Story at a glance

  • John Davison Rockefeller Sr. became one of the wealthiest Americans of all time through the oil industry.
  • The Rockefeller Foundation was established as a philanthropic venture in 1913 and remains one of the largest of its kind in the country.
  • The organization has announced a commitment to divesting its endowment from fossil fuel interests.

The Rockefeller name is associated with two things: wealth and oil. 

John Davison Rockefeller Sr. became the richest person in America through Standard Oil, the forefather of some of the world's largest oil and gas corporations today, including Exxon Mobil and Chevron. More than a century later, his family remains one of the richest in the United States despite having given billions away to charity. 


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But times have changed, and today the Rockefeller Foundation is committing to divesting its $5 billion endowment from existing fossil fuel interests and refraining from future fossil fuel investments. Once considered liquid gold, oil is now one of the main culprits of the climate crisis as companies search for cleaner forms of energy. Environmental advocates have long pushed for divestment from fossil fuels and even nuclear energy, which the foundation has a long history with dating back to the development of the atomic bomb.

“JD Rockefeller started this foundation to promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world, based on science and innovation. This is still our mission, and since the science is clear on the harm caused by fossil fuels, it was time that we officially aligned our internal investment strategy with our external values and mission,” said Rajiv J. Shah, President of The Rockefeller Foundation, in a release.


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The foundation’s sister organization, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, has already made the move away from fossil fuel investments, and the family itself has stepped away from the industry. 

"While the global community works to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, it makes little sense—financially or ethically—to continue holding investments in these companies," Rockefeller Family Fund said in 2016. "There is no sane rationale for companies to continue to explore for new sources of hydrocarbons."

The foundation has also made a $1 billion commitment over the next three years towards a "green recovery" because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the single largest commitment in its history and one of the largest such foundations to divest. 

“John D. Rockefeller’s philosophy on philanthropy was that scale of impact comes from partnerships, and with this billion-dollar pledge, we intend to do just that – by partnering with others to turn that billion into a mobilizing force for a trillion-dollar inclusive, just, and carbon-reducing global recovery,” said Shah in the release. “We are also working across the Foundation to bring market-driven solutions that reduce emissions while creating jobs and wealth-building opportunities for those that have been shut out of economic progress and are bearing the brunt of this pandemic.”


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Published on Dec 18, 2020