Family Philanthropy Speaks: A Conversation with Valerie Rockefeller

Valerie Rockefeller chairs the board of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, bringing her skills as a special education teacher and passion for impact investing. In this Family Philanthropy Speaks conversation, Valerie talks with NCFP President and CEO Nick Tedesco about building her own identity within a well-known family and strategies for successfully leading a family foundation board.

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About the Series

Philanthropy is a practice borne out of compassion and commitment—and one that is deeply rooted in family. It’s also a practice that must continue to evolve to effectively meet the needs of the communities it seeks to serve. Thankfully, there are countless social sector leaders who are advancing the field with their bold ideas and unwavering enthusiasm for the greater good. The National Center for Family Philanthropy is honored to share the stories of these leaders through its program, Family Philanthropy Speaks—a series of conversations designed to feature the innovative spirit of family philanthropy. These dynamic discussions aim to capture emerging trends and solutions, share new and diverse voices in the field, and lift up the role of family philanthropy—past, present, and future—in stewarding social change. We hope you will join us to explore what it means to give with intention!

Watch more Family Philanthropy Speaks conversations here.


Nick Tedesco: Welcome to the Family Philanthropy Speaks video Blog series from the National Center for Family Philanthropy. These conversations highlight the innovative spirit of family giving. In this episode we feature a speaker from our 2020 Trustee Education Institute. Valerie Rockefeller comes from one of the most iconic families in American philanthropy and in American history. She chairs the board of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and is an active social impact practitioner with a focus on impact investing. In our conversation, we explored how Valerie built her own identity as a change agent. We also reflect on the trends in family philanthropy.

Valerie Rockefeller: So I actually grew up in West Virginia, very far away from the rest of the Rockefeller family. And so was forced to forge my own identity I think in a negative and positive way, that I got all the downside of being a Rockefeller, of getting teased, and then none of the upside, which is actually getting to know my family, which I do. I’m not just saying that because I think my cousin Robin’s in the audience. I genuinely have loved getting to know family. And in fact, it is more often through philanthropy than through even the family reunions, which I didn’t go to growing up, but do now, where we do have a mix of talking about the work that we’re doing philanthropically, but also just socializing and getting to know each other.

But I think to carve your own path is something that happened naturally for me, because I had physical distance. But it is also part of the family culture that you should get a job and have your own sense of self, especially for family members with the name. The person who made the money, there’s seven generations of us now and almost 300 of us. And so sometimes it’s odd that the name still has the power that it does associated with money, because actually to us we have done well through sustainable investing, which I hope we can talk about a little bit later. But it’s actually more through philanthropy that I think that our family has been bonded. And I hope is what we’re known for now more than kind of the robber baron monopoly.

So my background also is in education. And so that never had anything to do with being a Rockefeller. And I actually heard about the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which I now chair, because the woman teaching in the classroom next to me in New York was a Rockefeller minority fellow. And I’d never even heard of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, much less that specific program they had, but which was to pay for the graduate school education and to support people of color coming into the teaching profession, particularly in New York City, which is where I was teaching.

Nick Tedesco: So at what point did you decide that you were going to focus full time on social impact? And how did you make that shift and also get introduced to the approach that you take, which is this notion of blended capital?

Valerie Rockefeller: So I was only really focused on being in the classroom. I did decide in college that’s what I wanted to do. I did work for the government during the Clinton administration, which was a great experience to have. But was really focused that way. It wasn’t until I joined the board of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which I was only qualified to do, by the way, because I had taught. And you do, the way we can get into this if anyone’s interested, but it’s how people get involved in family organizations. It’s not just you get anointed from on high, you actually have to have worked in that field. I got grandfathered in—The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, used to have an education program. And so I had that area of expertise.

And now we actually don’t do that work anymore. We’re much more involved now in sustainable development, even more of our grant dollars are going towards that. And then since 2010, really in this impact investing, the sustainable investing part of it. I didn’t really begin to learn about the field until 2004, which is when we began voting our proxies, which I can talk about more that type of activism. And then we did end up eventually divesting from companies that had fossil fuels so that we could do more of this social impact investing to put our endowment dollars behind the philanthropic programs that we were running as well.

Nick Tedesco: So, as you’re talking about the divestments, it’s an incredible story. I mean, the evolution of the family and your perspectives on your responsibilities as stewards is extraordinary. Can you talk about the evolution and how the family has truly grown and changed its perspective in many ways over the years?

Valerie Rockefeller: Well we, of course I’m going to drag you back in history, that is what I taught. So that we like to think that it’s not actually ironic that the Rockefeller’s ended up divesting from fossil fuels, because John D. Rockefeller Sr., they used to get petroleum from Wales. And then so it was like revolutionary and science-based to get it out of the ground. And now obviously we know that we can’t afford to do that anymore and that we now have less than a decade to halve our carbon emissions. So we did actually start the Rockefeller family and conservation very early when there was a lot more money, frankly, buying up land in the thoughts. John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Was maybe had some sketchy business, excellent, but you know, no longer acceptable business practices in some ways, but he was a very, very strong Baptist and very strong philanthropist.

