Reflections on Philanthropy

Tuesday, January 8, 2019 - 9:30 am
Stephen Heintz

Editor's Note: Stephen Heintz received the 2018 Distinguished Service Award at an awards ceremony on November 28. Below are his remarks on the state of philanthropy from the event. 

Thank you. It's customary at a moment like this to profess humility and to note all those who have made such an award possible. Sometimes it seems rather perfunctory.

Think of the Academy Awards. But in this case, I assure you, there is no false humility in acknowledging that this tremendous honor truly belongs to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund as an institution.

This recognition from the Council is testament to the vision of the RBF’s Founders, dating back nearly 80 years; it is testament to the deep engagement of our Trustees—whose insight guides our work and whose trust emboldens our mission—and I am honored that our board chair, Valerie Rockefeller, is with us here today. This award is also testament to the resolve of our staff, whose creativity propels us through the ever-changing philanthropic and political landscape; and most importantly, it is testament to the effectiveness of our grantees, who tirelessly confront some of the most daunting challenges of our time, knowing that a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world is possible—and worth fighting for.


I joined the philanthropic sector in February 2001, when the RBF board of trustees offered me the opportunity to lead the foundation into a new century. I had spent the previous ten years on the “grantee side” of the non-profit sector, living and working in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I devoted the first fifteen years of my career to Connecticut state politics and government service. I was also a founder of Demos, a think tank and advocacy organization working for a more inclusive democracy and greater economic equity.

I was honored to join the RBF and inspired by the chance to lead such a highly regarded U.S. foundation that was working on domestic and international issues that I care very deeply about. In my first few months, I embarked on a strategic review process with the board and staff to think together about how the Fund might build on its core strengths to have greater impact in our interdependent world.

In May of that year, my wife Lise and I felt the profound joy of becoming parents. The birth of a child is an experience unlike any other and gave me even more reason for hope about the future and additional inspiration for my work as I thought about the world that would welcome our new son.

But the future was irreversibly recast just a few months later. On a beautiful September morning, I was sitting on the tarmac at JFK, about to fly to Burlington, Vermont, to meet with the chair of our board, when suddenly, armed policemen boarded the plane and ordered us to evacuate. In the terminal, everyone was glued to CNN, horrified by the use of passenger airplanes as weapons of mass destruction and the murder of nearly 3,000 people in the towers of the World Trade Center.

My only thought was to get home to my wife and infant son. On a day of such unimaginable evil, I sought solace in the company of newborn innocence. But the bridges and tunnels were closed. The subway wasn’t running. So I walked.

The next day I went to work. I didn’t know what else to do. From my office on Madison and 49th Street, I had a view of where the Twin Towers had stood the day before. It was clear to me that philanthropy had a unique set of responsibilities at that moment of crisis, but as I sat and watched the smoke rising from the site, I struggled to collect my thoughts about how the RBF should respond.

One thing was clear: in the span of an hour, the promise of a new century gave way to a new “Age of Anxiety,” to borrow W.H. Auden’s apt phrase.

The crisis today

At that moment, I never would have imagined that seventeen years later, the anxiety of our age would have grown so much more intense. Much like the hurricanes that battered the East Coast this fall, with each passing day, the winds of social, political, and economic upheaval become more turbulent and disorienting.

Here in the U.S., our politics are more divided than at any time since Reconstruction. The midterm election results confirm that hyper partisanship and profound distrust are likely to remain hallmarks of our politics for years to come. Racial tensions are acute. Hate speech and hate crimes are on the rise.

Economic disparity continues to grow, with ten percent of Americans now controlling 75 percent of the nation’s wealth—and the richest three Americans alone controlling more wealth than the entire bottom 50 percent of our country.

Our world is in turmoil. Conflicts rage in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Global South, causing humanitarian crises that have displaced millions of people and created a steady flow of refugees seeking safety. The system of international cooperation created in the aftermath of the Second World War is under assault, and once again great power competition and the threat of conflict shape geo-politics.

But surging temperatures, melting icecaps, and rising seas may soon leave little to fight over, as the world’s scientists warn that catastrophic consequences of global warming are now nearly unavoidable. Around the globe, pervasive anxiety plays into the hands of autocrats and demagogues who stoke fear to achieve, wield, and consolidate power.

In their breadth and complexity, the individual challenges we face today add up to something even greater than the sum of their parts. We are at the threshold of a fundamental, even civilizational, crisis.

The crisis stems from the growing obsolescence of three core operating systems that have shaped civilization for the past 300 years. The first is capitalism, fueled by carbon since the dawn of the Industrial Age and, in recent decades, driven by global financialization. The second is the nation state system, which is rooted in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and which gained its modern form in the 19th century. And the third is representative democracy, a system of selfrule based on Enlightenment ideals of reason, freedom, fairness, justice, and equality.

