When most people hear the name Rockefeller, they automatically think about money, as they should.
Around the turn of the 20th century, John D. Rockefeller Sr., the patriarch of the Rockefeller dynasty and founder of Standard Oil, eclipsed Andrew Carnegie to become the richest man in the country. In the definitive biography on his life, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr., historian Ron Chernow explores the rise of John Rockefeller Sr., including his controversial business exploits and extensive philanthropic endeavors.
Rockefeller and his contemporaries created the blueprint for modern day philanthropy, with much of their early influence still observable within philanthropy today. Here are a few timeless lessons from a man who continues to be one of the greatest givers in modern history.
The legacy of a great man or woman is not just built on what they did, but how they did it.
Philanthropy should be bold. The early 1900s was a time characterized by tremendous progress amidst major societal problems that made life difficult for most. Born of modest beginnings, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. understood the plight of the average American acutely and saw his fortune as a vehicle for fundamentally improving the human condition. Therefore, he tended to take on issues that were large in scale and sometimes controversial. Rockefeller Sr. is credited for spurring the rise of modern medicine through major research grants which supported the professionalization of the industry and provided the sort of “patient capital” necessary to advance major medical breakthroughs. In the years following the Civil War, there were few issues more contentious than the education of Blacks and Rockefeller latched on to the issue early, becoming the primary benefactor for a small girls’ school in Atlanta, Spelman College which continues to bear his wife’s name to this day. These were neither easy, nor popular issues, but in many ways he was a man ahead of his time which was reflected in the bold way he gave.
“Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.” ~ John D. Rockefeller Sr.
Philanthropy should tie to your passion. Rockefeller was a devout Baptist, attending his childhood church throughout his long life. He viewed church as a way of staying connected to his roots, and the virtues he learned guided everything from his austere way of life to the way he governed his affairs. He desperately wanted to preserve those values for future generations by creating an institution of higher learning reflective of his faith. The University of Chicago was intended to rival the elite institutions of the East Coast. It struggled under the weight of its massive vision for many years, but Rockefeller’s support never wavered. He ultimately came to consider The University of Chicago his greatest investment.
Philanthropy should do no harm. Once John Rockefeller became known as the richest man in the country, the solicitations for support never ceased. While he had a heart for people and their everyday struggles, he felt that charity in the way of handouts would result in dependency. Above all else, he believed in the dignity of the human spirit and therefore, sought to support and champion initiatives that enabled people to reach their potential through advances in areas like education and public health. It’s through this “do no harm” approach that Rockefeller’s philanthropy was able to achieve wide-reaching societal change.
More than 100 years later, these lessons remain just as relevant now as they were then. And one thing is for sure, the legacy of a great man or woman is not just built on what they did, but also how they did it.