Rajiv Shah on Rockefeller Foundation priorities, multilateralism and philanthropy

Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Photo by: Asia Society / CC BY-NC-ND

Amid a mood of global distrust toward institutions, philanthropic foundations must prioritize winning public confidence, including by partnering together and taking risks, said Rajiv Shah in some of his first public remarks since taking the helm of the Rockefeller Foundation about six weeks ago.

“It’s harder to see people trusting us to solve these problems, especially if we seem to be removed from the realities of today or if we fail to be transparent with partners.”

— Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation

Philanthropists have a key role in addressing some of the root causes of the current global political environment, in which trust in large institutions — from governments, to businesses, to the news media — are near historic lows, he said.

“If we're going to make a difference in the lives of those we serve, we need to prove ourselves in this moment,” Shah told the Global Philanthropy Forum in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. He called for “making big bets, managing real and diverse partnerships, being transparent and open, [and being] honest about what works”.

Shah said his organization and others will need to combat perceptions that they are elitist or removed from the difficulties of everyday citizens. “It’s harder to see people trusting us to solve these problems, especially if we seem to be removed from the realities of today or if we fail to be transparent with partners,” he said.

“One lesson we need to take away from November's election is that we can no longer afford to work alone in closed off spaces or ivory towers,” Shah said.

As the most recent former head of the United States Agency for International Development, Shah’s remarks offer insight into how Rockefeller Foundation will respond to a challenging political environment. He said he anticipates focusing on challenges including global health, the agricultural system and economic opportunity.

Trump's 'America first' budget slashes foreign aid, multilateral funding

The budget proposal hits the State Department and USAID with budget cuts of 28 percent. It also promises to cut funding levels to the United Nations, World Bank and other major multilateral development banks. Backing for climate change programs are hit, while PEPFAR and Israel maintain funding levels.

But the discussion is also a window into a difficult discussion within the U.S. philanthropic community about how populist narratives have taken hold, how the service community has fallen short in addressing persistent inequalities, and what Shah described as a feeling of “despair.”

Symptoms of a crisis

Shah described proposed cuts to foreign aid as symptomatic of a global sentiment that many policymakers failed to anticipate.

“These are more than budget cuts, they are expressions of values that have dramatic consequences at a time of need. And they represent a departure from how the world tries to solve problems,” Shah said.

Philanthropists won’t be able to plug government spending gaps. If the top 50 U.S. foundations combined every dollar they gave this year, they would still be $6 billion short of the proposed $25 billion in cuts that President Donald Trump has slated from the State Department and USAID.

“We don’t have all the answers but as we're looking around we are seeing signs of success from which we hope to learn.”

— Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation

Instead, Shah called for foundations to explore “new ways to seek leverage and impact and results,” by taking on more risk and partnering with one another. He cited as examples a partnership between the IKEA Foundation and Open Society Foundations on forced displacement, Omidyar's work on impact investing and MacArthur Foundation's push to create a global marketplace of ideas.

Partnership will be a priority under his leadership, he said, acknowledging the challenges. Some past collaboration across philanthropic organizations has been superficial, he said, because of “our egos, our desire for control, our confidence in our own intelligence and our natural desire to launch programs and then find others to co-fund,” he said. “We don’t have all the answers but as we're looking around we are seeing signs of success from which we hope to learn.”

Emerging priorities

Rockefeller’s vision for the future will “be grounded in the lessons we’ve learned from our own history,” Shah said. He promised to continue the foundation’s focus on bringing science and innovation to health, food and economic opportunity.

The new chief aims to maintain the organization’s emphasis on long term change. “Our greatest successes have come when we've been animated by big bold aspirations and willing to see them through over a very long period of time. That’s the lens through which our founders saw our mission. That’s the lens we'll apply going forward.”

Key challenges the foundation is thinking about tacking include global health, including pandemic health and how to reduce child deaths; agriculture and food security, particularly looking at the global protein economy; access to power and offgrid solar efforts; and how to address changing labor markets to restore hope.

Amid concern over whether civil society, corporations and community organizations can work together toward the goals of ending poverty and combating climate change, Shah said, “Our answer to that has to be yes. Just look at our history. It hasn't always been the case that we could count on our government to address these collective challenges,” he said.

The Rockefeller Foundation, in fact, began its work at a time when there was little government social safety net. When it was founded in 1913, the Rockefeller fortune was 25 percent larger than the federal budget.

“I do believe if we can look at these models of collaboration and partnership and work together to identify new solutions … we have an opportunity to deliver extraordinary results,” he said. “We have the opportunity to do it in a way that helps to restore the hopefulness in the future and maybe create a path for public sector leadership so we can truly address the dramatic consequences of the current fractured world in which we live.”

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.