Imperfect Arcs of Progress

By Stephen Heintz, President, Rockefeller Brothers Fund. This piece was excerpted from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund annual review.

In 2008, millions of Americans, including myself, were inspired by the campaign pledges of then-candidate Barack Obama, who promised not only to reform our policies, but to transform our politics. It had been clear for some time that American politics were broken in fundamental ways. As president, Obama offered hope that he would usher in a new period of political progress, increase the role of citizens in our democracy, and put America on a path to a deeper degree of social justice. He would do so, he promised in his victory speech, with “a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.”

But after eight years in office, while Obama accomplished a great many things as president, the democracy reform agenda largely fell by the wayside. Since then, we have experienced what feels like an accelerating series of setbacks as much of the hard-won progress of recent years has been reversed. The political divides that Obama promised to heal have instead widened to a chasm, leaving many Americans feeling dispirited and helpless about the state of our country.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund is not immune to the effects of this backsliding. The Fund and its grantees had been working toward a global climate agreement for more than two decades when President Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord in 2017. With the Iran Project and others, we had helped lay the groundwork for the nuclear agreement with Iran, which now hangs in the balance. Despite our fervent efforts, the insidious phenomenon of voter suppression is gaining legitimacy at the highest levels of our judiciary. Each new day, it seems, reveals the carnage of another decade of hard work unraveled overnight.

But I have not lost hope. In each of these cases, we at the Fund have tried to analyze what went wrong and quickly regroup — we have not given up, but rather revised our strategies, thought about the reasons for our losses, and developed new approaches to overcome them. Below are three points of reflection that guide us in this moment of political crisis.

“Social change does not happen overnight. It does not happen quickly, and it does not happen as a result of a fixed set of strategies.”

Fundamental social change does not happen in a linear fashion.

The American story furnishes numerous examples that illustrate the perilous path of progress. After a wrenching civil war and a failed process of Reconstruction, Ulysses S. Grant nearly succeeded in eliminating the Ku Klux Klan in 1871. Then suddenly in the 20th century, there was a resurgence of white supremacy. A courageous and tenacious Civil Rights movement turned the tide for equality in the 1950s and ’60s, and more than 50 years later we finally elected our first black president. Examples of loss and recovery abound in our American story. Have we got a long way to go? Absolutely. But we have proven the resilience of our founding values and our democratic system of self-governance. We can recover from setbacks, regroup, rethink, and set out anew on the struggle for peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability.

During the first week of the U.N. climate conference in Paris, France in 2015, May Boeve of 350.org and Stephen Heintz announced that more than 500 institutions representing over $3.4 trillion in assets have made some form of divestment commitment. Credit: Rockefeller Brothers Fund

The RBF has traveled its own imperfect arcs of progress. For example, the Fund has been working on climate change since the 1990s. In the early 2000s, we had high hopes for federal Cap and Trade legislation and focused our activity in Washington accordingly. When that aspiration died with the failure of the Senate to pass the Waxman-Markey bill in 2010, we had to reflect, evaluate, learn, and redesign. We started ramping up our work with governors and mayors, with business leaders, with youth- and faith-based groups. All of these ultimately helped make Paris the success that it is: durable even without the participation of U.S. federal government because it is not just an agreement among nation-states, but a polylateral agreement that includes international organizations like the United Nations, as well as local governments, civil society, business leaders, and global investors.

This long-view approach is part of the DNA of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, stemming from the beliefs of its founders. From the establishment of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913, the Rockefeller family has recognized that social change does not happen overnight. It does not happen quickly, and it does not happen as a result of a fixed set of strategies. Change happens over time; it happens because you are nimble and flexible, but it also happens because you stick with your goals while finding new ways to make progress even after experiencing setbacks.

But taking a long view of social change means risking failure in the short term.

