Past Programs and Program Evolution

  • The University of Cape Town's Primary Math Education Project, 1995
    The Fund's Pivotal Place: South Africa program supported improvements to basic education for children and adults in South Africa to enable the people most disadvantaged by apartheid to participate in transforming and building a new society.

Across eight decades of grantmaking, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has developed and refined its programs to respond to emerging challenges and to the evolving culture and practice of philanthropy.

In 2003, the Fund introduced a new program architecture to streamline its grantmaking into two overlapping dimensions: global programmatic themes and geographic focus areas we call “pivotal places.” This framework remains in place today.

Whereas the Fund’s program architecture does not often change, program guidelines evolve over time as the result of an iterative process of monitoring, review, and assessment. Regular internal program reviews and external impact assessments reveal needs for a shift in priorities and approaches to ensure that grantmaking is responsive to current conditions.

The assessment process most often leads us to make changes that adjust or expand existing goals and strategies. Developments in context may also lead a program to develop a new area of work. In 2018, for example, recognizing that collective action and organizing rooted in community power are essential to achieving structural reforms that advance justice and inclusion, the Democratic Practice program incorporated a new a strategy to support movement building for systemic change in the United States.

At key junctures, the RBF draws upon staff and trustee experience and observations, as well those of external consultants, to shift the emphasis of an entire program when necessary. Following a collaborative review of its Peace and Security program in 2010, for example, the Fund identified the need for greater attention to human security and drivers of conflict to create the conditions for peace. The following year, the Fund redirected its grantmaking to conflict transformation and rearticulated its program guidelines under a new heading, Peacebuilding.

Occasionally, circumstances indicate it is time to conclude an area of grantmaking. This happened most recently in 2009, when the Fund made final grants in the Pivotal Place: South Africa program, wrapping up nearly 50 years of contributions to the country’s civil society, education, and health sectors.

Program Evolution, 2003–Present

Democratic Practice

United States
From 2003 to 2015, the Democratic Practice program made grants with the goal of strengthening the vitality of democracy in the United States by promoting transparency of government institutions, fostering a greater understanding of the public sector, and encouraging youth organizing. The Fund revised the program guidelines in 2015 to achieve the goal of advancing a vital and inclusive democracy in the United States by elevating efforts both to improve democratic systems and to enable U.S. citizens and residents to leverage these systems to advance social, racial, and economic justice. In 2018, the program introduced movement building for systemic change as a new strategy, honing its previous support for innovations in democracy.

Global Challenges
The Democratic Practice program initiated grantmaking to advance global governance in 2003, with an emphasis on improving access to and accountability of international economic institutions involved in trade, development finance, and the environment. In 2010, the program began a transformation to work increasingly on global civil society efforts. Drawing on the suggestions of an independent evaluation, the program guidelines were revised in 2017 to prioritize cross-border grassroots organizing and advocacy to address global challenges, including climate change.


The RBF launched the Peace and Security program in 2003 to support responsible approaches to U.S. global engagement in the 21st century. Following a series of evaluations of the Peace and Security portfolio, the Fund reframed the program guidelines in 2011 to focus on conflict transformation and human security through support for collaborative approaches and policies, constituencies for peace, and understanding drivers of conflict. The Fund concentrated its grantmaking on three conflicts: Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, and the U.S.–Iran relationship. The renamed Peacebuilding program operated with three strategies until 2014, when the strategy to understand drivers of conflict was integrated into the other two, which remain in effect today.

Sustainable Development

Conservation and the environment are among the most enduring commitments of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Throughout the early 2000s, the Sustainable Development program operated with two goals: 1) to protect ecosystems and preserve biodiversity through grants for innovative natural resource management efforts including sustainable forestry and fishery management, and 2) to combat climate change by funding energy efficiency and emissions reduction efforts. In 2009, the program took on much of the grantmaking from the 2006 cross-programmatic initiative to accelerate a transition to alternative energy, and in 2010 shifted its entire portfolio to addressing climate change.

Pivotal Place: China

In 2004, the Fund concentrated its broader Asia grantmaking in China. The China program worked for more than a decade to address environmental and public health challenges, and to advance sustainable approaches to energy conservation and production in the southern Chinese provinces. Responding to the rapidly changing regional context, the Fund revised the program guidelines in 2015 to express the increasingly integrated nature of its work on pollution mitigation, public health, and climate change. In 2018, we further refined the program’s strategies to increase contributions to evidence-based policy engagement, environmental governance, and domestic philanthropy.

Pivotal Place: Western Balkans

The RBF introduced the Pivotal Place: Serbia and Montenegro program in 2003, recognizing the region’s importance to European stability as it emerged from a decade of war. The program expanded grantmaking to Kosovo and took on its current name in 2007. The Fund reframed the program guidelines in 2010 to promote EU accession and, in 2016, began grantmaking in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Further revisions to the program guidelines in 2019 reflect the fast-moving political and social landscape, giving greater priority to democratic practice and peacebuilding as the cornerstones of the Fund’s vision for a thriving Western Balkans.

Culpeper Arts & Culture/Pivotal Place: New York City

From 2003 to 2015, the Fund made grants to address sustainable development, democratic practice, public education, and civic participation of immigrant communities in its home city, as well as Charles E. Culpeper Arts & Culture grants, under the Pivotal Place: New York City program. Following an impact assessment of Fund’s arts grantmaking, the Fund established the independent Charles E. Culpeper Arts & Culture program in 2016 to expand its support for a vibrant and inclusive arts community in the city. The Pivotal Place: New York City program was then concluded and much of its other grantmaking was absorbed into the Fund’s Democratic Practice and Sustainable Development thematic programs.

Pivotal Place: South Africa (ended 2009)

The RBF first engaged in grantmaking in South Africa in the mid-1960s to advance human rights and the country’s anti-apartheid movement. In the 1990s, the Fund shifted its grantmaking in South Africa to support advocacy, capacity building, education, care, and research for HIV/AIDS. The Fund made the decision to phase out its South Africa grantmaking after the conclusion of the Human Advancement program.

Charles E. Culpeper Human Advancement (ended 2008)

After merging with the Charles E. Culpeper Foundation in 1999, the RBF carried forward Culpeper’s tradition of grantmaking in the arts, health service delivery, higher education, biomedical research, and physician training through the Human Advancement program. The Fund closed this program in 2008 to move toward greater cohesion and synergy among its global themes, transferring the Fellowships for Aspiring Teachers of Color to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Both foundations’ longstanding contributions to the arts continued under the Pivotal Place: New York City program until the 2016 launch of the Culpeper Arts & Culture program.

The Grants Search on contains information about the last seven years of the Fund’s grantmaking activity. Information on older grants is available within the Fund’s Form 990-PFs, at the Rockefeller Archive Center, or by contacting the Grants Management team. To learn more about past work, visit the RBF’s 75th anniversary timeline.