Rockefeller Brothers Fund Timeline

1940s: Beginning at the Brink of War

In its first decade, the Fund’s largest combined giving was to war relief and reconstruction worldwide.

The day after incorporating the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the five sons of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr.—John 3rd, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop, and David—gathered at the family home in Pocantico Hills, New York.

RBF gifts to United Service to China, a consortium of eight American agencies created to secure funds for relief and rehabilitation in China, followed naturally from the family’s long connection to the country.

The Riverside Church has had a strong presence in social justice campaigns including the anti-war, anti-death penalty, and immigrants’ rights movements. It has served as a speaking forum for Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela.

RBF gave regularly to the church from the 1940s through the 1970s, in some years contributing almost half of its operating budget.

Not only did all five brothers serve the war effort, together they recognized that its devastation would have far-reaching effects, and that postwar reconstruction needs would be enormous.

The Fund began giving to the YMCA and YWCA in 1941 and continued through the 1980s.

U.S. Entry into World War II

The Fund’s relationship with the The National Urban League began in 1941, when the organization specialized in industrial relations.

In 1942, when Sanger’s Birth Control Federation of America joined the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the RBF began its own support for the organization.

The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) began in 1944 as an interracial organization for the joint benefit of twenty-seven private African American colleges.

End of World War II—Nuclear Weapons First Used

The RBF began supporting Memorial Hospital in 1946, just as the Sloan Kettering Institute, dedicated to biomedical research on cancer, was established next door.

Housed since 1899 in the Bronx through an agreement with the City of New York, the New York Zoological Park, known as the “Bronx Zoo,” remains one of the largest and most-visited wildlife conservation parks in the world.

The American Council on Race Relations played a crucial role in promoting equality in the United States after World War II. The RBF supported the Council from 1946 until it closed its doors in 1950.

All five Rockefeller brothers served in the war. While the Fund made some grants during the war years, its work became more robust after 1946, when the brothers returned to their offices at Room 5600, 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City.

After World War II, the Cold War prompted the Fund to focus on democratic education in areas of strategic importance. Support for the Near East College Association, Inc., began in 1946 and continued into the mid-1950s.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened in 1929 through the efforts of three women, including Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, mother of the five founding RBF trustees.

Formation of NATO

1950s: The Fund at Mid-Century

By the early 1950s, the Fund had an endowment for the first time, it began operating its own programs, and used these to respond to world events with more experimental initiatives.

In 1950, Dana S. Creel was appointed director of the RBF, and later became its first president.

The Fund expanded the Rockefeller family tradition of support for International House, an organization founded in 1924 that sought to provide positive cultural exchange for international students through social events and residential facilities.

In 1951, the RBF elected its first non-family trustees, Dr. Detlev W. Bronk and Wallace K. Harrison.

In 1951, a $58 million gift from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. gave the RBF an interest-generating principal fund for the first time. With this endowment, the Fund could now make larger grants and design its own experimental and even operating programs.

Founded in 1953 by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, the aim of The Agricultural Development Council was to strengthen the professional capacity of Asian countries to deal with the economic and human problems of agricultural and rural development.

Brown v. Board of Education

The Council approached population through basic medical research, effective and affordable contraceptives, educational outreach, technical assistance, professional training, and long-term planning studies.


Grants from the Fund went to Chilean earthquake relief, model schools and a primary education program in Chile, and agricultural reform, training, and development in Venezuela, Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Brazil. 

The Asia Society was established in 1956 to increase American understanding of Asia and improve Asian-American cultural relations. The Fund’s long-term support for the Society began in 1956, its inaugural year.

Beginning in 1956, the Fund supported the Regional Plan Association’s three-year, in-depth study of the New York City metropolitan area. The study was the first to produce long-term projections of trends in population, economy, housing, transportation, industry, and land use affecting the tri-state area.

Created in 1956 in response to Cold War tensions, Special Studies convened leaders from a wide variety of fields including government, business, and academia, to explore and define the “problems and opportunities” the United States would face in the coming 10 to 15 years.

In 1956, the Fund gave $1 million to Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc., for the development of a large tract on the Island of St. John in the American Virgin Islands for national park purposes.

