Making a Difference—Today and Tomorrow

9, 10, 11, 12

Students will describe the paradox of industrialist John D. Rockefeller a turn of the century monopolist and a generous philanthropist. They will give examples of how his philanthropy continues today through the work of the foundations that survived him. Robert W. Scrivner’s contribution to a better world, through his work with the Rockefeller Family Fund, will be analyzed.

Lesson Rating 
PrintTwo Fifty Minute Class Periods

The learners will:

  • analyze how John D. Rockefeller’s philosophy was reflected in his business and philanthropic endeavors.
  • recognize how the philanthropic actions of one person can begin a legacy of contributing to the common good.
  • describe and give examples of the motivations for giving.
  • understand and use the vocabulary of philanthropy.
  • identify qualities of good character and personal virtue exemplified by Robert W. Scrivner.
  • apply motivations for philanthropic acts to their own experience.
  • A Rockefeller Timeline (see Attachment One), student copies
  • Thoughts on Robert W. Scrivner (see Attachment Two), student copies
  • Answer Key to Thoughts on Robert W. Scrivner (see Attachment Three)
  • Profile of John D. Rockefller (see Attachment Four)
  • Profile of Robert W. Scrivner (see Attachment Five)
  • CD of the song On the Sunny Side of the Street (see Bibliographical References)
Home Connection 

Students will ask a senior adult what it was like to live during the Depression, if anyone in their family received help from the government or a non-profit organization, and how. Students should be prepared to discuss these experiences in class.

  • “Rockefeller, John D.” American National Biography. New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 1999, vol. 18, pp. 693-697.
  • Grimm, Rober T. Jr. (editor). “Rockefeller Family Philanthropy.” Notable American Philanthropists: Biographies of Giving and Volunteering. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002, pp. 260-276.
  • PBS American Experience: The Rockefellers
  • Prince, R.. & File, Karen. The Seven Faces of Philanthropy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 1994 ISBN: 0787960578
  • The Donors Steering Committee for the Robert W. Scrivner Award. “The Robert W. Scrivner Award.” New York: Council on Foundations Historical Document.


  1. Anticipatory Set: Sing, play or read the words of the song, “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” to the class. Explain that the song was first recorded by Louis Armstrong and his orchestra in October, 1934 during the Great Depression.

    Grab your coat and get your hat Leave your worries on the doorstep Life can be so sweet On the sunny side of the street
    Can't you hear the pitter-pat And that happy tune is your step Life can be complete On the sunny side of the street
    I used to walk in the shade with my blues on parade But I'm not afraid...this rover’s crossed over
    If I never had a cent I'd be rich as Rockefeller Gold dust at my feet On the sunny side of the street.

    Ask the learners to notice the name “Rockefeller” in the lyrics. Put the name (John D. Rockefeller) on the chalkboard and have the learners do a quick brainstorm of words or ideas related to the man.

  2. Explain that the period after the Civil War until the beginning of the 20th century is often known as the “Rise of the Industrial Age.” New inventions and technology created industries that provided jobs for the United States’ growing population. The companies which succeeded in these industries often made millionaires of their owners. John D. Rockefeller was one of them.

  3. Distribute copies of A Rockefeller Timeline and discuss the information contained within it. As the timeline is discussed, it may become apparent to the learners that Rockefeller is an example of a complex person with seemingly contradictory qualities. He was aggressive in creating his business yet, even from his earliest working days, gave generously of his money to help worthwhile causes. He was known both as an aggressive industrialist and a generous philanthropist (someone who gives of his time, talent or resources to help others).

  4. Have the learners form into small teams of two or three. Ask the learners to go over the timeline once again, this time “coding” the entries.

    • Box (or underline in blue) every item on the timeline which shows John D. Rockefeller’s side as an aggressive industrialist.
    • Circle (or underline in red) every item on the timeline which shows John D. Rockefeller’s side as a generous philanthropist.
    • Underline (or underline in black) every item which is neutral, neither building his wealth nor giving away his fortune.

    Everything on the timeline should be coded. After sufficient time has been given, let the class compare their coding and discuss any discrepancies.

  5. Explain that all philanthropists are not necessarily rich. Anyone who gives time talent or treasure or takes action for the common good is a philanthropist. All philanthropists have their own motivations. These motivations can include:

    • Doing good makes sense.
    • Doing good is God’s will.
    • Doing good is good business.
    • Doing good is fun.
    • Doing good feels right.
    • Doing good in return (repay)
    • Doing good is a family tradition.
  6. Solicit examples of each motivation from the learners. Based on the previously discussed timeline, ask the learners to speculate about Rockefeller’s reasons for giving.

  7. Ask the students to reflect and respond in writing to these questions: When you are philanthropic, which one(s) of the seven reasons are your motivators? Are you motivated by any others not included in the seven?

  8. Assign Profile of John D. Rockefeller and Profile of Robert W. Scrivner (see handouts) as homework reading.

  9. Second Class Session:

    Anticipatory set: Write this statement, written by Rockefeller, on the chalkboard: "I believe it is every man’s religious duty to get all he can honestly and to give all he can". Ask the learners to discuss what it reveals about Rockefeller’s philosophy of life and about him as a person.

  10. Reflect on the homework reading and share the following information about the Rockefeller legacy and Robert W. Shrivner with the class:

  11. John D. Rockefeller died in 1937. His creation of the Rockefeller Foundation with the donation of $100 million dollars, grew to 3.5 billion dollars by the year 2000, inspired many people, and created opportunities to carry on his legacy of philanthropy.

