is stretched thin.”

In another contribution to the site, Senior Researcher Kalyah Ford acknowledged that “many in-perpetuity foundations are reluctant to ‘spend big in a crisis,’ as they seek to protect their endowments,” but also described the foundation world as “a rich tapestry filled with a diversity of missions and approaches” in which funders pursue thoughtful ways “to maximize impact as they face the urgency of a historic moment.”

Berman pointed to COVID as a learning experience for funders less acquainted with the intersectionality between different kinds of inequity. “Funding better pre-K programs won’t work if kids aren’t well nourished. Trying to hold down a job when it takes hours to get to a simple medical appointment is not realistic. Donors are also much more focused on how BIPOC people are systematically disadvantaged in healthcare as well as in justice and education,” she said.

RPA’s oeuvre already included numerous projects touching on racial justice before the nationwide reckoning that began last summer. One highlight is the Art for Justice Fund, an interesting grantmaking initiative we’ve been following since its start in 2017. The key figure behind Art for Justice is banking heiress Agnes Gund, who launched the five-year, $100 million effort to fight mass incarceration. Gund is partnering with the Ford Foundation, which manages a grantmaking strategy that includes advocacy and support for artists depicting the human impact of incarceration. RPA is the third partner, providing programmatic, advisory and governance support.

The list of RPA’s clients also includes corporations. One effort RPA is advising in the wake of 2020 is Michael Jordan’s $100 million racial justice commitment, which the basketball legend is undertaking alongside the Jordan brand. Initial grants went out this year to places like Morehouse College, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the NAACP, Black Voters Matter and the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People and Families Movement.

Another billionaire newly in partnership with RPA is none other than MacKenzie Scott, whose latest massive round of gifts included money for RPA. In addition, Scott and her husband Dan Jewett are backing a number of RPA’s sponsored projects. According to Berman, RPA is not advising Scott and Jewett in their giving at this time.

Contending with criticism

Asked about the arrival of new apex donors—like Scott—on the scene, Berman said she believes many mega-billionaires will accelerate their giving going forward. She pointed to “the growing inequities and dangers we face globally,” as well as rising wealth inequality and “intensifying convictions” that the super-rich “have unfair advantages that they should work to reduce.”

Whether or not they turn to advisory groups like RPA to inform or facilitate their giving, the winners of today’s gilded age certainly make for an ample client base. At the same time, RPA has sought to contend with rising criticism of philanthropy and elites—seemingly a must for an organization with “Rockefeller” in its name.

“There’s been an upswell in suspicion and questioning around what are perceived as elites and elite institutions,” Berman acknowledged. “It’s easy to characterize rich people and endowed institutions as out-of-touch and not appropriate actors, but if the only alternative is to take those sources of wealth and reallocate to the public sector, I don’t know if that will solve all the problems we care about. [For example], you can use the public sector to redistribute wealth, but that does not solve institutional racism.”

That said, RPA is certainly not averse to engaging with the realm of public policy advocacy. As a 501(c)(3) organization, its options in the political realm are limited, and it does not maintain a 501(c)(4) affiliate. But money has flowed through RPA to various activist and advocacy groups, usually progressive or left-leaning in nature. RPA has also supported work taking place through other fiscal sponsorship vehicles popular with left-leaning donors like Tides and the New Venture Fund.

Berman sought to deemphasize the role of political ideology in how RPA conducts its business. “During my years at RPA, we’ve been attacked for being extremely progressive as well as extremely unprogressive,” she said. “I don’t see us as having a political profile that way, despite our commitment to rights, equity and inclusion.”

No two Gilded Ages are alike

One of the interesting things about RPA is that despite its old-school branding, it is very much a product of the current era in philanthropy. That is, strategy-heavy professionalized operations with a preference for pragmatism over ideology.

And while observers on the right have been known to lump it in with overtly progressive shops like Tides or NEO Philanthropy due to its roster of projects and partners, RPA isn’t quite ready to take sides just yet. It’s still trying to uphold philanthropy’s value as a dignified third sector, distinct from business and government, even as a growing current of 501(c)(3) money—including from its own clients—pursues aims that are separated from politics by only the thinnest of veils.

RPA isn’t a radical organization, and its prescriptions for how grantmaking needs to change often fall short of asking funders to cede power. Although its “commitment to rights, equity and inclusion” is laudable, and no doubt sincere, this center-left positioning marks RPA as a mainstream player in a nonprofit sector that has largely normalized those stances.

What remains to be seen is to what extent this Gilded Age’s leading donors will embrace a more radical rhetoric of ceding power—MacKenzie Scott being the standout example at the moment. And given that rhetoric, how far will organizations like RPA go to accommodate, or discourage, new giving modes that stand in stark contrast to the perpetual dynastic model of the Rockefellers?

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