For the richest American family of their era, the goal was fittingly ambitious: "To promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world."
With that mission, underwritten by the vast wealth of John D. Rockefeller Sr., the Rockefeller Foundation was chartered 100 years ago in Albany. For several decades, it was the dominant foundation in the United States, breaking precedent with its global outlook and helping pioneer a diligent, scientific approach to charity that became a model.
It earned the abiding gratitude of many beneficiaries, inspired imitators and -- due to its power and influence -- became a periodic target of criticism from both right and left.
"They were in a very small group of foundations that practiced idea-based philanthropy as opposed to just charity. They are willing to invest in ideas," said Bradford Smith, who as president of the New York-based Foundation Center oversees research on philanthropy worldwide.
The next generation of philanthropists would be wise to study the history of the Rockefeller Foundation and its handful of peers, Smith said.
Though now dwarfed by the largesse of Bill Gates and other contemporary philanthropists, the Rockefeller Foundation remains ambitious and well-funded, and is increasingly eager to work in partnerships.
It is celebrating its centennial by touting an array of forward-looking projects, ranging from global disease surveillance to strengthening vulnerable cities' resilience to future calamities.
The Rockefeller Foundation played pivotal roles in introducing Western medicine to China, developing a vaccine for yellow fever, combating malaria, establishing prestigious schools of public health, and spreading the lifesaving agricultural advances of the Green Revolution. Recipients of its grants included Albert Einstein, writer Ralph Ellison and choreographer Bill T. Jones.
Still, detractors challenged the foundation's work. From the left, activists accused it of being a front for U.S. corporate and national security interests. From the right, critics over the years faulted its support for population-control programs and for research by Alfred Kinsey and others into human sexuality.
Even before the foundation was first proposed, there were sharply mixed views about Rockefeller and the fortune he amassed as the founder of Standard Oil.
His worth today would equal $231 billion.
On the advice of his inner circle, Rockefeller sought a congressional charter for a foundation that would coordinate his already substantial charitable giving.
Some government officials were suspicious of the endeavor and some newspaper editorialists suggested the project was a cynical effort to improve the family's checkered image. The measure proposing a charter died in the U.S. Senate, prompting the Rockefellers to turn swiftly to New York State, where lawmakers unanimously approved a charter that was signed into law on May 14, 1913.