The private sector is beholden to shareholders and market demands. The public sector is beholden to the electorate. Philanthropy is beholden to neither, a status that affords us the unique freedom to set audacious goals and take risks on new and innovative approaches. Rob Reich, political scientist and co-director of Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, argues that providing “risk capital” is the raison d’être of the philanthropic sector. If we aren’t taking risks and assuming the possibility of failure some of the time, we aren’t doing our jobs.

In comparison with government and private business, institutional philanthropy is a small sector, giving away only about $60 billion each year. Nonetheless, by spending our capital creatively, we can have impact that far exceeds our size. The history of philanthropy in the United States testifies to what we can achieve when we think imaginatively. Public libraries, the eradication of polio, same-sex marriage, and universal 911 service are just some examples of philanthropy’s achievements. “That we now take them for granted makes them no less astonishing,” write Susan Wolf Ditkoff and Abe Grindle in a September 2017 article for the Harvard Business Review. “They were the inconceivable moonshots of their day before they were inevitable success stories in retrospect.”

An estimated 100,000 protesters joined the March for Science in Washington, DC, on April 22, 2017. Credit: Molly Adams, via Flickr.

Philanthropic successes derive not from enormous financial investment, but from a vivid understanding of our values and a steadfast adherence to them, particularly in moments of adversity. Many of the most urgent setbacks we feel today — the threats to our environment, our democracy, our identities — are manifestations of an assault on our values. Whereas our tactics may have to evolve to meet the changing nature of these threats, the defense of our principles needs to be unwavering.

“If we aren’t taking risks and assuming the possibility of failure some of the time, we aren’t doing our jobs.”

While audacious in ambition, we must be humble in approach.

Early in his life, Benjamin Franklin — arguably America’s first philanthropist — conceived of a characteristically ambitious project to pursue moral perfection. He listed 12 virtuous habits that he presumed would point him toward this lofty goal. But without a remedy for Franklin’s pride, a friend pointed out, the list was incomplete. Franklin agreed, adding a 13th virtue to his list: humility.

It was a fortuitous addition, since Franklin would later attribute his accomplishments in life more to this virtue than to any of the other 12. But if humility was the most rewarding of Franklin’s habits, it was also the most challenging. “In reality,” Franklin wrote in his autobiography, “there is perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride.”

John D. Rockefeller would have agreed. He actively cultivated this essential virtue by repeating to himself proverbs like, “Pride goeth before a fall.” And he passed his conviction about humility down through the successive generations of his family, where it still drives our grantmaking today.

Yet Rockefeller was also aggressively ambitious. His extraordinary success as a businessman and philanthropist confirms that entrepreneurial ambition and a humble attitude can live side by side. The humility Rockefeller had in mind does not mean giving up or turning the other cheek. Rather, it is stubborn, tenacious, and pragmatic. It means revising tactics and strategies when they aren’t working. It means recognizing that we are only a small part of the bigger story.

Philanthropy has achieved nothing alone. We are effective only when we partner with others who share our values. Over the past two years, a record number of Americans have met and countered the growing challenges to social progress by taking to the streets to exercise their rights, reclaim their civic role, and reenergize the democratic spirit of our country. As past sources of power like money, fame, and influence are increasingly usurped by what Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans have termed “New Power” — the power of the people — we must invest in courageous leaders, in big ideas, and in growing movements.

In these times, when enormous obstacles test the progress we’ve made in recent years, it is easy to retreat into despair. It is more difficult, as Franklin said, to harness our humility and surmount our hurdles.

At the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, we’re not giving up anything. We have a long way to go, but we know that setbacks do not represent defeat. We took a deep breath, swallowed our disappointment, and are back to work.

Join us.


Stephen Heintz has been President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund since 2001. Before joining the RBF, he held top leadership positions in both the nonprofit and public sectors. He was founding president of Dēmos, a public policy research and advocacy organization working to enhance the vitality of American democracy and promote more broadly shared prosperity. He currently serves on the boards of the EastWest Institute and the Rockefeller Archive Center. He is a member of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, as well as the Council on Foreign Relations, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where he co-chairs the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship.