Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation

Winthrop Rockefeller, who died in 1973, left most of his estate to the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust. The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF)—a private, nonprofit foundation—was created from this trust in 1974, with a focus on education, balanced economic growth and development, and social justice in Arkansas. In the twenty-first century, the foundation remains active in these areas, as well as working to improve conditions for children and at-risk families. From 1974 to 2009, the foundation gave more than $135 million to nonprofits in Arkansas.

Thomas C. (Tom) McRae IV became the first president of the foundation in 1975, serving until 1989. McRae focused special attention on addressing problems that caused Arkansas to appear at or near the bottom of many state rankings, saying, “We can talk about our past and our being forty-ninth or fiftieth on all these lists, but the most important thing is believing something can be done and doing it.” When Mahlon Martin became president in 1989, his goals were encouraging quality education for all children, breaking the cycle of poverty by strengthening local economic development, and nurturing grassroots community leadership. Sybil Hampton became the foundation’s third president in 1996, with a strong educational focus throughout her decade of leadership. In 2007, Sherece West-Scantlebury became the fourth president of WRF. Like the other presidents before her, West-Scantlebury pursues the goal of moving Arkansas out of the bottom-five ranking in the areas of family and child well-being.

To achieve this goal, the foundation instituted the Move the Needle strategic plan in 2008. Under this plan, the foundation’s grantmaking evolved into advocacy for a campaign to combat poverty in Arkansas through partnerships with philanthropists, nonprofits, economic developers, and government and community leaders. Grants are focused on four strategic goals to promote systemic change in Arkansas: decreasing the number of families living below 200% of the federal poverty line, increasing graduation rates, improving educational levels and economic mobility in selected communities, and showing that support and grants can help grantees “move the needle” and achieve their missions.

Since its beginning, WRF has invested in Arkansas in myriad ways, including establishing the Arkansas Community Foundation in 1976; providing core support for the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families in 1977; providing an interest-free loan to the Nature Conservancy in 1980 to preserve bottomland hardwood forests (ornithologists later searched for the ivory-billed woodpecker on this land); funding the implementation of the Medical Humanities program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1982; supporting the organization that became known as the Arkansas Rice Depot in 1982; funding Project Vote in Pine Bluff in 1985; leading the creation of the community development bank Southern Bancorp in 1986; supporting the Financing Ozarks Rural Growth & Economy (FORGE) micro-lending organization in 1990; and funding the Marginalized Males Workforce and Education Consortium (MMWEC) in 2010 to increase college graduation and retention rates for African-American men, Latino men, and low-income white men.

WRF has also been involved with many state and national taskforces and strategic reports. Recent examples include its support of the Arkansas Legislative Taskforce on Reducing Poverty and Promoting Economic Opportunity, with a year of research culminating in a final report in 2010. In 2011, anational report, “Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities: Impacts of Advocacy, Organizing, and Civic Engagement in the Gulf/Midsouth Region,” was produced by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) and partially funded by WRF. In 2013, WRF published the report“A Profile of Immigrants in Arkansas 2013,” which analyzed demographic trends and the economic impact of the growing population of immigrants and the Marshallese people in Arkansas.

The foundation’s mission statement (2013) reads, in part: “The mission of WRF is to improve the lives of Arkansans in three inter-related areas: education, economic development, and economic, racial and social justice. We pursue this mission through strategic grantmaking and partnerships, and using our voice, to help close the economic and educational gaps that leave too many Arkansas families in persistent poverty.”

WRF is governed by a thirteen-member board of directors and is run by a staff of nine. Its office is located on East Markham Street in downtown Little Rock (Pulaski County).

For additional information:
Smith, Doug. “What WR Left Behind—And What He Didn’t. Arkansas Times, March 28, 2012, pp. 16–17. Online at (accessed November 3, 2021).

Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. (accessed November 3, 2021).

Ali Welky
Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture


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