1940s: Beginning at the Brink of War

The sons of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. founded the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in December 1940. At the time, Europe and Asia were embroiled in conflict. The United States hovered on the edge of involvement abroad, yet also continued to struggle with the Great Depression at home. When the United States entered World War II, all five of the Rockefeller brothers—John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop, and David—joined the military or government service.

The Fund’s work began in earnest in 1946 when its founders returned to New York City. Established as a collective to do more than each brother could do alone, the Fund’s approach was characterized as “a citizenship approach to giving, as distinct from the more typical foundation program directed to research or to specialized fields of activity.” The Fund expressed the brothers’ sense of responsibility to their home city of New York, to their nation, and to the world at large, as well as their desire to express their own philanthropic identity, modeled on—but distinct from—that of their father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., as they came of age.

In its first decade, the Fund’s largest combined giving was to war relief and reconstruction worldwide. Longer-term legacies of the war, including a changed world order and the introduction of nuclear weapons, would later become concerns of the Fund. The 1940s were a time of rebuilding, and the Fund gave to institutions traditionally important to the Rockefeller family, such as the Riverside Church and the Museum of Modern Art. It also supported emerging organizations, including the United Negro College Fund, Planned Parenthood, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, often launching philanthropic relationships that would continue for decades.