Foundation Watch

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Rockefeller Family Fund

How a Great Capitalist's Fortune Came to Fund Anti-Capitalist Causes

(Foundation Watch, January 2005 PDF here)

Incongruously, charities that bear the Rockefeller family name direct millions of dollars toward liberal and leftist causes. Is the knee-jerk anti-capitalism of John D. Rockefeller’s heirs–as reflected by the activities of these charities–the best way to honor his memory?

The fortune created by John D. Rockefeller is unusual in that it has now passed through three generations, each of which has set up its own foundation. In 1913 John D. Rockefeller created the Rockefeller Foundation. As I show in The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor Intent’ (published by Capital Research Center), by 1920 the ties between the Rockefeller family and the Rockefeller Foundation had largely been severed. John D. Rockefeller Jr. pursued his own philanthropic projects (such as the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg) with his own wealth.

John D. Rockefeller Jr. had five sons and one daughter. The daughter, Abby Rockefeller Milton, chose not to be a public figure. But John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s five sons–John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Nelson, Winthrop, Laurance and David Rockefeller–were important players in politics and business. John D. Rockefeller Jr. began to transfer his wealth to his sons in 1937, and in 1940 they formed the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

The six children of John D. Rockefeller Jr. had 24 children, ranging in age from Abby Rockefeller Milton’s oldest daughter, Abby Rockefeller O’Neill (b. 1928) to Nelson Rockefeller’s youngest son, Mark (b. 1967). This generation, known as the “cousins,” also wanted to be philanthropists. So in 1967 the Rockefeller Family Fund was created to serve the Rockefeller cousins’ philanthropic projects.

Today the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is a second-tier member of the liberal philanthropic establishment, while the far smaller Rockefeller Family Fund is a leftist charity that largely funds environmentalist causes (see Ron Arnold’s accompanying article in this issue). But the story of how the heirs of two of America’s greatest philanthropists used their fortunes is a complex one that, among other things, includes a battle between the Rockefeller brothers over donor intent. 

Origins of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund

By the late 1930s, the five sons of John D. Rockefeller Jr. began to make themselves known. Journalists placed a moniker on them: “the Rockefeller brothers.”

“In appearance and emotional composition,” John Cushman Fistere wrote in a 1938 Saturday Evening Post profile, the Rockefeller brothers “are no more alike than fifth cousins. Mentally, they approach parity. Together, they would make a good basketball team, board of directors, or dinner party.”

John D. Rockefeller Jr. received his fortune from his father in a series of transactions between 1916-20. In 1937, after his father’s death, John D. Rockefeller Jr. began to transfer his wealth in the same manner to his children.

“I have not told them how to spend their money,” John D. Rockefeller Jr. said at the time, “nor am I likely to…. However much a man may make, the great bulk of his fortune must be used in one of two ways–either it must be put into investments, which mean productive industries, or in ways of philanthropy.”

The sons of John D. Rockefeller Jr. decided to follow their family’s tradition of using their wealth for philanthropy by creating the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 1940. For over a decade, the fund had no endowment. Only in 1952, as a result of complex maneuvers involving the debt on Rockefeller Center, was the fund’s endowment created.

For about 25 years, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund largely pursued the philanthropic interests of the brothers. Laurance continued his father’s interest in conservation, so the fund’s money extended the family’s land trusts in Wyoming that formed the basis of Grand Teton National Park. Nelson continued his mother’s interest in contemporary art, so the Rockefeller Brothers Fund was one of the most generous patrons of the Museum of Modern Art. John D. was one of the pioneers of population control, so the fund was a major patron of the Population Council.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund was most influential in the late 1950s, when it published a series of reports about what America’s foreign and domestic policies should be. One report, which called for increasing government support of the arts, was one of the key documents used in the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. According to Nelson Rockefeller biographer Joseph E. Persico, the fund’s 1958 report Prospect for America was so influential “that during the 1960 election, both parties lifted from it for their platforms. The very emblem of the Kennedy administration was taken from a section of the Rockefeller Brothers’ report entitled ‘The New Frontiers.'”

The Crisis Over Donor Intent

Nelson Rockefeller was largely a silent partner in the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for nearly 20 years, while he served in politics as governor of New York (1958-74) and then as Gerald Ford’s vice-president (1975-77). When Nelson Rockefeller left political life, he returned to philanthropy–and his activities at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund precipitated a crisis over donor intent.

As David Rockefeller explains in his memoirs, part of the battle between the brothers was ideological. All of the brothers were liberal “Rockefeller Republicans.” But John D. Rockefeller 3rd had become a New Leftist. “Instead of worrying about how to suppress the youth revolution,” John D. Rockefeller 3rd said in a 1968 speech, “we of the older generation should be worrying about how to sustain it. The student activists are in many ways the élite of our young people. They perform a service in shaking ourselves out of our complacency.” He also became a sex education enthusiast, giving a great deal of money to the Sexuality Information Council of the United States (SIECUS), both personally and through the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Nelson Rockefeller, by contrast, had a strong law-and-order streak to him, as demonstrated by his crushing of the Attica prison riot in 1971 and the passage of the tough “Rockefeller drug laws” in the same year.

