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Philanthropy as Field Builder

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Last week, I discussed role of philanthropy as risk-taker – taking on the hardest parts of the work so that the private and public sectors can crowd in with their own resources and carry the work to scale. A second point of difference and an equal strength of philanthropy is our ability and legacy of creating, building, and defining entire fields.

The story of the Rockefeller Foundation’s history of field-building begins a few years before our official charter with the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, started by our founder John D. Rockefeller Foundation in 1909. The instigator was a 2-inch worm – a hook worm – which was paralyzing entire towns in the rural south of the United States in the early part of the 20th Century. Passed through barefeet under unsanitary conditions, the disease required more than just effective treatments – it required improved sanitation and education that would change hygiene behaviors on a mass scale.

This kind of campaign simply hadn’t been tried before – and certainly not to this level of coordination and reach. By bringing together medical practitioners, engineers, and local governments, the Rockefeller Foundation created a new model that would become the field of public health. And by 1915, the hookworm problem was effectively under control in the rural South, and the Rockefeller Foundation went on to partner with governments to build public health systems in other parts of the world.

While public health is among our most paramount field-building achievements, the Rockefeller Foundation helped to spark the development of countless other new fields over the next century:

  • Molecular biology, a termed coined by the Rockefeller Foundation’s Warren Weaver, which endeavored to apply the same rigor of chemistry and physics to the study of biological sciences. 
  • Area studies, which was the first interdisciplinary approach to world cultures, combining language training, geography, anthropology, history, economics, and political science, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation and the U.S. government.
  • Public administration, which sought to increase the competence of people working as civil servants at the state, county, and local levels.

The list goes on, and grows still today, as we find new ways of connecting existing fields and domains to solve increasingly complex problems.

Not all fields are planned deliberately. Often philanthropy’s greatest talent is in spotting a compelling idea, even if we don’t fully understand it at the time, and giving it a chance to blossom.

For example, in 1955, the Rockefeller Foundation received a proposal to fund a conference of mathematicians and machine learning pioneers at Dartmouth to be held the following summer.

The authors behind the proposal had even coined a new term to help Rockefeller program officers better understand the nature of their studies: “artificial intelligence.”

At the time, the Foundation was hesitant to fund such a gathering, noting in its response “this new field of mathematical models…is still difficult to grasp very clearly.”

But finding the mathematicians so compelling, the grant officers went ahead and awarded funding – the sole philanthropy to do so. IBM, Bell, and Lincoln Labs paid the way for their own staff to attend – an early sign of private-philanthropic partnerships in action. The conference would come to be regarded as the Woodstock of artificial intelligence – everyone who was anyone in computation and machine learning was there.

Over the course of our field-building experience we came to understand that while philanthropy can spark entire fields through our ability to identify and define complex problems and convene the actors needed to solve them, we could not advance the field on our own.  We needed the coordination and collaboration of governments, greater scientific knowledge, and other professionals trained to carry out the work.  

Those lessons are as relevant as they were 100 years ago, as we work to develop the field of impact investing, which are investments designed to generate both financial and social/environmental returns, or the field of OneHealth, which is making connections between human medicine, veterinary medicine and environmental studies to better prevent and control infectious diseases that we’ve seen can pass from animals to humans and spread quickly around the world – SARS, H1N1, among others.

There are many other examples from institutions across philanthropy, from the pioneering work of the Ford Foundation in instituting the field of public policy research and analysis, to the Skoll Foundation’s work to develop the field of social entrepreneurship. But while the fields we work on are diverse, and the problems much different than back in the early 20th century, one thing remains certain: building and connecting fields will continue to be what defines us as philanthropy – and how we will help to define the 21st century world in return.

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