Ghana Gains Independence from Britain

Soviet Launch of Sputnik

In 1957, the Fund established the Ramon Magsaysay Awards to honor the late President of the Philippines, who died in a plane crash in March 1957.

In 1958, a gift from the Fund helped the Palisades Interstate Park Commission expand the Palisades Interstate Park on the Hudson River northwest of New York City.

In 1958, the Fund began supporting the Southern Regional Council in its efforts to make the desegregation of public facilities in the South both successful and peaceful.

In 1959, the Fund launched its West Africa program to provide technical assistance to Ghana and Nigeria for economic development.

1960s: Tradition and Tumult

Against a backdrop of political protest and social upheaval, the 1960s saw the RBF increase its endowment and make between $6 and $8 million in grants each year.

In 1961, the Fund began to address the incomplete inclusion of women in American life, particularly in higher education.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., father of the founding RBF trustees, died in 1960 and left half of his estate, approximately $65 million, to the Fund.

In 1961, the RBF designated $1 million for Spelman College and the Atlanta University Center, which enabled the construction of a new Fine Arts Building at Spelman and land acquisition for Clark, Morehouse, and Morris Brown colleges.

Construction of Berlin Wall Begins

U.S. Civil Rights Movement

Beginning in 1961, the RBF made grants to support the African Scholarship Program of American Universities, which selected and placed African undergraduates in American universities, providing logistical help and financial support for their education.

The RBF supported the Arkansas Arts Center beginning in 1962, with capital and construction funds to finance its main building in Little Rock.

As Colonial Williamsburg evolved into the large-scale historic and educational park it remains to this day, it was almost exclusively a Rockefeller-supported endeavor well into the 1970s.

The RBF supported the creation of Lincoln Center with a gift of $2.5 million in 1962.

As the 1960s progressed, five new program officers joined the RBF staff: William S. Moody, Thomas Wahman, Gerald Davenport, Russell Phillips, and William M. Dietel.

The Fund’s support for the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation (AWLF) reflects its interests in both international relations and environmental conservation.

Vietnam War

Established in 1965 by founding RBF trustee David Rockefeller, the CIAR was dedicated to fostering education, dialogue, and debate about the political, economic, and social issues facing Latin America, North America, and the Caribbean.

In 1968, the Fund developed an umbrella organizing mechanism for addressing the complex problems of race in the inner city. Coordinated by RBF staff, it made modest grants to a range of organizations, each of which worked on a facet of the broader issue.

In 1968, the RBF made a $500,000 grant to the NTHP, the largest received for general purposes by the Trust since its 1949 inception.

The RBF supported the New York Public Library (NYPL) with annual grants as early as 1952. In 1968, it made a special $25,000 gift toward the preservation of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and History, which had deteriorated severely.

The RBF provided advice and assistance to founders Carter Burden and Frank Donnelly and director Charles Inniss, and became one of the museum’s earliest funders.

Beginning in 1969, the Fund targeted its support to the Society’s Nature Centers Division for educational outreach including publications, training centers, workshops for the general public, and environmental curricula for elementary and secondary schools.

1970s: Decade of Disquiet

Despite intergenerational conflicts, the Fund responded to the concerns of the era with programs in equal opportunity, urban problems, U.S. Southern development, the environment, and fostering the health of the private sector.

Launched in 1970, the Fund’s Southern Program was concerned with the economic and social disenfranchisement of black Southerners, in particular the roles of poverty and land loss in massive outmigration from the rural South to Northern cities.

First Earth Day

After a six-month staff study in 1972-73, the RBF adopted New York City’s public education system as an area of concern for the first time, recognizing that strong schools were crucial to attracting and retaining residents and providing future access to jobs.

Nixon Visits China

The Fund was instrumental in the 1966 creation of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR), and supported the Committee from that point forward.

The RBF made grants to the Center for Community Change through the Fund’s Southern program beginning in 1972, providing technical assistance to agricultural development groups in the U.S. South.

Oil Crisis

The Creel Committee surveyed 25 of the Fund’s significant ongoing commitments and assessed the organizations for a “payout” grant of at least $1 million.

Better known as the Filer Commission, the Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs was established in 1973 through the efforts of RBF founding trustee John D. Rockefeller 3rd and several others.