  12. Endowments are like savings accounts for non-profit organizations and foundations that last for a period of time decided upon by the donor. Most endowment funds are in “perpetuity” meaning the original gift is saved forever. Endowment funds are usually invested. They grow in value over time in order to keep up with inflation, and they provide an income from the investment that is used by the foundation to make grants for charitable purposes. The wealth created during Rockefeller’s life has been “saved” in this permanent endowment for the common good, forever.

  13. The results of this legacy have shaped the development of the U.S. and had a global impact. His son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., influenced by the generosity of his father, continued the family tradition of philanthropy by carrying on the work through the Rockefeller Foundation. The grandsons of John D. Rockefeller created the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 1940. In 1967 the Rockefeller Family Fund, which now has fifth generation family members serving as trustees, was created. Explain that these are foundations, which are nongovernmental, nonprofit organizations with funds and programs managed by their own trustees. These foundations were established to provide social, educational, religious or other charitable activities serving the common welfare, primarily through the making of grants. Grants are gifts of money that do not have to be repaid. Family foundations have funds which were given by members of a single family.

  14. An individual outside the Rockefeller family who helped perpetuate the legacy was Robert W. Scrivner, hired as the first executive director of the Rockefeller Family Fund. His job was to help the family decide what issues or problems to address and possible solutions in which to invest Foundation funds.

  15. By a show of hands, ask the learners if they think this would be a “good” job to have and why. Then, writing the responses on the chalkboard, do a quick brainstorm of the “problems or hazards” this type of job would have. (Answers might include: It is a good job because you have lots of money to use to solve a problem, you can talk with experts to find the best solutions, you are free to experiment and if things go wrong, you have learned something important—what doesn’t work, you can help support the common good. Some of the hazards or problems might be: you can’t be sure that your solutions would work; you can’t be sure that the money wouldn’t be wasted; the problem might be too great and can’t be solved with one quick solution; the problem might be solved as long as there is Foundation money available but as soon as the money runs out, the problem will return, etc.)

  16. Divide the class into three groups. In each group, encourage the learners to form small teams of two or three. To help the learners understand the character traits Robert W. Scrivner demonstrated in the life, distribute Thoughts on Robert W. Scrivner(Attachment Two). To those teams in group one, distribute Passage 1. To those teams in group two, distribute Passage 2. To those teams in group three, distribute Passage 3. Read the following statement to the class as an introduction:

  17. Robert W. Scrivner worked at the Rockefeller Family Fund as its executive director from 1972 until his untimely death from cancer at the age of 48 in 1984. He didn’t leave behind volumes about himself but his life spoke volumes about his civic virtue. We can see what kind of a person he was from these thoughts written by the Donors Steering Committee for the Robert W. Scrivner Award.

  18. Direct the teams to read the description of Mr. Scrivner they have been given. On the lines provided on the worksheet, ask them to write short, clear sentences to describe Mr. Scrivner in their own words, and assign a character trait(s) to each statement, for example, “He was willing to consider solutions to problems that were not easy. – Responsibility, Caring.” After sufficient time has been allowed for the teams to work, have each group report their findings about the man by reading the short sentences they wrote about him.

  19. Ask the learners to speculate on why there is a need for foundations. In other words, why doesn’t the government work toward or solve all the problems that exist in a community? (Government doesn’t have the money to solve all problems. It also needs the approval of the majority to approve their ideas in the legislature. Government addresses concerns of the majority. Non-profits historically have led the way in addressing minority issues.) If a foundation works on solving a problem in society, is it easier or harder for them to come up with new solution ideas than the government? (Foundations do not have to convince taxpayers to fund their new ideas as the government would have to do nor are they limited by needing to get the approval of legislators to vote on their ideas.) Are foundations and other organizations which are part of the nonprofit sector (non-government, non-corporate) good for a society? Why?

  20. Display the five program areas of the Rockefeller Family Fund: Citizen Participation and Government Accountability, Economic Justice for Women, Environment, Institutional Responsiveness, and Self-Sufficiency. Ask the class how these how these five program areas reflect the character traits of Caring, Civic Virtue and Citizenship, Justice and Fairness, Respect, Responsibility, Trustworthiness, and Giving?

  21. Write the trait next to the program area. Within these program areas, the Fund supports programs of national significance that are likely to yield visible public policy results. The RFF currently distributes about $2.5 million annually in grants. On the Internet, visit the Rockefeller Family Fund’s Website at to see their list of grantees. Click on one of the grantees to see the type of proposals that are funded.


Go back to the original song lyric which opened this lesson, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”. Ask the learners, once again, to do a quick brainstorm of words or ideas related to the man, John D. Rockefeller. Note the difference in perception since the Anticipatory Set answers were given.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 01. Define Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Define philanthropy to include giving and sharing; volunteering; and private individual action intended for the common good. Explain how a volunteer individual/group can act for the common good.
      2. Benchmark HS.2 Identify and discuss examples of philanthropy and charity in modern culture.
    2. Standard DP 02. Roles of Government, Business, and Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Explain why needs are met in different ways by government, business, civil society and family.
      2. Benchmark HS.6 Describe how the civil society sector is often the origin of new ideas, projects and innovation and social renewal.
    3. Standard DP 05. Role of Foundations
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Define the term foundation and describe the types of foundations.
      2. Benchmark HS.4 Identify foundations established in perpetuity and major gifts given for the common good from their endowments.
  2. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark HS.4 Describe and give examples of characteristics of someone who helps others.
      2. Benchmark HS.5 Describe civil society advocacy organizations and their relationship to human rights.
    2. Standard PCS 06. Philanthropy in History
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Give an example of individual philanthropic action that influenced national or world history.
  3. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Define and give examples of motivations for giving and serving.
      2. Benchmark HS.4 Cite historical examples of citizen actions that affected the common good.