Judith Rodin

Dialogues on the Environment: Q&A with Judith Rodin

Mark Tercek: The Rockefeller Foundation has been a great champion for moving innovation from idea to impact. Where do you see the best opportunities for impact investments in conservation?

Judith Rodin: Innovation has been part of our approach and success for 100 years – in fact, we’ve given our Centennial year the tagline “Innovation for the Next 100 Years.” There are so many innovations ripe for discovery and waiting to be brought to scale to create entire transformations, and we are leveraging technology and our deep networks to bring many of those ideas to the forefront, wherever in the world they might emerge.

When it comes to conservation, one idea that excites us is the possibility for municipalities, states and nations to issue conservation or restoration bonds. The bonds would be geared toward maintaining or rehabilitating ecosystems that provide vital services and are degraded or endangered. Property owners who receive the financing would repay the costs from their financial returns on provision of ecosystem service benefits to public or private entities or, potentially, from an assessment on their property taxes. Some potential projects could be restoring natural infrastructure for storm- and waste-water treatment, mitigating the impact of storms and natural disasters, maintaining irreplaceable or cost prohibitive ecosystem services such as freshwater flows or carbon sequestration that are increasingly valued (and paid for) by cities, corporations and some nations.


Mark Tercek: How can environmentalists better innovate to make bigger things happen faster for nature and people?

Judith Rodin: Just as leaders in other fields should more actively embrace the environment, environmentalists must reach beyond their core disciplines to explore the emerging innovations, actors and technologies that are transforming other sectors. Pursuing these linkages can lead to intriguing questions with potentially paradigm-shifting answers: For example, how can impact investment mobilize financing for environmental gain and make ecosystems a smart investment? How can we deploy big data to establish a “common currency” for ecosystem value and accounting? How can we integrate environmental measures of risk in to long term investment ratings? What are the next big gamechangers in technology that could be developed and accelerated to, for example, promote sustainable farming and forest management, or analyze climate trends?

Mark Tercek: What can or should universities be doing to address today’s environmental problems?

Judith Rodin: I think the most important thing universities can do for the environment is to break down the internal silos that separate the environment from the so-called “traditional disciplines.” The Rockefeller Foundation’s history is replete with instances of employing this kind of integration to break new ground and create new multidisciplinary fields. Years ago, for example, we fostered the cross-disciplinary collaboration that led to increased focus and action on the then-new idea of public health.

Similarly, there is a responsibility among all disciplines to shine a light on the inextricable ties that exist between nature and wealth, social and economic development, and human well-being. Focus on the environment can no longer be merely the purview of a single school or department. Fields from economics and engineering to medicine and architecture must integrate and acknowledge planetary health and the benefits of well-preserved and protected natural ecosystems in all of their work, instead of treating them as side issues, extra-curriculars, or out of the mainstream. Universities, from their operations to their classrooms, have a tremendous opportunity to shape the thinking and belief systems about environmental protection and sustainability that students will carry throughout their careers.

Mark Tercek: What advice do you have for me in running a big NGO and helping philanthropists invest in conservation?

Judith Rodin: Well, I would start by saying that you’re already doing a fantastic job of protecting our precious natural resources in ways that are innovative and engage the private sector, and I think more heads of NGOs and philanthropies would do well to follow your lead. We need more champions to spread the idea that conservation is a good investment – and look to bring in other partners who can leverage the NGO sector’s resources. For many of us, there’s obvious merit in the intrinsic, altruistic benefits of this work, but there’s more we can do to make it a smart business decision, an investment in wealth creation, risk mitigation, long-term performance and sustainability. By making the solutions pragmatic and the benefits obvious, we can bring conservation to its rightful place at the core of human development and social good, which will help ensure all the good work you are doing at The Nature Conservancy can be sustained.

Mark Tercek: Can you tell us about the work The Rockefeller Foundation is doing to make cities more resilient?

