Re-imagined philanthropy

Melissa Berman, President and CEO at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, reflects on the opportunities for philanthropy to deliver social change

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Melissa Berman, is the founding President and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA) which she had led for more than two decades. RPA is one of the world’s largest philanthropic service organisations and has facilitated more than US$4bn in grantmaking to more than 70 countries. It currently advises on and manages more than $500m in annual giving by individuals, families, foundations, and corporations. In 2023, Melissa announced that she will be stepping down from her role at RPA but will remain interim president until her replacement is found.

Over the course of my years working in philanthropy, I've heard many things from many would-be philanthropists. Some that stand out in my memory include: "I haven’t made a grant yet because I’m still looking for the perfect opportunity"; "I’m putting bequests in my will instead of donating now so that no one can tell me I made a mistake; "You have to show me how my money is going to make a difference; and "I know how to help my alma mater or a museum. But how do I help kids have better lives?"

It’s ironic that there seems to be so much doubt and uncertainty about giving. Philanthropy should be easy. After all, being charitable is encouraged in virtually every religion and culture.

But that ease exists mostly where the gift is an end unto itself, when fulfilling the obligation is the goal. For giving whose purpose is to make meaningful change, the stakes are higher.

When the Rockefeller family decided to launch what’s become known today as RPA out of their family office in late 2000, we were in something of a second golden age of philanthropy. This was spurred by a new generation of wealth – the Gates, Moore, Turner, Packard and Hewlett foundations took their size and shape around this time.

We asked one simple question regarding the potential for RPA: What can we do to ensure that this flow of resources nurtures the ground it flows over rather than flooding and devasting the earth?

Very few models for how to answer that question existed. For RPA, the enduring values of Rockefeller philanthropy helped guide us: respecting the nonprofit sector, focusing on values not views, taking a long-term, global perspective, and committing to good governance.

The Rockefeller family has engaged philanthropy professionals from the 1890s, and we wanted to build a professional, knowledge-based approach to this long-standing work.

The RPA mission statement focused on “thoughtful, effective philanthropy” for that reason. We also wanted to build understanding that a thoughtful approach to philanthropy improved effectiveness, and so from the outset we committed to developing and sharing insights.

Reimagined Philanthropy comes at a time when philanthropy as an idea, and the world it hopes to heal, both face dramatic challenges and opportunities. The metaphor of the nurturing stream versus the flash flood has helped RPA focus on the whole landscape, on lasting relationships, and on sustainable progress as opposed to attractive short-term solutions.

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The Covid-19 turned communities upside down creating new social needs across the board. Photo: Shutterstock.

All of us in philanthropy have been challenged by the sharp traumatic shocks of the past 20 years, including (but alas not limited to) 9/11, genocides and wars, human-intensified natural disasters, the Great Recession, Covid-19, George Floyd’s murder, polarization, and autocracy.

Each of these shocks upend our sense of how the world works. Many of us – not just at RPA – question what our role has been in creating the problem, but also how we can be part of the solution.

Most fundamentally, rising inequity and the impact of climate damage are evident around the world. The systems of capitalism and power that underlie much philanthropy are under question, and thus the legitimacy of philanthropy is in doubt. Trust is in short supply, which has meant, in many cases, a mistrust of any information that does not align with one's opinions.

Other challenges are more constant but, of course, closely related: How do we know what "works"? How do we define what "works"? Over what period of time? What does it mean to "save" a life?

The late Paul Farmer famously said he could get funding to cure people of tuberculosis so that they'd die of malnutrition instead. That’s an elegant way of illustrating that philanthropy at its heart tackles “wicked problems,” the kind that don’t have an agreed-upon definition (what is poverty?) or solution (what would a healthy community look like?). For such problems, methods as well as outcomes are disputed, and long-term impact is unclear or hard to define.

As a result, RPA and our peer organisations still face skepticism about the idea that philanthropy is a field with a broad knowledge base about issues and best practices.

"Philanthropy cannot cure all these problems. But it can accelerate progress toward a more just world."

At RPA we’ve tried to be clear about what we mean by outcome – like better scores for kids on math tests – versus the real impact we seek: all kids get the kind of quality education that can change the trajectory of their future. And we try to be clear about how using an equity and justice lens can reframe the questions one asks, the power dynamics one sees, and the potential solutions one desires.

Despite this complexity, philanthropy’s potential may never have been greater. Over the past 20 years we’ve seen the emergence of a global culture of giving. Peers as well as opinion leaders expect those with means to be both generous and engaged with the issues. We have seen how the power of the internet along with global movements have inspired many to connect with what’s happening outside as well as inside their local communities.

Newer and thoroughly digital generations want to get involved in using all their assets for good now rather than waiting until late in life. More donors are willing to make big bets on big issues, which increasingly means they’re also willing to partner with other funders to get to scale and to share knowledge. New tools like impact investing, social media and social entrepreneurship have created new avenues for making change happen.

What’s emerging now is exciting: a period of thoughtful re-examination of how capital and capitalism can (or can’t) work; how power and privilege should (or shouldn’t) be exercised; how tax policy might (or might not) work; how trust, respect, reparations, justice and equity can be achieved.

Philanthropy cannot cure all these problems. But it can accelerate progress toward a more just world.

This article is an abridged and edited version of Melissa's introduction to RPA's Reimagined Philanthropy: a roadmap to a more just world. Read and download the full text here.