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[Review] 'Staying the Course: Reflections on 40 Years of Grantmaking at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund'

May 15, 2015

Book_staying_the_courseWilliam S. Moody joined the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 1968, and for the next four decades he helped shape the fund's grantmaking programs in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Central and Eastern Europe. In Staying the Course: Reflections on 40 Years of Grantmaking at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Moody recounts with unflagging enthusiasm — and, at times, in great detail — his distinguished career, the credit for which he is more than happy to share with colleagues, collaborators, grantees, and members of the Rockefeller family and RBF board.

Staying the Course explores how RBF's grantmaking programs tried, "over time, to enlarge people's understanding of, and ability to address, sustainable development challenges; to protect human rights and promote international understanding; and to strengthen important dimensions of civil society and democratic practice in transforming societies." A tall order, to be sure, and one that, in Moody's view, the fund for the most part delivered on, thanks to what he describes as its "responsive and proactive, serendipitous and systematic" approach to "helping people help themselves."

Moody traces the evolution of that approach from the fund's establishment in 1940 by the sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The operation was still very much a family affair, he writes, when he came on board in the late 1960s, but the Rockefeller family philosophy of being "in it for the long haul, articulating ambitious goals knowing full well that those goals could not be reached quickly," and being "willing to make long-term commitments to effective organizations and institutions — a decade or two or more, long enough 'to make a difference', as Andrew Carnegie said" — was already deeply embedded in the fund's grantmaking practice.

As a program officer at a relatively small foundation, Moody was focused on allocating the limited resources available to him to maximum effect. In the late 1960s, for example, RBF's annual budget for international programs was a modest $10 million to $15 million — although at a time when only 5 percent of total U.S. foundation grantmaking was directed overseas, the fund was considered an important player in the international arena. More importantly, its efforts in that arena, Moody argues, demonstrate that small investments can create significant impact. In fact, the approach to grantmaking he developed back then, he writes, is quite similar to what today we call "venture philanthropy," characterized as it was "by a high level of involvement with grant recipients; a willingness to experiment and try new approaches; and a focus on capacity building for sustainability" — while avoiding any expectation of a quick pay-off.

Early on, Moody's efforts were focused on two areas: the thoughtful use of natural and cultural resources, or what is now called "sustainable development," in the developing world, and strengthening civic engagement and the nonprofit/voluntary sector globally. From 1968 through the mid-1980s, for instance, RBF supported rural development in sub-Saharan Africa and anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa, where the young program officer learned the importance of collaboration — as well as the need for flexibility, patience, and good partners. When making grants in six Central and South American countries, for example, he made it a point to invest in individuals, people like conservation expert Kenton Miller, a pioneer of sustainable resource management models and a key facilitator of RBF's productive partnership with the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Moody learned other lessons after RBF launched a program in the Caribbean in the mid-1970s and he found himself interacting with local groups that had "good ideas and impressive work plans" but, under IRS rules, were not legally recognized as public charities. In such cases, it was up to Moody to exercise "expenditure responsibility" — to take responsibility for ensuring that any grant funds awarded to such groups would be used for charitable purposes. Those risks generally (though not always) paid off, he writes, in part because RBF combined its "willingness to offer early start-up assistance with a focus on organizational capacity building."

As successful as those efforts were, Moody regrets not being able to work more intensively in the Caribbean at the grassroots and policy levels simultaneously, something he was able to do a decade later in Central and Eastern Europe. After General Wojciech Jaruzelski instituted martial law in Poland in December 1981, Moody and his colleagues launched a "stranded scholars" program in the beleaguered country, which subsequently led to a more comprehensive engagement with civic groups in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. In fact, the fund's CEE programming is where Moody's philosophy about grantmaking seems to have been fully realized: a willingness to be flexible and responsive, to seize unforeseen opportunities and take risks, and to think long-term about an issue or region. As a result, Moody writes, "the cumulative impact of our work added to the momentum for change" that eventually led to the end of Communist rule in the region. 

Indeed, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the region was the scene of one of Moody's proudest achievements, a collaboration in the early 1990s with the German Marshall Fund, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and other funders to create the Environmental Partnership for Central Europe, a locally managed program of small grants, technical assistance, and training for NGOs and municipal governments in the region. And the key to the success of the effort, Moody writes, was being able to work with funding partners and grantees who not only had the necessary knowledge, experience, passion, and management skills to be effective, but also had their egos "in place."

Unfortunately, by the late 1990s, unchecked corruption, rapid development, and rampant consumerism in CEE countries resulted in rising economic inequality and a weaker commitment to environmental protection, even as major U.S. funders of the region's nonprofit sector like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Mertz Gilmore Foundation were beginning to phase out their grantmaking. RBF stayed the course, however, embracing cross-cutting approaches that combined environmental, economic development, and civic engagement efforts, while working to build nonprofits' organizational capacity. Moreover, when USAID phased out its Democracy Network Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe in 1997, Moody coordinated the creation of a Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) with the German Marshall Fund and the Ford, Mott, and Open Society foundations.

Like any program officer, Moody had to deal with budget cuts, shifts in his organization's priorities, and sometimes disappointing outcomes. But through it all he learned that "staying the course" does not mean following a rigid agenda; the most effective grantmakers are those with the flexibility and agility to respond to changes as they pursue long-term goals. And that includes designing exit strategies that help grantees stay the course themselves. When, for example, RBF shifted its focus to the western Balkans at the end of the decade, it implemented what Moody calls an example of "best practice grantmaking," allocating substantial legacy or endowment grants over a multiyear phase-out period to its grantees (including the CEE Trust) to help boost their capacity and ease their transition to a changed funding landscape.

In the Balkans, Moody applied proven models from his CEE experience, collaborating on locally administered re-granting programs and supporting cross-sectoral community revitalization projects. At the same time, he made a point of allocating more direct support to efforts aimed at improving the capacity, policies, and programs of national governments in Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro. But while RBF's work with those governments produced limited results, the fund's efforts (co-funded with Mott) to advance the final status of Kosovo — including hosting a high-level meeting of Kosovar and former UN and U.S. officials and creating a supplementary fund to support the government of the newly independent country during the transition period — was, he writes, "a case where a proactive foundation was able to make direct, constructive contributions in a complex international situation, the resolution of which would advance important grantmaking goals of the fund."

Throughout the book, Moody is willing to concede that the impact of environmental and civil society initiatives could be slow to emerge and difficult to measure. Yet, he notes that the fund's "long-haul" approach seems to have paid off, in that grants he thought had failed turned out, in many cases, to have seeded positive developments. They include "bets" made on start-up institutions that were leveraged to secure additional funding; the dozens of mentees of individuals RBF invested in decades ago who are now applying proven models and lessons learned by their mentors to problems around the globe; collaborations among groups with a history of mutual distrust that continue to work together; and alternative approaches to problem solving such as wild lands management, bottom-up community revitalization, and dialogue and visioning techniques.

As much as anything, Staying the Course is a book of personal reflections rather than a handbook for program officers. That said, Moody does provide a list of "top ten" principles and practices for promoting "positive and lasting social change" derived from four decades of grantmaking. Under his fourth principle, "choose appropriate people to work with and bet on," he lists personal qualities ranging from "fire in the belly," to a willingness to encourage and share recognition with colleagues, to confidence in one's own judgment. In other words, individuals like Moody himself. If nothing else, his book presents ample proof that such individuals can and do make a difference.

-- Kyoko Uchida

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