He spent half his life making money and half his life giving the money away, and always towards science. And also with his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. He was supportive of this work of buying beautiful places and then donating them to be public parks to give everyone access to the land. It doesn’t climate change obviously, it’s not something that you can control by preserving one piece of land and trying to share it with the public. And so the family had actually sort of begun to shift into not only more typical conservation environmentalism, but also even into a climate change policy and politics, frankly, in the 70s and 80s. Still, it took a lot longer for us to figure out our personal approach to trying to invest with Exxon Mobil, which is one of the companies that came out of Standard Oil. So we thought we may have more influence with them.

And we did actually have quite a lot of stock still on Exxon Mobil. It was like 10 to 15 years of engagement that ended up leading nowhere. So we did ultimately take the decision, individual members of the Rockefeller family, as well as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and David Rockefeller Fund, Rockefeller Family Fund, others who have followed along doing this as well, that we had to divest. That is not necessarily the best solution for all families and foundations and organizations. It may be a point that they get to, but a lot actually start by doing sustainable investments, perhaps in clean energy first. It is a process. It is a hard process. And for those of you who are actively engaged in managing your foundation, for us even figuring out what we owned in terms of fossil fuels took a long time, because we were in co-mingled funds. And also just sort of that internal management, like what is the culture of your board? What’s the culture of your investment committee? Are they people who are actively engaged and looking to do a different kind of investing?

We ended up bringing in more people from outside the family, frankly, who were engaged in sustainable investing and we put in term limits, and then we ended up hiring an outsource chief investment office, because we just realized we couldn’t, we just didn’t have the scale to do that work internally.

Nick Tedesco: Can you spend a little bit of time for kind of demystifying how families can get involved in sustainable and mission-aligned investing, and also impact investing, more broadly speaking? I’d love for you to share kind of some of the lessons that you’ve reflected on, some of the challenges that you might have encountered?

Valerie Rockefeller: I think families, well, I am in awe of families that are still running family businesses and are doing family philanthropy and just spend holidays together. And knowing like, that seems very complicated. I think it’s much easier in the Rockefeller family, because there’s such a distance between the person who made the money and the people who are giving it away. I think we are doing it all with his values, but we also have a lot of freedom, because John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Jr. set it up that way. They had these nonprofits, which they endowed, which the half of the boards, or even more of the boards are often non-family members. So it really is bringing in outside expertise. It also just makes everyone behave better, frankly. And I know, and I’m sure a lot of you have been talking today about how you manage your boards.

It’s just a little simpler sometimes when it’s not only the family there. The advantage however, if you do have a family, a pure family board, or if you are running a family business, it may be easier to decide what you want to focus on, because you obviously have to start, like everything starts within. And especially with all the focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion and racial justice, and just how we have been ripped open this past year in particular with inequity, you do have to start within yourself and figure out what your values are in those. I think in some families are easier conversations. For us at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is what I know best. It was quite simple because almost half of our grantmaking was in sustainable development. So it was very clear to us that we weren’t going to, we were going to stop making investments that were undermining our grantmaking. So for us it’s been mainly a clean energy type focus.

And again whatever, it doesn’t, impact investing just means considering the impact of the decisions that you make. There’s impact shopping, there’s impact lifestyle. I mean, every decision you make has an impact. So we had the mandate of first starting with 10% impact investing. And then we’re now at 25%. And to us what that means is an investment that has measurable impact, not only on our programs, but also measurable financial returns.

Nick Tedesco: I want to dig into the idea of the complexities of multi-generational families and how we can demystify what those complexities are. So I’d love to hear from you, what have you seen, some of the tension points, the challenges of being part of a multi-generational family philanthropy construct, and how have you addressed those?

Valerie Rockefeller: Well, we have what I consider the advantage of having these previous generations of experience. So for example, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which was started in 1940, of course it has changed enormously, but a lot of the traditions we have held onto. It’s one of the more sort of, I think in our grantmaking we are extremely progressive and are willing to tackle very complicated issues and be out there. The way we run things though is actually quite formal. There are other family organizations that are less that way. And so I think you have to find that balance between respecting the tradition and also just frankly, the fact that junior and senior decided to put the money for members of our family in trust. And then the vast majority of the family money has gone into the endowments of these organizations. You know, the family doesn’t have control of it, right?

So you have to earn your way onto the board. And you also, the outside experts, the non-family members, they are equally participating in nominating committees and on the board. And so their vote matters just as much as the family trustees and matters way more than someone who’s a Rockefeller, but who’s not involved in that board. So they may have opinions on what the family organizations are doing, but they don’t actually have a say over how that happens. I think it is, with next-gen, it’s a huge factor in impact investing. And I think it’s one of the great ways, for my parents’ generation in the 60s, they definitely forced change. And the name Rockefeller Brothers Fund is sort of disrespecting the tradition. I’m the second woman who’s chaired the board.

