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Why did the Rockefeller Foundation just unceremoniously end its successful resilience program?

100 Resilient Cities–which funded an office of resiliency in city governments around the world–is set to be terminated this summer. The reasons are unclear.

Why did the Rockefeller Foundation just unceremoniously end its successful resilience program?
[Source Image: Andrey_A/iStock]

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, the city released a comprehensive strategy to cope with floodwaters in the future, and rebuild the natural habitat that once managed them. That same year, New York came out with a plan to manage the type of storm surge that wrecked the city during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. In 2016, Medellín, Colombia, released a strategy tackling a different but related challenge: social inequity and public safety, and how a disaster could exacerbate the two if not addressed. Dakar, Senegal, confronted the challenge of a booming population and how to equitably and sustainably manage growth. In its strategy, Amman, Jordan, grappled with its already pressing water scarcity issue, and how to manage it going forward.

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This is just a handful of the projects that took off under 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), a program launched by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2013. The aim of 100RC, to which Rockefeller has donated $164 million, was to get cities thinking proactively and collaboratively about how to address the interconnected problems of climate change and equity. By doing so, they would foster resilience, the ability to withstand or protect against future disasters or stressors in a way that enables residents, communities, businesses, institutions, and systems to grow and thrive, despite such challenges.

Each of the 100 member cities received two years worth of seed funding to create a new Chief Resilience Officer position in the local government, which would oversee the development of a resilience strategy, and eventually implementation of that plan. Since the program launched, the cities have been working toward those goals at varying speeds, and communicating with each other about strategies and approaches through the collaborative forum that the 100RC platform provided.

But on April 1, the Rockefeller Foundation announced it would be disbanding the program. It will formally dissolve in July.

By almost all accounts–including an independent study of the program conducted last year by the Urban Institute–100RC was working. It got cities actively thinking about long-term strategies for some of their most pressing problems through an application process that asked them to examine their vulnerabilities, stressors, and preparedness. It crossed global boundaries to foster a conversation across different urban contexts. According to Michael Berkowitz, president of 100RC, cities are undertaking over 2,600 resilience-focused projects, and the initiative has brought in over $3.35 billion in funding for initiatives across the cities.

According to Matthew Herrick, spokesperson for the Rockefeller Foundation, the organization will create a new internal office focused on climate and resilience, which will make strategic investments in climate-change related projects and support disaster recovery work. Through a new U.S.-focused program, the Rockefeller Foundation will also support resilience projects that create local jobs. The Foundation is also ceding a $30 million grant to the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience at the Atlantic Council, a nonprofit that focuses on global development.

To phase out the 100RC initiative, the Rockefeller Foundation is giving $12 million to Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, the branch of the organization that has been directly financing 100RC, to ensure the rest of the initiative’s financial commitments to cities are met through the end of 2019. The Rockefeller Foundation did not explain the reason for winding down 100RC, save to note that the organization has “a long history of incubating projects and entities that have matured to become independent organizations in their own right,” and implying that the city offices launched under 100RC are ready to do the same. Herrick added that financial commitments to some of the 100RC cities and Chief Resilience Officers that are still developing strategies may extend beyond the typically allotted two years, with additional funding from Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

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News of 100RC’s dissolution began to materialize last week after Berkowitz, following weeks of conversations with the Rockefeller Foundation, which financed 100RC but largely left it to be managed as a separate project, informed the staff that the initiative would likely be ended. Bloomberg reported the news on March 29, and speculated that the sudden announcement may be tied to changes in leadership at the Rockefeller Foundation, whose former president Judith Rodin left in 2017. The formal announcement three days later was buried seven paragraphs down in a press release about the Adrienne Arsht Center grant.

To the evolving field of sustainability and resilience, the decision to terminate 100RC is a blow. Staff of the program, certainly, did not see it coming: Those familiar with the program (who requested anonymity) told Fast Company they expected the program to continue in perpetuity, or at least through the bulk of cities’ implementations of their strategies. The staff of 100RC, which number a little less than 100, will be out of work. Herrick says they might continue on in the resiliency field or, ironically, look for work at the organizations Rockefeller will go on to fund: “It is likely that some staff will transition to other entities to take forward the climate- and resilience-focused work, including through a new office at Rockefeller Foundation, within our Jobs & Economic Opportunity program, with the Atlantic Council, and others,” he wrote in a statement to Fast Company.

For those outside of the initiative, it represented a concrete and truly unified step toward addressing daunting concerns in a way that dealt with local issues while building a global, urban community. The way 100RC approached sustainability, too, was unique. According to the Urban Institute report: “Most comparable programs have focused directly on projects or services, while 100RC’s theory of change focuses on the long-term transformation of institutions and systems in cities as a precursor to project implementation.” Long-term is the key idea here: 100RC was not interested in patchwork jobs or retroactive fixes (which is what makes the fact that part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s pivot revolves around disaster relief–instead of prevention–rather disappointing). Instead, the program wanted to get cities thinking about how to embed future resilience and sustainability into their DNA. The resilience officers and the strategies they developed did not work in isolation: They had to get multiple government officers and local stakeholders on board, and source inputs from the residents they aimed to serve. It’s a long process–evidenced by the fact that many cities are only now finalizing their strategies after over five years–but a worthwhile one.

What happens next for the cities is uncertain. The goal of the program, Herrick says, was to institutionalize and “integrate resilience in cities and communities around the world.” In other words, 100RC could be seen as a launchpad for the cities who participated, who now have their resilience officers in place and can independently work toward implementing their resilience strategies. It’s very possible that the cities who participated in 100RC will be able to do that, drawing on other funding to meet the aims the program helped them set out.

But for 100RC, this thinking is at odds with what made the program so worthwhile to begin with. It’s one thing–and a very important thing, at that–for a city to build a leadership structure around addressing long-term sustainability, and to create a plan that multiple stakeholders can work toward implementing. 100RC provided that impetus. But it also gave cities a crucial network of support and expertise, made up of both 100RC’s staff and leaders from other cities, to lean on throughout the process. That network would have continued to be a vital resource as cities move toward the implementation phase, and as they work to continually adapt in the face of unforeseen challenges.

There’s no doubt that the resilience projects the Rockefeller Foundation will fund going forward will deliver immensely positive benefits to the communities they affect. But there was something to be said for the visibility and structure of the 100RC cities program that this next phase of work can’t possibly replicate: 100RC foregrounded the importance of global collaboration. Through its platform, cities could keep each other on track to meet their targets, and continually inspire each other with new ideas for tackling everything from storm surges to social inequity. It was a truly global, collaborative, forward-thinking platform that felt more necessary year by year. One can imagine looking back 20 years from now and feeling that abandoning it was a mistake.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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