Nine Questions for Lourdes J. Rodríguez, the David Rockefeller Fund’s New CEO

Lourdes J. Rodríguez

On November 1, 2022, Dr. Lourdes J. Rodríguez became chief executive officer of the New York City-based David Rockefeller Fund.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Rodríguez moved to the continental U.S. in 1996. She received her doctorate in public health from Columbia University, a master of public health degree from the University of Connecticut, and a bachelor of science degree in industrial biotechnology from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. Prior to joining the fund, Rodríguez served as a senior program officer with Austin, Texas-based St. David’s Foundation, where her work centered on creating the community conditions needed to reverse poor maternal mortality and morbidity outcomes. 

Her appointment comes at a pivotal time for the fund, one of several philanthropies derived from the storied family fortune. Launched in 1989 by David and his wife Peggy, the grantmaker is experiencing a self-described “natural generational evolution,” with a majority of the family seats on the board occupied by the founders’ grandchildren, their spouses or partners, and an increasing number of non-family board members.

At the same time, its leadership is reexamining how the fund can best serve historically underfunded constituencies and catalyze social movements across its three program areas, which include criminal justice reform, climate change, and arts for social justice. As part of this effort, Rodríguez has been charged with “exploring how issues of power and equity overlap with philanthropic practice while also actively defining and building new models for the foundation to be more just and inclusive.”

I spoke with Rodríguez a few days shy of her two-month mark as CEO to discuss how she’s approaching her role, the fund’s evolution, and what makes for great science fiction. Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity.

You have extensive experience in academia. What made you transition to the nonprofit world?

I started out as a public health practitioner and conducted research on how nonprofits or businesses incorporated public health wins and how this work can bring people together. It was hard to do that kind of research within an academic setting, and that’s what led me to go to the nonprofit sector. It was this bent toward problem-solving because I couldn’t get my fix in academia.

Who are your biggest influences?

My huge extended family. On my mom’s side, there are 11 aunts and uncles; on my dad’s side, there are 10. With each of them having at least three kids, I have some cousins who are old enough to be my parents, and some that are almost young enough to be my kids.

We have a little bit of everything. We have stay-at-home moms and dads, we have farmers and coffee growers. We have accountants and engineers, we have teachers, we have bank tellers, and I was expected to treat them all with the same level of respect and love and kindness. So I bring that with me everywhere I go, that idea of creating room for everybody however they may show up.

Is your family still mostly based in Puerto Rico?

I would say 60% are still on the island, and then we have a diaspora of primos (cousins) in the continental U.S.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My mother had a saying: “El que no vive para servir, no sirve para vivir,” and it translates into, “a life not lived in service is not a life worth living.” That was her model, and having that perspective of service has served me well over the years. 

It means that whether I was in the classroom or interacting with community partners in philanthropy, I always think about, “What is the service that I am providing? What kind of value-add am I providing to the people that I’m collaborating with?” Thinking about it in those terms informs how I make decisions.

What’s the last great book you read?

I love science fiction, and I discovered N. K. Jemisin and the first two books of her Great Cities trilogy, “The City We Became” and “The World We Make.” Science fiction can provide powerful social commentary because while the context of the storytelling is fantasy, we can separate it from the social issues that are weaved into the story.

A friend of mine recommended “The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success.” Each culture has cultural scripts that people follow, and nunchi is a Korean social construct that is akin to having an emotional EQ or an emotional quotient, but with a spatial and time perspective to it. It’s fascinating.

And in my queue is “Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want,” by Ruha Benjamin, which was recommended by a colleague. The world that we have didn’t just magically appear; we created it. So I am about to read it, and I can tell you all about it next time we chat.

How do you think philanthropy has changed in the last two and a half years?

Sometimes we think in terms of “magic bullet” solutions to problems and short-term investments that have one- or two-year horizons, and that approach can shortchange our partners on the ground.

Rodrick and Deborah Wallace wrote a paper about 10 years ago talking about “magic strategies.” If a “magic bullet” is a single solution, a “magic strategy” is thinking in complex, multilevel systems as a way of learning and informing the next steps. The pandemic was a magnifying glass that allows us to see the chronic issues, whereas before, we were trying to solve with acute disaster-solving strategies, and it gives me hope that we’re starting to think about solutions at the systems level and the need for longer-term investments.

This thinking also naturally requires a different relationship with grantees.

Funders set strategy, but they’re not the ones carrying out the work, unless they’re an operating foundation. The people you are supporting are the ones carrying out your strategy. 

If we want to think of it from a self-serving perspective, it makes sense to ensure that they have everything that they need to succeed, and to not be constantly proving themselves before you support them, whether it’s providing connections or spotlighting their work. All of those things need to be brought to bear through the lens of long-term investments with the understanding that a fixed model that does not allow for learning is useless.

How else does this thinking inform your work with the David Rockefeller Fund?

As I’m learning more about the fund’s work in justice reform, climate change and arts for social justice, our strategy needs to include creating pathways for getting a different kind of leader into decision-making rooms. Not just investing in programmatic solutions, not just investing in policy solutions, which are very important, but also thinking about, who are the leaders that are going to take on solving these problems? 

I think we overuse the term “lived experience” to the point that it’s almost not significant anymore. But it provides perspectives that you could not get unless you had been there yourself. We’re leaving a lot of value on the sidelines if we’re only coming to solutions from an intellectual understanding of the problem.

What are you most looking forward to in your new role?

It would be figuring out “what is ours to do.” I’m not necessarily coming into the organization with a set of activities and projects that I want to take on. The charge that I was given was, we want to become a more just, equitable and diverse funder, so I’m creating space to think about what we have been and we want to be.

I’m loving it, but it’s a lot of hard work, and sometimes, it’s lonely work, so I’m constantly looking for thought partners. I rely on my board chair and my staff, but I’m hoping that in the next six to 12 months, I can also rely on people who are closest to the issues to be our partners, as well.

The fund’s press release mentioned the fund’s “natural generational evolution.” Can you elaborate a bit on that?

Our board has 14 members; 10 of those are family and four of them are non-family members. We’re increasingly going outside the networks of the family to make room for board members that are not necessarily known to us and who are helping us bridge gaps in our expertise. That’s the really exciting part.