In 1977 Nelson Rockefeller returned to an active role in the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. He demanded that, given his public eminence, he should be chairman and CEO of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. He also endorsed the findings of an internal Rockefeller Brothers Fund committee that half of the fund’s $190 million endowment should be used to support the capital campaigns of 25 organizations which the Rockefellers had long favored, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Population Council and Rockefeller University.

“I believe that we brothers should continue to provide leadership and guidance to the activities and program of the fund,” Nelson Rockefeller wrote in a memorandum. “Among the four of us, there is a wealth of knowledge, experience and understanding about the problems which face our city, nation and world which I feel is unique.”

In August 1977, Rockefeller Brothers Fund trustee John Gardner resigned over this assertion of donor intent. He denounced the “special status” of the four Rockefeller brothers on the Rockefeller Brothers Fund board, and told the New York Times that “trustees who are not brothers–who were the next generation or outsiders” should have votes equal to those of the four surviving founders. Because the brothers insisted on donor control, Gardner said, he had no choice but to resign.

The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial, contrasted the Rockefellers’ vigorous assertion of donor control with the Ford Foundation, where Henry Ford II had just severed the last vestige of family control by resigning from the foundation board in protest over the foundation’s leftward drift. “Apparently,” the Journal editorialized, “the Rockefellers knew something the Fords didn’t” about the importance of donor intent.

Ultimately the battle over control of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund ended in 1979. John D. Rockefeller 3rd died in 1978 in an auto accident; a year later, Nelson died. The two surviving brothers, Laurance (who lived until 2004) and David, felt no further need to quarrel. They passed on control of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to the next generation of the family and to outsiders.

Nelson Rockefeller never did win the chairmanship of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. But the fund did disburse $85.4 million to eighteen organizations on the brothers’ list, and in 1981 gave $15 million to Sleepy Hollow Restorations, which restored historic homes near the Rockefellers’ family estate. Thus the target of $100 million, or half the fund’s endowment, was met. The largest of these grants went to Rockefeller University ($22.5 million), Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center ($17.5 million) and the Population Council ($10 million).

But these substantial grants, New York Times reporter Peter Kihss wrote in 1979, were terminal ones; these organizations could no longer look to the Rockefeller family for support. “The intent in most cases,” Kihss wrote, “was that the Brothers Fund would be ending its major responsibility to the institutions, basically leaving them–facing the inroads of inflation–to make their own way.”

Rockefeller Family Fund Origins

The Rockefeller brothers were major figures; two were governors, and David Rockefeller was the longtime chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank. Their children–with the notable exception of Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV–are much less significant.

The Rockefeller cousins, note historians John Ensor Harr and Peter J. Johnson, “lived all over the country, most of them somewhere else than New York. Their knowledge of family history and affairs was sketchy, not inculcated in any systematic way, but only in bits and pieces within the particular circumstances of each Cousin’s family? The upbringing of the Cousins was much more lax and open than that of their fathers. For example, pressure to attend church and keep account books faded out early and the children were much more exposed to ‘pop’ culture than their parents had been.”

Thanks to trusts that John D. Rockefeller Jr. created for his grandchildren in 1952, the cousins never had to look for work. But as Peter Collier and David Horowitz reported in The Rockefellers, in the 1960s most of the cousins used their wealth to fuel radical causes. During those years, they write, the cousins “poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into movement causes ranging from Ramparts magazine and the film Millhouse to the Venceremos Brigade and Vietnam Veterans Against the War.”

So it’s little wonder that the Rockefeller Family Fund, created in 1967 as a vehicle for the cousins’ philanthropy, started off as a far left organization and has stayed that way ever since. After John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s widow, Martha Baird Rockefeller, died in 1971, she left her $72 million estate to charity–including $10 million to the Rockefeller Family Fund. This new wealth caused a furious debate among the cousins about what the money should be used for. “The times demand something more than one tax deductible foundation,” Laurance Rockefeller’s daughter Marion wrote in an internal memo for the other cousins. “The task as we see it is often to attack the very political and economic forces which perpetuate the tax deductible contribution… We think the Fund has an obligation to seek out organizations like American Friends Service Committee, Friends of the Earth, Pacifica stations, American Documentary Films et al. and support them regardless of their tax status.”

The Rockefeller Family Fund has been a consistently leftist funding vehicle ever since. And the cousins gradually rose in influence at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a transition marked by David Rockefeller Jr.’s succeeding his father as the fund’s chairman in 1983.

