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IP Funder Spotlights offer quick rundowns of the grantmakers that are on our radar, including a few key details on how they operate and what they’re up to right now. Today, we take a look at climate-related grantmaking at the Rockefeller Foundation, established by the oil magnate and monopolist John D. Rockefeller. 

How Rockefeller approaches climate

The Rockefeller Foundation does not have a single climate program. Rather, climate change is a factor throughout its grantmaking. It sees its pandemic work, for instance, as essential to battling future disease outbreaks likely in a world where warming disrupts natural systems and forces more people from their homes.

That said, two of its five major commitments are directly concerned with the climate emergency: End Energy Poverty and Nourish People and Planet, as it calls them. Each approach climate issues via a range of strategies and in a variety of geographies. The 28 staff on Rockefeller’s energy and climate program concentrate efforts on last-mile power, technological developments and seeding global action. The foundation’s food program, which has 12 staff, has initiatives focused on Africa, on the U.S. and globally.

Why you should care

Rockefeller is on a short list of U.S. institutions with major internationally focused, climate-oriented grantmaking programs. It is a key philanthropic funder of clean energy and agricultural projects in low-income countries, particularly in Africa and South Asia. It’s also often at the center of major funder collaborations. The latest example is a recent alliance to establish a $10 billion fund, covered in more detail below, to spark a clean energy transition in low-income countries.

Where the money comes from 

John D. Rockefeller could be called the original oil baron. Some say he still holds the title of the richest person in modern history, having worked his way from an assistant bookkeeper to Standard Oil’s largest shareholder. Through practices that would later inspire the antitrust movement, he and his partners built Standard Oil into a far-reaching monopoly, which the government ordered dismantled in 1911. Two years later, the billionaire—who had officially retired a decade earlier—founded the Rockefeller Foundation. Already an established philanthropist at the time, Rockefeller is considered seminal to modern philanthropy and an early example of the reputation-cleansing power of great wealth. The foundation, which has ranked among the largest philanthropies in the United States since it was established, had an endowment of $6.4 billion as of 2021.

Where the money goes

While Rockefeller considers climate change in all its grantmaking, its funding for portfolios on power and climate and food are of particular note. Out of $961 million committed in 2021, its new Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet initiative accounted for $600 million, with its power and climate initiative representing another $14 million, according to its grants database. (Note that these amounts reflect dollars pledged, often over many years, not checks mailed out.)

The elephant in the spreadsheet is a $500 million commitment to RF Catalytic Capital, the foundation’s investment platform, as part of the new alliance. Rockefeller also made long-term, $25 million pledges to the International Finance Corporation and the Inter-American Development Bank. Grant promises of $5 million also went to U.N.-launched international nonprofit Sustainable Energy for All; green think tank Rocky Mountain Institute; and All On, an effort to expand energy access in Nigeria.

The foundation’s much smaller group of power and climate commitments were dominated by two grants of roughly $5 million to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to develop “analytic methods” to identify the conditions that reduce energy poverty; and to the Energy for Growth Hub for additional analysis and advocacy on energy policy.

Another $33 million in grants was pledged through the grantmaker’s food initiative in 2021. Like its power and climate grants, a large share of those dollars went to research and policy. Its three biggest grants—which at $5 million or more each accounted for roughly half of its portfolio—went to an Ottawa research center to support African governments in changing their food system policies, a Mumbai-based agricultural enterprise accelerator program and to RF Catalytic Capital to back a “comprehensive molecular map of the food system.”

Who calls the shots

Figures from the finance and business world account for the largest share of Rockefeller’s 14-person board of directors. Members include the chairwoman of Starbucks, a former Unilever CEO and a Morgan Stanley Research vice chairman. Others have worked at the intersection of investment and government, such as a former president of the African Development Bank. The foundation’s president, Rajiv Shah, who serves on the board, is among this group. He is a former head of USAID and founded a private equity firm.

There are multiple directors with ties to Africa, a continent where the foundation does extensive grantmaking, including a vice chancellor of a university in Rwanda and an expert in African agriculture and nutrition. More broadly, the international foundation’s board is roughly evenly split between directors from U.S.-based institutions and those based abroad.

Two board members come with a military background: a former Colombian defense minister (who later served as the country’s president) and retired U.S. Navy admiral James Stavridis, who is the board chair. Another two directors hail from the news and entertainment sector: the NBA commissioner and the president and CEO of the Washington, D.C., public access channel, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, who is the only member of the family (albeit by marriage) serving on the board. Leaders of two grantees—Martha’s Table and G.A.M.E.—also serve on the board.

Is diversity and inclusion tracked and shared?

Rockefeller tracks its staff and leadership demographics. Overall, 55% of Rockefeller’s staff are white (with the remainder people of color) and 63% are female-identifying (the rest identify as male), according to the foundation. It did not provide leadership data. As for its board, slightly more than half of its board members are male, but Rockefeller does not formally track its board members’ demographics. Staff data comes from its participation in an annual private survey of large foundations by the Croner Company, but Rockefeller has not, to date, participated in efforts such as Green 2.0 to publicly track staff and leadership demographics, or the newer Climate Funders Justice Pledge effort to track grantee demographics.

Open door or barbed wire? 

Without an invitation, there’s no use in asking the Rockefeller Foundation for funds. Unsolicited proposals and letters of inquiry are not accepted. The foundation’s stated aim is to avoid wasting either its time or that of would-be applicants.

Sunlight or secrecy?

Like many of its well-known foundation peers, Rockefeller maintains a grants database. It runs from 2015 to present, with filters for each of Rockefeller’s current priority areas, known as “commitments”. (However, when initially consulted for this story, the grants database was incomplete, and only later updated.) The foundation also maintains a slick website, with professional videos and regular updates, where it publicly posts its recent tax filings and audits, as well as governance documents such as its investing policy, code of conduct and bylaws.

Latest big moves 

Rockefeller has made a couple major moves on climate in the past year-plus. In late 2020, the foundation—whose endowment once consisted almost entirely of oil assets—formally announced its divestment from fossil fuels, ahead of the decision of several other legacy peers last year.

Last November, Rockefeller committed $500 million to a $10 billion fund aimed at mobilizing 10 times that sum to move emerging economies from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It’s called the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, and other partners include the Ikea Foundation and the Bezos Earth Fund. The pledge continues a long history at Rockefeller of providing funding and capital to green energy projects in developing countries.