Established by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in 1938, the Sealantic Fund merged with the RBF in 1973.

Initially housed in Harlem’s St. James Presbyterian Church, by the 1970s the Harlem School of the Arts sought permanent quarters. In 1973, the RBF contributed $100,000 to this capital campaign.

The Fund’s support for the Worldwatch Institute was one of the first actions under its revised Environmental Program, which had extended its goals beyond traditional stewardship and conservation to predicting and ameliorating environmental crises.

Established in 1974 to preserve and make accessible the records of the Rockefeller family, its philanthropic institutions, and other organizations the family has created, the RAC has grown to become the premier research facility for the history of philanthropy.

The RBF was an early backer, contributing to the Institute’s general expenses from 1974 through 1981. RBF staff strove to connect NAI with potential funders and colleagues in alternative environmental design.

William M. Dietel, who came to the Fund in 1970 after serving as principal of the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, succeeded Dana Creel as president of the Fund when Creel retired in 1975.

The Lindisfarne Association, which began in 1973 in Southampton, New York, promoted the integration of spiritual practices, scholarship, and alternative education. It received support from founding RBF trustee Laurance Rockefeller as well as the Fund.

Founded in 1901 as the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, Rockefeller University is one of the earliest institutions established by Rockefeller family philanthropy. In 1978, the Fund made a $15 million capital grant to RU to help assure its ultimate independence from Rockefeller family support.

Following the deaths of four members of the third generation of Rockefellers during the 1970s, as the decade drew to a close the fourth generation (known as the cousins) held the majority of family seats on the board for the first time.

1980s: Global Interdependence

The 1980s saw the Fund focusing on issues at home and abroad in the areas of agricultural reform, post-apartheid democracy in South Africa, and nuclear non-proliferation. In New York City, it worked on the social toll of AIDS, affordable housing, sustainable urban development, and public education.

In 1980 the Fund helped establish the American Farmland Trust (AFT), the first national, nonprofit institution committed exclusively to the conservation of agricultural resources.

The Eastern Caribbean Natural Area Program was a cornerstone of the RBF’s Caribbean program, which focused on promoting the areas of sustainable development, natural resource conservation, and job creation in tandem with one another.

U.S. Farm Crisis

In 1980 the Fund initiated the RBF Awards in Arts Education to recognize and reward excellence in arts education in elementary and secondary schools across the United States.

Support for the New York City Partnership became one of the Fund’s primary means of expressing its commitment to New York City in the 1980s.

Supporting human rights and anti-apartheid concerns in South Africa since the 1960s, RBF deepened its interest in these fields by helping to establish the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in Johannesburg.

In the 1980s, the RBF made grants to the Institute’s new educational advising program in China and to arts programs it acquired after a merger with Arts International.

In the 1980s, the Fund continued to work on strengthening the nonprofit sector in the United States, including support for Independent Sector, a new leadership network for nonprofit organizations, foundations, and corporations committed to the public good.

Throughout the 1980s, the RBF supported the EWI program in U.S.-Soviet relations, providing much-needed general support that enabled it to bring together European, American, and Soviet specialists and officials in a collaborative environment.

AIDS Epidemic

The One World Program was the Fund’s first major, comprehensive reorganization of its program architecture. Developed by a review committee chaired by David Rockefeller, Jr., One World was unveiled in 1983.

Created by the merger of agricultural nonprofits founded by Rockefeller brothers Winthrop and John 3rd, Winrock International works in more than 60 countries to empower the disadvantaged, increase economic opportunity, and sustain natural resources.

From 1986-1989, the RBF made grants to the Fund for the City of New York to support its work cultivating and coordinating private sector leadership in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis.

The Fund’s grants to the Beijer Institute (the International Institute for Energy, Related Resources and the Human Environment) in Sweden were its first in climate change, an area with which it became increasingly concerned throughout the 1980s.

David Rockefeller, the youngest of the founding trustees, served as the Fund’s chairman beginning in 1980, and would be the last founding trustee to lead the Fund.

In 1987 the Fund set aside $2 million designated for the Program for Asian Projects to be used for small grants furthering the work of the Ramon Magsaysay Awardees, a program of Asia wide awards the Fund had established in the Philippines in 1957.