As Rockefeller Brothers Fund chairman, David Rockefeller Jr. hosted a luncheon in 1992 for Mikhail Gorbachev, who was trying to raise $75 million for a U.S.-style “presidential library.” The luncheon included representatives from the Ford and Mellon Foundations, the Carnegie Corporation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Gorbachev, Rockefeller told the New York Times, was “exuberant and happily animated, just brimming with ideas…he represents an extraordinary, indeed unique human resource.” (Despite David Rockefeller Jr.’s enthusiasm, the Gorbachev Library was never created.)

Rockefeller Brothers Fund Today

In 1999, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund was the beneficiary of a philanthropic merger: it took over the Charles E. Culpeper Foundation, created by a president of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York. This added $208 million to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund endowment, which at the time was $457 million.

As of 2003, Rockefeller Brothers Fund assets were $744 million, with which the fund made $19.8 million in grants. The fund’s chairman is Steven Rockefeller, a son of Nelson Rockefeller’s who is an emeritus professor at Middlebury College. (During his teaching career, he was a professor of religion who wrote several books about Zen Buddhism.) David Rockefeller Jr. is now the fund’s vice-chairman. Rockefeller cousins have an additional five seats on the 17-member board.

The Rockefeller brothers left the family’s estates to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund now manages these estates under contract from the National Trust, and has turned one of the Rockefeller homes, known as Pocantico, into a conference center. Conferences held at Pocantico in 2003 included staff retreats for the Doris Duke Charitable Trust, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Foundation Center, the Trilateral Commission and the United Nations Association. The United Nations held two retreats at Pocantico in 2003: one was for members of the Security Council, while a second, on “Strengthening Analytical Capacity at the United Nations,” brought together UN researchers to talk about “in-house needs for information and analysis.” A 2002 Pocantico conference, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, was a meeting about the importance of having meetings.

In 2003, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund declared that it was now practicing “philanthropy for an interdependent world.” The fund’s board decided to concentrate its grantmaking on four areas it declared “pivotal places”: New York City, Serbia and Montenegro, South Africa and China.

Part of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s grantmaking went to environmental organizations that said they were fighting global warming. One of the fund’s program officers, Michael Northrop, spent 10 months in Europe in 2003 trying to create a network for state and local government officials interested in discussing anti-global warming regulation. This led to the creation of The Climate Group in 2004, which provides a forum for regulators to swap ideas. Among the other environmentalists to receive Rockefeller Brothers Fund grants in 2003 were the National Environmental Trust (which received $400,000 for a “global warming public education campaign”), the British branch of the World Wildlife Fund (which also received $400,000 for anti-global warming activities) and the Institute for Policy Studies (which received $50,000 for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, an IPS project which seeks to impose stringent anti-global warming regulations in Maryland).

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s division on “Peace and Security” declares that its mission is to promote global security by having “governments, citizens, and civil society organizations…contribute to the creation of a safe, equitable, and just global community.” Here most of the money goes to the media. Public Radio International, for example, received $150,000 for its show “The World.” The Greater Washington Educational Telecommunications Association, the nonprofit that runs the Washington, D.C. PBS affiliate and whose veteran head, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, is Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s wife, received a two-year $100,000 grant for a show called “By the People: America in the World.”

Rockefeller Brothers Fund grantmaking shows that “global interdependence” might be little more than a 21st century version of one-worldism. One 2003 fund grant, for $100,000, went to the Benton Foundation for a project known as “OneWorldU.S.”

Staffers at the fund also assisted in the creation of the Center for Global Solutions, which was officially launched in 2004. But this advocate for “global interdependence” is not new. It is in fact the successor to the World Federalists Association, that venerable advocate of one-worldism. In 2003, the group sent emails to the 300 most active members of the 12,000-member association, asking them if the name should be changed. The mailing received 120 responses; Center for Global Solutions vice-president Heather Hamilton told the Chronicle of Philanthropy that “the overwhelming majority hated the word ‘federalist’ in our name.” Hamilton said that Eli Pariser, a founder of, told her that “you’d probably be better off with something that doesn’t immediately make people think of conspiracy theories.”

Rockefeller Brothers Fund program officer P. J. Simmons approved of the Center for Global Solutions’ reformulation. The change, he said, demonstrated “an impressive commitment to applying some crucial lessons learned about how to reach broad audiences of Americans in global issues.”

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund also funds extensive fellowship programs. One set of fellowships, continued from the Culpeper Foundation, provides scholarships for medical students. The fund also administers the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, named after a Philippine president who was killed in a plane crash in 1957. The foundation gives Ramon Magsaysay Awards, which now amount to six $50,000 prizes. Winners of the awards in 2003 included the founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the chair of the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation in East Timor and the chief election officer of India.

Rockefeller Family Fund Targets President Bush

The most dramatic change at the Rockefeller Family Fund occurred in 1996, when the fund changed its IRS tax status from a foundation to become a public charity. As Ron Arnold reports in the accompanying article, this has permitted certain changes in how the Rockefeller Family Fund receives funds and distributes grants.

At least six members of the 13-member Rockefeller Family Fund board are Rockefeller cousins, including the fund’s president, Peter O’Neill, a grandson of Abby Rockefeller Milton. The fund’s priorities have not changed much over the years; it was created as a hard-left organization, and remains one today. In 2002, according to, the fund’s assets were $56.2 million and its grants were $5.2 million.

The Family Fund’s greatest influence has been in environmentalism. In 1987, the fund created the Environmental Grantmakers Association, an affinity group of the Council of Foundations. The association remains a “project” of the Rockefeller Family Fund. The association, according to its website, includes 250 members; its board includes representatives from the Hewlett, HKH, Scherman, Wilburforce, Bush, Richard Ivey, Packard, Jenifer Altman, Charles Stewart Mott and Mertz Gilmore Foundations, as well as the Beldon Fund. Its members regularly meet “to discuss common interests and to learn about each other’s specific programs.”

In 2004, the Rockefeller Family Fund signed on to a movement to require large corporations to list their “environmental liabilities” as part of their corporate balance sheets. Other foundations supporting this campaign include the Rose and Turner Foundations, as well as the United Steelworkers of America and California State Treasurer Phil Angelides.

In a column that appeared in Forbes in July, Competitive Enterprise Institute president Fred L. Smith Jr. notes that calculating potential environmental damages from oil spills or other pollution is not possible. Would an oil company, he asks, have to put $100 billion–or $10 trillion–on its books to cover alleged future damage from global warming? “Assets and liabilities that can’t be connected to historical transactions or tradable contracts have no assignable market value,” Smith writes. “So they shouldn’t be counted.”

The Rockefeller Family Fund is proud that its categories of grantmaking have changed very little since the fund’s creation. But in 2003-04, most of the grants made by the fund had a single purpose–defeating President Bush. The fund did give $150,000 to Columbia University to support, a nonpartisan source for election reporting. But among the fund’s 2003 and 2004 grants were $25,000 to the Alliance for Justice for “funding to prevent errors in vote counts on electronic voting machines,” $25,000 to the Electronic Frontier Foundation for the same purpose, $150,000 to the Brennan Center for Justice for “legal redress in states not adequately implementing critical elements of the Help America Vote Act,” $150,000 to People for the American Way “for the Democracy Now Project” and $35,000 to the Federation of State Leagues of Conservation Voters “to increase the participation of environmentally concerned voters.”

In addition, one of the fund’s trustees was heavily involved in the 2004 campaign. As a small child, Alida Rockefeller Messinger told the New York Times, she called her father, John D. Rockefeller 3rd, a ventriloquist, because she didn’t know what “philanthropist” meant. Her knowledge of grantmaking has sharpened since then. During the 2004 election cycle, the Center for Public Integrity reports, Messinger donated over $3.3 million to “527 groups” active in the effort to defeat the President Bush. This amount, according to the center, ranked her twelfth nationally among such donors. Messinger’s contributions were considerably less than those of George Soros ($23.4 million), Progressive Insurance founder Peter B. Lewis ($23 million) or Hollywood mogul Steven Bing ($13.8 million), but still enough to make her a “player” in liberal fundraising circles. She gave $755,000 to the League of Conservation Voters, $2.2 million to America Coming Together, $133,000 to the State Conservation Voters Action Fund and lesser amounts to several other 527 groups.

The Rockefeller Family Fund also gave substantially to groups challenging Bush administration environmental policies. Donations by the Fund in 2003 and 2004 included $150,000 to the Campaign to Protect America’s Lands to “stop anti-environmental public lands decrees through sustained grass roots and media efforts,” $25,000 to the Friends of the Earth Foundation “to publicize the connection between corporate interests and policy-making at the Department of the Interior” and $50,000 to the Wilderness Society for a campaign “which will work with local and state organizations to mobilize citizens to voice opposition in key states to Interior Department policies.”

It’s likely that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Family Fund have calcified into their final, inflexible forms. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund will continue to lease its posh conference center to meetings where the great and the good will agonize over the world’s problems in exquisite surroundings. The Rockefeller Family Fund will continue to be a reliable friend to leftist lobbyists.

It would be too much to expect these heirs to John D. Rockefeller’s great fortune to have asked themselves if their reflexive anti-capitalism is the best way to honor their great-grandfather’s memory. The thought has probably never crossed their minds. FW

Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center.

Martin Morse Wooster†

Wooster was a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center. He is the author of three books: Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds (Pacific Research Institute, 1994), The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor…
+ More by Martin Morse Wooster†