Judith Rodin: The shocks and stresses of our world, from storms and flooding to earthquakes and financial collapse are increasing in frequency, complexity and intensity, presenting what we believe are among the biggest threats to the well-being of humanity around the world. In response the Rockefeller Foundation has endeavored to build the resilience of people, communities, and institutions by helping them prepare for, withstand, and bounce back faster and smarter from disasters. For the last decade, we’ve invested or committed more than $100 million in resilience building across the globe, from post-Katrina New Orleans to dozens of Asian cities fighting the effects of climate change. In New York City, we’ve been working with the City and a host of other partners on such issues as preparing the city for rising sea levels and protecting our fragile ecosystems and coast lines.

Last year, Rockefeller announced our 100 Resilient Cities Challenge, which will support 100 cities across the globe in their efforts to build urban resilience.

Among the benefits cities will receive are support to hire a Chief Resilience Officer and build and implement a resilience strategy; access a suite of services from private sector partners, as well as leverage the Foundation’s expertise on unlocking private finance for resilient infrastructure; and finally, creating a network of cities to exchange what works.

Each city will require a different set of resilience activities – from investing in built and green infrastructure that protects against flooding or other shocks, to building rapid transit options, to integration of resilience infrastructure projects to attract private financing. We announced the first round of winners in December, and we are very excited to get started.

Mark Tercek: I was honored to work with you on New York Governor Cuomo’s 2100 Commission addressing what NY should do about future Hurricane Sandy–level storms. What did we learn from the experience and how can we do more?

Judith Rodin: The most important thing to emerge from the commission was a transformation in how we think about rebuilding: we want to ensure that we rebuild more smartly, instead of simply replicating the ineffective systems, vulnerable structures or brittle practices that existed before the Superstorm reached our shores. We need to build things that allow us to become more resilient to all kinds of future shocks and stresses.

What can’t be emphasized enough is that building a resilience strategy of this kind will come with all kinds of secondary benefits and opportunities – especially for our economy. New infrastructure investments, for example, will have their grounding in smart rebuilding, but will also create the jobs of the future, including green jobs. One of our recommendations was to accompany these new opportunities with expanded education, job training and workforce development offerings – if we do this, we’ll grow the pool of workers equipped to meet the challenges of creating a more resilient 21st century New York State and boost our economy for generations to come.

Mark Tercek: Looking back, what is something that you’ve been wrong about in the past? How has that changed your thinking today?

Judith Rodin: I think it was assuming that some challenges were just too big to take on, or someone else’s role. So a big adjustment I’ve had to make as a leader has been realizing the kind of ambition – and openness to risk – that I should be comfortable with.

For example, when I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania, I was extremely discouraged to see the plight of the neighborhood around the university. But I was advised that as the leader of an Ivy League institution, it wasn’t my role to do anything about it. Eventually, I ignored that advice, and instead we partnered with the neighborhood and set out a five-part strategy to rebuild that neighborhood safely and securely, with commercial and retail development, job training, high-performing public schools and housing.

I learned from that experience that the role of a leader is often to encourage – and create cover for – meaningful risk that can lead to innovation and change. This is especially true in the philanthropic sector, where the ability to take on risk is arguably our greatest advantage. There are a few things that a leader can do to promote this kind of environment: first, make a very public and specific commitment to innovation. Then, encourage staff to innovate around agreed-upon goals that overlap with their real everyday work – this is an excellent trainer for culture change and sparking innovation. Finally, put a system in place that sparks experimentation and idea generation that can be viewed as having impact for the recipients of the work, because people feel proud when they are able to create impact.

Dr. Judith Rodin has been president of The Rockefeller Foundation since 2005. She was previously president of the University of Pennsylvania, the first woman to lead an Ivy League institution, and provost of Yale University.

Since joining the Foundation in 2005, Dr. Rodin has recalibrated its focus to meet the challenges of the 21st century and today the Foundation works to advance inclusive economies that expand opportunities for more broadly shared prosperity and to build greater resilience by helping people, communities and institutions prepare for, withstand and emerge stronger from acute shocks and chronic stresses. The Foundation accomplishes these goals through work that advances health, revalues ecosystems, secures livelihoods and transforms cities. Dr. Rodin is the first woman to serve as the Foundation’s president in its 101 year history.