Building upon its broad work in East-West relations, the Fund seized an opportunity in the 1980s to revitalize Polish agriculture, aided by a personal involvement of RBF chair David Rockefeller and exploratory trips to Poland by Rockefeller Foundation agricultural expert and Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug.

William Dietel, president of the Fund since 1975, retired alongside David Rockefeller in 1987. Colin G. Campbell, then president of Wesleyan University, was selected to replace him as of July 1988.

Fall of the Berlin Wall

1990s: Changing Geopolitics and Civil Society

The 1990s witnessed the fall of two seemingly entrenched political orders: Communist regimes in the Eastern bloc and apartheid in South Africa. These seismic geopolitical shifts both invited the Fund’s response and reaffirmed its existing involvement in both regions.

Founded in 1990 to reinforce the overall process of democratization, the Hungarian Foundation for Self-Reliance (HFSR) was one of the Fund’s cornerstone grantees in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe.

In 1990, the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the RBF organized the Environmental Partnership for Central Europe as a means of nurturing community-based environmental activity in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary through small grants and technical assistance.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, civic groups emerged across the region, yet few funds were available to start NGOs and organizers had little management experience. In 1990, the RBF formally extended the scope of its Nonprofit Sector program to include Central and Eastern Europe.

After Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, the RBF began focusing on improving basic education for children and adults in South Africa as a bottom-up approach to development that would enable the people who had been most disadvantaged by apartheid to participate in transforming and building a new society.

In 1990, the Fund decided to focus on teachers as the best means for improving the U.S. educational system. It designed a program to encourage outstanding minority college students to enter graduate teacher education programs.

In 1990, the Fund sharpened its work in nuclear non-proliferation to focus on horizontal non-proliferation, with emphasis on extending the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, due for review in 1995; tightening nuclear export controls in Europe; and controlling surplus plutonium.

In 1991, the RBF entered into a special arrangement with the Asian Cultural Council, housing the organization in the Fund’s offices for several years, engaging in joint fundraising efforts, and making annual grants toward its general support.

Balkan Wars Begin

As part of RBF's response to the AIDS epidemic in New York City, in 1991 the Fund gave grants to the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS and the Latino Commission on AIDS. At the time, 91 percent of children with AIDS and 85 percent of infected women were either black or Latino.

In 1992, Abby M. O’Neill succeeded David Rockefeller, Jr., as chair of the board of trustees, becoming the second chairperson drawn from the “cousins,” or fourth generation, and the first woman to serve in this capacity at the RBF.

Rio Earth Summit

In 1994, the RBF opened its Pocantico Conference Center in the renovated coach barn of the Kykuit estate, formerly the home to four generations of the Rockefeller family, in Westchester County, New York.

End of Apartheid

In 1994, the RBF began encouraging sustainable forest management (SFM) to provide a continuous yield of high-quality forest products while preserving the ecological integrity of healthy, self-perpetuating forests.

In 1994, the RBF made a grant to the Public Education Association to support a parent organizing and training effort in East New York, seeking to foster increased civic responsibility for school improvement in New York City.

Beginning in 1995, the RBF and the Pew Charitable Trusts collaborated on reforming U.S. fishery management in response to the overfishing of almost every monitored species in U.S. waters.

The National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA had been a longtime RBF grantee, with almost $1 million in grants since 1951. In 1995, the National Council launched a project it described as a “civic space” to encourage citizen participation in New York City issues.

In 1998, the Fund supported a region-wide initiative to improve the nearly 600 miles of New York-New Jersey waterfront and the possibilities for restoration, redevelopment, and public access.

In 1999, the RBF completed a formal merger with the Charles E. Culpeper Foundation, a Connecticut-based foundation. The merger, in which the RBF became the “surviving corporation,” brought to the Fund new trustees, program staff, and financial resources.

2000s: Globalization’s Discontents

The years since 2000 have witnessed rapid and chaotic trends in globalization as well as violent regional conflicts with devastating immediate consequences and far-reaching global effects.

Throughout the 2000s, climate change became a larger and increasingly central objective at the Fund, spanning program areas and driving cross-program cooperation.

Beginning in 2000, the RBF has supported the Third World Network in improving the terms of negotiations for developing country interests, furthering the Fund’s commitments to democratize global institutions and give the global South a stronger voice in global governance.

After an extensive search, the Fund appointed Stephen B. Heintz as its next president, replacing Colin Campbell who had left to head the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 2000. Heintz took office in February 2001.

World Trade Center Attacks

U.S. Rejects Kyoto Protocol

In 2002, the RBF joined more than 100 other foundations in an amicus brief supporting a federal lawsuit brought by the Brennan Center, Dobbins v. Legal Services Corporation, which challenged government-imposed restrictions on the use of private philanthropic funds in nonprofit legal aid services.

Born out of a track II dialogue between the United States and Iran, initiated in 2002, and co-sponsored by the RBF and the United Nations Association of the USA, The Iran Project encourages and supports official bilateral U.S.-Iran relations and negotiations.

In 2003-2004, the RBF incubated the U.S. in the World initiative to enhance the communications capacity of foreign policy experts and advocates in advancing a vision of responsible global engagement.

Following from its own RBF Project on World Security, in the mid-2000s the Fund’s then-named Peace and Security program undertook a multi-pronged approach toward developing within the United States new interest in and paradigms for the U.S. role in the world.

In 1999, the RBF began contributing to the redevelopment of former industrial sites, or brownfields, in New York City. The organizations’ research, advocacy, and policy work resulted in the passage of the 2003 New York State Brownfield Reform Act.

In 2001-2003, for the first time since the 1983 adoption of the One World program rubric, the RBF undertook a comprehensive redesign of its program architecture.

By 2000, HIV/AIDS was affecting the Fund’s work to improve basic education in South Africa. Consequently, in 2003, the RBF shifted its South African grantmaking strategy from basic education to respond to the pandemic and its impact.

RBF grantmaking began focusing on Southern China in 2006, working at the intersection of environment and health to heighten awareness of the health impacts of pollution.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Regional Network (BIRN) is a network of nongovernmental organizations working to develop media and investigative reporting in the Balkans. The RBF has supported BIRN since 2006.

The Fund began supporting The Institute for State Effectiveness in 2007, with grants for several projects in Afghanistan and Kosovo and two funders’ briefings for the organization.

Founded in 2007 with RBF support, the Institute for Advanced Studies (GAP) is an independent, Kosovo-based think tank that aims to bridge the gaps between the Kosovar government and the public on economic, political, and social issues.

Since 2008, support for IPE has been an important component of the Fund’s commitment, begun in 2006, to work at the intersection of environment and health and strengthen public participation in environmental governance in China.

Global Financial Crisis

In 2009, the Fund moved its offices from midtown Manhattan to The Interchurch Center on the upper West Side, providing an opportunity to redesign the space in accordance with LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) standards.

In 2011, the RBF began supporting Just Vision, an organization that addresses the lack of media coverage of Palestinian and Israeli civilians doing nonviolent work to end the Occupation of the West Bank.

Arab Spring

As the Fund moved into the 2000s, the “cousins,” or fourth generation of the Rockefeller family, began to welcome the fifth generation of family members onto the board.

In 2014, the Fund launched the Charles E. Culpeper Arts & Culture grants, honoring the legacy of the Culpeper Foundation and uniting two RBF commitments in need of redefinition: the arts and New York City.

Given its deep commitment to combating climate change, in September 2014, the Fund began a two-step process to divest from fossil fuel companies.

David Rockefeller, who founded the Rockefeller Brothers Fund with brothers John 3rd, Nelson, Laurance, and Winthrop in 1940, passed away on March 20, 2017. David served as a trustee of the Fund for 40 years.

In the early 2010s, grantees of the RBF’s Democratic Practice–Global Challenges and Pivotal Place: Western Balkans programs began developing research and public information campaigns on the proposed construction of a new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Kosovo.

In 1924, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., asked New York Architect Duncan Candler to prepare plans for a “playhouse” where he and his family could relax and entertain. David Rockefeller bequeathed the Playhouse upon his death in 2017 to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2018, it joined Kykuit as part of The Pocantico Center.