And there was huge generational conflict. In fact, led to the endowment being cut in half basically with some going to more traditional investing. And then the rest going into that crazy 60s generation you know, my parents, that took things in a new direction. So I think keeping the structure similar, but then having the grantmaking evolve over time. Also, just one other funny David Rockefeller story that I love is that when we’re doing our family reunions, we meet by generation partially on Fridays. Because you are sometimes more comfortable with your peers, and then the rest of the meetings are all the whole family is there together. But on the Fridays when we meet by generation, when he was the only one from his generation alive for a very, very long time. So he said his were boring.

So he would sometimes comes to the fourth generations or to the next generations, but I’m in the fifth generation. We actually do fifth and sixth generation meetings together. And it’ll be interesting when the numbers come, when the sixth generation decides to rebel and break away from us and do their own thing, that’ll be a great time.

Nick Tedesco: So you mentioned your role as board chair of RBF. I’d love for you to talk about what it means to serve as a board chair? Some of the lessons and reflections that you take away from this role? Because there are so many people out in the virtual audience today who are board chairs and are wondering what else can they be doing in their roles that might help the family move forward? So if you can share some thoughts on that, that would be great.

Valerie Rockefeller: And I will say for people who have not yet been given the opportunity to chair a board and may not picture themselves in that role, I will say that when I was asked to become chair of the board, I resisted and had to be convinced. Because I was like, “I’m a classroom teacher, right? I don’t… And my predecessor who was tragically killed in a plane crash, Richard Rockefeller, was a doctor. He was incredibly funny and philosophical and he could just stand up and say amazing things off the cuff. And I was like, “I don’t do anything without a script. And also, I don’t think I’ll manage. I don’t think I do that well with adults even most of my professional life.” And that it’s actually, so it took a little confidence boosting, not convincing, because I was excited to play the role.

And also just frankly, and how these things are all personal decisions too. I had three kids and was debating a fourth and then thought, “I don’t know, am I ready to do something?” And I’m glad that I went for the chairmanship rather the fourth at this point, I will say. Now they’re 11, 13, 15, and they’re great fun, but there are joys and challenges along the way. So you may not picture yourself in that role, but I will say in my experience of being chair is just something that I do love is that you realize your job is to say as little as possible and to bring out other people’s voices and to just structure conversations. And I thought, “That’s not that different from classrooms, right? It’s like keeping on schedule. It’s making sure everyone, the work you’re doing can be meaningful for everyone in the room.”

And so it’s more sort of like management in some ways than it is then standing up and making brilliant speeches, which I could never have done, you know? That just wasn’t in, you chair the way that suits your personality I think too. But I do think also processes are really, really important. I think it’s important to go in executive session after every single meeting. I think it’s important to do evaluation of the CEO. I think it’s important to have, if it’s a larger foundation, ways for the board to interact with all members of the staff, which may not happen so naturally. I think one thing we’ve learned through DEI work is that people are comfortable speaking in different types of venues. Some people are perfectly happy to speak up in front of an entire room and they liked that, because then it’s democratic and everyone’s getting the information and everyone has a chance to speak in front of each other at the same time.

Some people do better in small groups. And so I think with running board meetings, it has to work that way too. You know, you have to be willing to be flexible and sort of experiment. We do one board meeting each year that’s a little bit longer. So I think it’s the checking in with people a lot, and trying to keep to a time limit. Those are sort of would be my secrets of what I’ve learned during being a chair. It’s not that you’re some brilliant orator who knows in depth every program area. That’s not your job. Your job is to bring that out in others.

Nick Tedesco: I’d love to explore how the sector is changing and evolving, and get your thoughts on that. As we look to the future, what are your hopes for what philanthropy will do to meet the moment and series of moments that we’ve been experiencing throughout 2020?

Valerie Rockefeller: So the changing philanthropy, the landscape now, I mean, I do think this is an advantage of technology. I do think we should be sharing where our money is going. And I think there should be put up as much as possible on your website and be held accountable for if you are again funding in a way that is patriarchal. If you were asking for long grant applications and to fit very clearly into your metrics, or if you are giving, and this, there are different types of solutions for every problem and every lot of different types of grant making. But if you really have faith in your grantees, you should be giving unrestricted funds that they can decide how to use and you should be giving longer-term funds.

How can we say that we are an enlightened organization committed to racial justice when all the leadership is white? You just need to have those kinds of conversations and then figure out how again your internal workings can mirror what’s happening socially. It’ll make you a better grant maker in the long run. You know, as long as you don’t need to overturn all of your traditions, but you do need to question them all the time. And then just think of how does power look in our organization and in our board meetings. And then I think that’s the only way we’re going to be able to operate effectively. And these days where we just have to focus on equity.

Nick Tedesco: What advice would you give to this audience, who many of our attendees are coming into positions of leadership in their respective family philanthropies and exploring what it means to do this work well? Any final thoughts that you have for people that are in many times and circumstances beginning this journey?

Valerie Rockefeller: You need to decide who you are and what you value. The work always has to start there first. And then actually it’s easier to be authentic in different ways. And when you’re coming into a leadership position in your family, you have to be yourself. It’s just, it’s not going to work if you try to duplicate the way someone else ran things.

Nicholas Tedesco: Thank you so much for your time and for your wisdom. And we just can’t thank you enough for your time today. So thank you.

Valerie Rockefeller: Thank you. Thank you all for the work you’re all doing.