What’s Next for the Ford Foundation?

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 10.39.17 AMThe title of this post is the title of a post written by Darren Walker announcing the future direction of the Ford Foundation. It is a very compelling, exciting and clarion vision. The one area that really caught my attention was the commitment he makes to anchor organizations.

He writes, “…we have decided to invest in organizations as partners—and to give them the kind of trust, flexibility, and additional supports they need to do their best work. As incubators for both individuals and ideas, organizations are essential to developing a robust ecosystem of actors addressing inequality around the world.”

There is a lot packed into this paragraph. The first is the commitment to organizations over people. This notion is repeated several times in Darren’s post, his mantra is institutions, individuals, and ideas. Institutions first, always. Of course, this makes sense as a traditional grantmaking institution, Ford gives grants to institutions, so they had better be good ones. But I do wonder if there is an understanding within Ford of the changing role of organizations as platforms for connecting people to one another and engaging networks of people in problem solving rather than in the traditional fortresses that Ford has invested in?

And how will these organizations be “partners” with the foundation? One of my most memorable experiences with my program officer from the Packard Foundation when I received my first grant from them. I had just started Innovation Network. “I am so excited to be your partner!” I shouted to my program officer (in the way that only twenty-somethings can do.) She took a deep breath and said, “I’m not your partner, I’m your funder.”

She wanted to make the boundaries of our relationship very clear. We would never be equals, she told me, it was not possible, because of the inherent power differential between check writers and check receivers. And she was right. They invested very generously, for three years, and then they were done, and I was left to scramble and find someone else to pick up the tab (that is the definition of nonprofit sustainability, by the way, finding the next donor/funder to write a check.)

The history of foundations as “partners” with their grantees is a road littered with the corpses of good intentions gone bad. Darren specifically emphasizes that he wants his institution to distinguish between making a grant successful versus making an grantee successful. And yet, it has very rarely been done.

Why? Because it requires grantees to be willing to share real problems and foundations willing to accept them. Unless Darren changes the DNA of the foundation, where learning is rewarded even if it looks like failure, it will not be possible for program officers to accept bad news from grantees. Therefore, they won’t get bad news.

I am delighted that Ford wants to invest heavily, and with general operating support, in essential organizations. Hurrah! But the biggest questions remain. Who defines effectiveness and sustainability? What will learning look like and what will Ford’s tolerance be for hearing what they traditionally have thought of as bad news?

And here’s my big, big question: Exactly what kinds of organizations are Ford aiming to sustain? Not what do these organizations do, but how do they operate? Will the foundation continue to invest in fortresses, as their history suggests, or are they going to push towards more networked models that will make these institutions more porous, more engaged with their own communities, shaped more like social networks than stand alone hierarchies.

Ford does not have a history of helping to support more networked organizations, but there is an enormous opportunity for them to take the lead in doing so now. My fingers are crossed that they will!


About the author

Allison Fine

Copyright © 2018 Allison Fine