These three interdependent systems form the basis of Western society. Working in harmony for hundreds of years, they have delivered tremendous progress toward reducing poverty, improving human health, and managing international relations.

But in the 21st century, they are all showing signs of profound anachronism. The nation state, while still an essential locus of governance, is inadequate for managing trans-national challenges like global warming, pandemic disease, or mass migration. Our practice of capitalism is both putting the planetary ecosystem at risk and generating vast economic inequality. And, increasingly, representative democracy across the globe is neither truly representative nor very democratic.

Citizens feel that their voices are no longer heard—that influencing public policy has become the prerogative of corporations, special interest groups, and the wealthy. Willful distortion of truth and the proliferation of misinformation are eroding faith in democracy. As Hannah Arendt observed, "If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies but rather that nobody believes anything.”

For many, it may be tempting to look to the restoration of some past “golden age.” But as Peter Drucker wrote in 1980, “the greatest danger in turbulent times is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” 

The three core operating systems of modern civilization are the logic of the past. We must reinvent them for the conditions of the 21st century and shape a logic for the future. We must jettison anachronistic assumptions, reform obsolete organizational structures, invent new institutions, and systems, and promote a new global ethos of equity and inclusion that accurately reflects both current realities and future needs.

The urgent tasks before us require rapid and continuous innovation in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors and much broader and deeper cooperation among them. In fact, this is the only way these goals can be achieved.

Role of philanthropy

Philanthropy certainly does not have all the answers we need. But together with our partners in civil society, we have much to contribute to the process of finding them. So let me suggest some ways philanthropy can help.

First, it is essential that we invest in ideas. Ideas matter. We are living in a time of conceptual deficits in the fields of economics, politics, international relations, and human ethics. Philanthropy can support bold new thinking regarding democratic systems of governance, political economy, and global problem solving. We can sponsor experimentation and remain patient in the face of short-term failures that may ultimately point the way to success.

Second, we can elevate new leaders. We can invest in bold and creative talent drawn from the rich diversity of humanity and tap the immense energy and ingenuity of rising Millennials and Gen Z. Leadership development, networking, and the creation of new platforms for collaboration can spur innovation and amplify the power of ideas.

Third, we can strengthen new social movements. We can reinforce the role of civil society as the sector where individuals self-organize to support each other, assert collective power, and advance the common good. From community associations to mass movements, civil society will be the transformative force of this century.

Fourth, we can amplify fact-based, independent journalism and advance limits on the manipulation of social media technologies to spread falsehood, division, and hate. Access to credible information and clear boundaries between fact and opinion are essential to an empowered democratic citizenry.

Fifth, we must redefine our relations with both the private sector and government and play a leadership role as the relationship amongst the three sectors evolves. Each must contribute its unique resources and capabilities to meeting the challenges we face. How will we work together more effectively, even when, at times, we will be in contention with each other? Philanthropy that influences public policy or corporate behavior through research, policy development, and advocacy can significantly leverage modest philanthropic resources.

New ideas, new leaders, new social movements, evidence-based civic discourse, and collaboration across sectors can reduce political and economic inequality, eliminate structures of embedded racism, avert climate catastrophe, and transform conflict into durable peace. They can rekindle social trust and reduce the anxiety of our age.

If we are to contribute to the logic of the future, philanthropy, too, must move beyond business as usual. These times demand curiosity, creativity, and courage. We must use all our assets—not just our grants budgets, but our investment portfolios, our intellectual resources, our convening capacity, our leadership and reputations, and our independence. Our boards and staff must reflect the diversity of the society we serve. We must be willing to take risks and willing to accept the necessity of failure. We must uphold the highest ethical standards, embrace transparency, and hold ourselves – and one another—accountable for doing so. We must be bold in our ambitions but humble in our approach. And we must be resolute in our defense of tolerance, truth, openness, justice, and love.


I moved to Prague in 1990, a few months after the authoritarian governments of the Soviet Empire were overthrown by citizens who took peacefully to the streets in pursuit of a better future. Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident playwright, led his country to freedom in the “Velvet Revolution.” In a 1998 essay, Havel wrote, “Humankind today is well aware of the spectrum of threats looming over its head, and yet we do almost nothing to avert these dangers. What could change the direction of civilization?”

The question is not rhetorical. The answer is not a miracle. Havel, of all people, knew that civilizational change is possible. He knew it because he had seen it happen. More than that: he knew it because he had helped to make it happen. What could change the direction of civilization, Havel thought, was the human spirit.

Humankind has created the problems we face today. Humankind can solve them.

It is my hope that philanthropy will become a powerful force for the kind of profound civilizational change that Havel had in mind. Despite the dark realities of the moment, I still fervently believe in the promise of a century whose future has yet to be written. But to quote James Baldwin, “There is never a time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.”

Thank you.

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