1970s: Decade of Disquiet

The 1970s was a period of fragmentation and turbulence in the United States, characterized by rising inflation and unemployment, the energy crisis, discord over Vietnam, and loss of faith in political leadership, especially after Watergate. The promised gains of the civil rights movement seemed to founder as racial, economic, and environmental problems converged in inner cities. The urban crisis was writ particularly large in New York City, hometown of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

The RBF, along with much of the non-profit sector, entered an extended period of self-examination and redefinition in the 1970s. The mandates of the 1969 Tax Reform Act required foundations to make numerous adjustments. For the Fund, these included disentangling payroll and investment services from the Rockefeller Family Office, as well as finding separate office space and ending the practice of RBF staff working for both the Fund and the family.

The RBF also faced challenges uniquely its own during the 1970s, the most difficult of which was intergenerational conflict. Like many Americans born after World War II, “the cousins,” or fourth generation, who stood poised to join the RBF board in significant number, were critical of their elders’ commitments. They urged the Fund to work on new issues such as ecology and nontraditional spiritual values. For a time, the trustees struggled to decide whether the Fund should continue in perpetuity or spend down as its founders retired.

Under the direction of former RBF president Dana Creel, the “Creel Committee” provided a compromise, recommending “phase-out” grants to longtime grantees that would terminate ongoing obligations. The Creel grants totaled $100 million, roughly half of the Fund’s endowment. They drastically reduced the Fund’s assets, requiring cutbacks in grantmaking and staff size. From this point forward, the Fund would seek creative, non-monetary means to add value in the fields it aimed to influence.

Finally, the 1970s witnessed the deaths of four out of six of the Fund’s founding generation, which hastened the transition of leadership to the cousins. Yet even before family conflicts were fully resolved, and largely through the initiative of its professional staff, 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.