On December 28, 1940, the certificate of incorporation for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund was filed in Albany, New York. The next day, 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. They ranged in age from 25 to 34, and were already giving significantly to their own causes. Pooling their funds would enable them do more together than each could do alone. The Fund had no endowment for its first 10 years, but simply distributed money contributed annually by each brother according to his means. At the first meeting, John 3rd was elected president, Nelson vice president, David secretary, and Laurance treasurer. Decisions on grants were made collectively. Longtime family associate Arthur Packard directed the RBF through the family office at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan.

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