Ford finds new forward gear


Alliance magazine


The Ford Foundation said last week that it has completed its two-year transition in the shape of its new blueprint, FordForward (see also the Alliance interview with Hilary Pennington, 1 September 2015). The motive behind the changes is Ford’s growing conviction that inequality ‘in all its forms, represents the greatest impediment to just, fair, and peaceful societies that offer opportunity for all,’ as a message from Ford President Darren Walker announcing and explaining the changes, puts it.

Practically, this means that Ford’s 35 initiatives have become 15 lines of work, which in turn are grouped under seven new – or at least newly denominated – areas: civic engagement and governance; free expression and creativity; equitable development; gender, racial and ethnic justice; inclusive economics; internet freedom; and youth opportunity and learning. Moreover, these areas won’t be working in isolation from each other. Walker’s message also talks of breaking down silos, forming ‘interdisciplinary teams’ and of ‘pushing forward with a more coherent and interconnected grant-making program—one that seeks to do fewer things better’.  In other words, this is more than just shuffling the cards and Walker makes no secret of the fact that this will be bad news for some.

What will go?
Among the areas of work that Ford is withdrawing from is support for LBGT issues in the US (though it will continue to fund such work overseas), conditional cash transfers in Latin America, microfinance, and, in the US, its initiatives ‘extending the school day, building arts spaces and engaging religion in the public sphere’. The Foundation will also make fewer grants – Walker estimates that the 400 or so Ford makes on average will be reduced by 20 per cent.

Major changes afoot
One of the most significant practical changes is that Ford will put $1bn over the next five years through its new BUILD Program into building networks and institutions which it sees as ‘the infrastructure on which movements for change are built’. He tells readers, too, they can expect more ‘collaborations in the spirit of Detroit’s Grand Bargain, NetGain and our new impact investing partnerships.’ Ford will also combat what Walker calls the ‘myth of overhead’ – donors forcing non-profits ‘to submit proposals that do not include the actual costs of the projects we’re funding’. So from 1 January 2016, Ford will double the amount of operating and overhead costs it allows in its grants to what it sees as the more realistic figure of 20 per cent.

Another change is heralded by Walker’s declaration that he no longer finds it ‘defensible to say that our investment strategy is only to maximize the value of our endowment,’ Over the coming months, he says, a new impact investment policy will also be developed,

A broader trend
Ford is of course not alone in identifying inequality as public enemy No.1 in the policy-making canon. As long ago as 2005, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) published a report sub-titled The Inequality Predicament  which argues that ‘the goal of sustained poverty reduction cannot be achieved unless equality of opportunity and access to basic social services are ensured.’ More recently, it has become a subject of debate among US politicians of all shades, with Barack Obama talking about ‘closing the loopholes that lead to inequality’ in his most recent State of the Union address and in a Pew Reseach Center survey last year, Americans and many Europeans cited inequality as ‘the greatest threat to the world’. Moreover, as Darren Walker told the New York Times at the end of last month, ‘inequality brings a coherence that connects our work.’

So is this part of a new trend in philanthropy that is beginning to look at deeper causes? Some think so. The New York Times article also notes the Rockefeller Foundation’s focussing on the theme of resilience and the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation making ‘big bets’ on issues like climate change and reforming the US criminal justice system. Erica Kohl-Arenas of the New School thinks it is, too. In the same article she says that ‘foundations are looking at addressing not just the symptoms but also the sources of these problems.’ So does Richard Marker, a philanthropy adviser and professor at New York University: ‘The philanthropy world is changing the way it wants to address the overriding questions. Don’t just say, ‘How can we give more people food?’ They are talking about the eradication of food insecurity. They are becoming more systemic in their thinking.’

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