USC Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy hosts conversation with Rockefeller Foundation’s Rajiv Shah

November 15, 2018
Monica Lozano of the College Futures Foundation and Rajiv Shah of The Rockefeller Foundation

Monica Lozano of the College Futures Foundation and Rajiv Shah of The Rockefeller Foundation

By Nicholas Williams

Rajiv J. Shah, president of The Rockefeller Foundation, shared his approach for leading one of the largest and most well recognized foundations in the world, at a luncheon hosted by the USC Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy (CPPP). Roughly 150 leaders from philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, government and business heard the insightful and wide-ranging conversation, part of the center’s Distinguished Speakers Series. The talk was facilitated by Monica Lozano, president and CEO of the College Futures Foundation, who served as a trustee of The Rockefeller Foundation for six years and helped to recruit Shah to the board prior to his appointment as president in March 2017.

Shah, the son of immigrants, began by sharing how his father emigrated from India to the United States to pursue the American dream, developing a radio transmitter that ended up on a lunar module program as part of the Apollo space program, then working for the Ford Motor Company and raising a family just outside of Detroit.

“My family has always had this deep commitment to what so many other immigrant families have, which is a passion for this country — a passion for the American dream, a belief that American values speak volumes around the world,” Shah said.

His passion for the American values of opportunity and moral leadership have stayed with him. Just prior to his appointment at Rockefeller, Shah was USAID Administrator in the Obama administration, where he spearheaded numerous public and private partnerships and delivered some big results to combat extreme poverty. He has also served as chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education and economics at the United States Department of Agriculture and in a number of leadership roles at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

To view video from the event on the center’s website, please click here »

Philanthropy’s Role in Society

Before accepting the position as president of The Rockefeller Foundation, Shah spent time in the Rockefeller Archives Center, closely studying what the foundation had accomplished over its 105 years of existence. This catalyzed his own thinking about the role that philanthropy can and should play in society, how science and technology can help to address issues of scale and lead to transformative changes, as well as the vital importance of risk-taking and persistence. Shah insisted that philanthropy has a shared responsibility to “take big risks, stand up for our values, to try to reach the most people we can, and frankly to do so with a sense of courage and conviction and urgency that sometimes gets lost in this fight forward.”

The Rockefeller Foundation’s approach is inspired by science and highly focused on results, something Shah came back to when he transitioned from serving as a trustee of the foundation to the presidency.

“We wanted to refocus on the fundamentals of human well-being: health, food, power and jobs,” he said. In the area of health, for instance, Shah noted that six million children will die this year from curable diseases in communities that would be significantly aided by predictive analytics, data, visualization, geospatial mapping and other tools. The Rockefeller goal is ambitious but reachable: ending child mortality by 2030. In addition to applying existing technologies to reach scale, the foundation is experimenting on the next frontiers of science. In the area of food, for instance, it is working with partners to develop technology that will change the way most people consume proteins and micronutrients, improving nutrition and health for all.

Solutions for a Changed World

Domestically, the foundation is looking to assist America’s workforce in ways that prepare workers for the jobs of tomorrow, by investing in lower-income communities — especially taking advantage of Opportunity Zones, an element of the recently passed federal tax bill that has created significant incentives to accumulate and deploy much needed capital to 8,700 lower-income census tracts around the country.

“The question we have to ask ourselves, and we did after the 2016 election, is do we have better answers to recreating an economy that is more just, less stratified than in the past, and still allows us to compete in the global environment for the next 20 to 30 years?” Shah said.

The work around Opportunity Zones, which the foundation is undertaking with The Kresge Foundation, has the potential to make a significant impact in historically under-resourced and underserved communities nationwide.

In addition to its work with The Kresge Foundation on Opportunity Zones, Shah said the foundation is trying to work more collaboratively with other foundations and donors as well as with governments, nonprofits and businesses.

“If we’re going to tackle huge problems, we need lots of people around the table working together to solve them together at scale,” Shah said. Among the other notable collaborations the foundation is helping to lead is Co-Impact, launched with Bill Gates, Jeff Skoll, Jean Case and others, which has already raised $200 million for high-impact international giving in areas such as poverty reduction and education — critical areas for philanthropic investment in the global context at a time when U.S. federal resources have receded. Another recent initiative is one the foundation has undertaken with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: the Communities Thrive Challenge, which seeks to lift up and scale community-driven approaches to expanding economic opportunity.