International understanding, peace and well-being have been a concern of US philanthropy from the beginning. Through avenues such as track II diplomacy, support for think tanks and multi-lateral organizations, and international exchanges, philanthropic institutions and individuals have made inroads in international relations in ways that governments often cannot.
When a friendly interchange unexpectedly emerged between American and Chinese table tennis players in 1971, the National Committee on U.S. – China Relations seized the opportunity to issue the Chinese an invitation. This example of cultural diplomacy also underscores the unique role that Third Sector organizations can play in international affairs.
The onset of World War I created unprecedented needs and new demands on American foundations — most of which were fairly new organizations as well. Several organizations were actually founded in direct response to the war. RAC holdings from the Rockefeller family, Rockefeller Foundation, Commonwealth Fund, and Near East Foundation document US philanthropy’s relief efforts for Europe.
The Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation kicked off plans to construct the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1963. They viewed IITA as a vital new component of their joint efforts to increase the developing world’s food supply across the globe. But a political crisis and a subsequent civil war nearly upended the funders’ plans.
A group of American philanthropies funded a massive preservation project in West Africa in the 1980s, working with museums that had collections at risk of deterioration and a shortage of trained personnel. The program went beyond simply repairing physical decay. It has had staying power for decades because it focuses on both the people running the museums and what these institutions mean to local communities.
The scientific, intensive agriculture that the Rockefeller Foundation pioneered on a large international scale (eventually in partnership with the Ford Foundation) was touted as a “Green Revolution” in a 1968 speech. The name stuck. How the Mexican Agriculture Program created a method for intensifying agriculture on a global level.