Judith Rodin: Rockefeller Foundation Head Changes the Charity and the World

For challenging the lines of thinking about charity, she is one America's Best Leaders.

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Feeding Africa. Bracing the world for climate change. Rebuilding New Orleans. The Rockefeller Foundation's goals were lofty enough before the stock market collapse wiped out a quarter of its roughly $4 billion endowment. But Judith Rodin, the foundation's president, is unbowed. "We have a 100-year history, and we've seen the Great Depression and x number of recessions," she says matter-of-factly. "And our emphasis has always been on tackling the big problems, which have only gotten bigger."

For Rodin, 65, those growing problems demand that funders like her organization change the way they try to change the world. While staying true to oilman John D. Rockefeller's founding vision—"to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world"—Rodin has worked to transform one of the country's largest private foundations from charity to savvy social investor: "My style is to think of how we work as much as what we work on."

When she arrived at Rockefeller nearly five years ago, after a decade as president of the University of Pennsylvania, Rodin led a top-to-bottom review focused on how the foundation could double its impact. She forced out foot-draggers, cut grant streams that weren't producing results, and looked for short-term projects that Rockefeller could monitor and tweak to maximize their effect. Under Rodin, Rockefeller pared down the number of 20-year projects it funds and took on more three-year commitments. "It's an elastic model that allows us to keep reshaping ourselves, our work, and our lines of thinking," she says. "And it's a buffer against hard financial times."

In New Orleans, the foundation invested a modest $5 million to bring together citizens groups, policy experts, and politicians to finish a long-delayed proposal for federal funds after Hurricane Katrina. The effort worked, with Washington releasing $187 million in aid. "My rallying cry," Rodin says, "is to get leverage out of everything we do."

But Rockefeller still funds plenty of global-scale efforts. In Africa, the foundation has committed $150 million to launching a full-blown agricultural revolution aimed at lifting millions out of hunger by increasing the productivity of small farms. While many nonprofits focus on one aspect of a huge problem like alleviating African poverty, Rockefeller—partnering with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—has developed a comprehensive plan that includes tackling such disparate challenges as improving degraded soils, opening access to markets, and combating government corruption. "A more piecemeal approach," says Rodin, "will not get at root causes."

Accountability. Rockefeller is closely monitoring each area of the long-term project, insisting on steady progress. "There's no bottom line in philanthropy, no quarterly earnings reports," Rodin says. "So you need to keep looking for measurements that matter." And for the most up-to-date solutions to the world's big problems. Which explains why Rockefeller is partnering with a for-profit crowdsourcing company to pool research in certain areas from engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs from around the world.

Rodin's insistence on evidence-based accountability is born of her 25-year career as a behavioral scientist, mostly at Yale. But academia did little to prepare her for leadership roles. "I grew up in an age when a lot of people were still ambivalent about women as leaders," she says. "My graduate school adviser didn't want to take me because he didn't think I'd be serious about my career."

A Philadelphia native, Rodin went on to become the first woman to lead an Ivy League school. Since then, she has made mentoring men and women a priority. Rodin says that the process helps her to analyze her leadership successes—and shortcomings: "You have to share your fears and anxieties to make it all tangible." The effort seems to have paid off. The presidents of Franklin and Marshall College, the University of Delaware, Reed College, and Columbia University's Teachers College are Rodin protégés from her Penn years.