Interview – Barry Gaberman

Behind one foundation’s small number of large grants to universities, research institutions and large, well-established NGOs and another foundation’s large number of small grants to smaller NGOs and community organizations lie a whole range of decisions about staffing and style of operation. Caroline Hartnell talked to Barry Gaberman, Senior Vice President at the Ford Foundation, about some of the issues that inform these decisions. Their conversation makes clear just how far-reaching the consequences of decisions about staffing can be.

Lean and mean or staff-rich?

Characteristically, Barry Gaberman wants to define the context before the interview really begins. The roughly 56,000 foundations in the United States, he says, range from those that pride themselves on being very lean and mean, with carrying costs that may be as low as 7, 8 or 9 per cent, to those at the other end of the spectrum that are staff-rich and have carrying costs of 20 per cent or more. ‘Where you are on the continuum has important consequences for the style of operation you can undertake. If you are at the lean and mean end, the positive side is you’re putting 90 per cent or more of your money into grants. On the other hand, you have got to make fewer and larger grants, to institutions with a fairly well established track record. If you’re on the staff-rich end of the spectrum, there are consequences as well. On the negative side, you may only put 80 per cent of your money out in the form of grants. On the positive side, you can make more, smaller grants to small institutions that don’t have much of a track record, and it’s often in those circumstances that innovation occurs. But one isn’t necessarily better than the other, it’s just that there are consequences, depending where you choose to be on the continuum.’

Asked where the Ford Foundation chooses to be on the continuum, Gaberman not surprisingly puts them at the staff-rich end. Their benchmark is to try to put 80 per cent of their money out in the form of grants, with no more than 20 per cent carrying costs.

That figure would undoubtedly drop significantly if they didn’t have overseas offices. ‘But the philosophy is that we want to get as close as possible to where the issues are. The advantage that gives us in terms of seeking solutions and getting to know the people that are creating those solutions is worth the additional cost.’ Ford opened its first overseas office in New Delhi 50 years ago.

Closing the Philippines office

The decision to close the Philippines office next year is part of sticking to the 80/20 benchmark. Like most other foundations, Ford has experienced a big drop in its portfolio recently, so it has had to carry out some retrenchment in the US and close one of its overseas offices. As Gaberman stresses, ‘There’s never a right or wrong in closing an office, because you can do work that’s important in any of them.’ A central consideration in deciding which office to close was that ‘we wanted to maintain the reach that we needed if we were to be considered a global institution’.[1] With three offices in the region, South-East Asia naturally became the focus of attention – ‘we didn’t feel we could sustain all three at this point’. So the decision was made to continue one office in mainland South-East Asia and one in ‘the archipelago world’. ‘We felt that in a very difficult and uncertain time, some of the things we’re doing in Indonesia are so important that we could not close the office there. We also felt that we could continue to run some of our Philippines programmes from the base in Indonesia.’

Employing US or country nationals?

Asked about the Foundation policy for employing Americans or national staff in the overseas offices, Gaberman explains that all programme staff, including representatives, are New York appointments made on the basis of an international search. ‘It’s an international competition and it’s all subject to a single standard. Staff can come from anywhere, there are no requirements in terms of nationality or citizenship. My guess would be that Americans are a minority of our staff overseas at this point.’ If it happens that there are several Indians working in the Delhi office, it isn’t because criteria are weighted in favour of people from the country, it’s more that living in India gives them certain distinct advantages – such as language, familiarity with the area, experience of working there. Unlike programme professionals, administrator professionals (accountants, grants administrators, general service officers) and support staff (including secretarial staff) are recruited from within the country.

Head office jobs are also recruited internationally, though Gaberman admits ‘that has come along a bit more slowly than international recruitment for positions overseas’. Apparently Ford President Susan Beresford very much wants to increase the diversity of the office in New York. As a result, there have been an increasing number of hires from outside the US of both senior programme directors and programme officers. In theory this could include a vice president or even the president, though that hasn’t happened yet.

Recruiting programme staff

What sort of attributes is Ford looking for when recruiting programme staff? Are there any particular educational backgrounds that tend to be favoured? According to Gaberman, they ‘probably’ start out with a series of attributes that they’d like to see in their programme staff – language skills, ‘some skills in the area we’re recruiting for’, experience in the country, writing skills, ability to make presentations. ‘It all gets to sound a bit like we’d like them to walk on water, but we start off with that whole cluster of skills and then we recognize that in fact you don’t often get every one of those in one person. And then we make the best choice we can.’

The three-year rule

What’s the rationale behind the Ford policy of employing people for only three years, renewable once (this applies to programme officers, deputy directors and deputy representatives)? ‘What we actually say to a programme officer,’ Gaberman explains, ‘is that they ought to think of an assignment with us as roughly a six-year period of time, with two three-year contracts.’ As they approach the end of the first three-year contract, ‘we’ll see if there’s mutual satisfaction with performance in the job and make a decision about the next three years. We have the rule because we believe that it’s important that every so often we have a new pair of eyes to come in and take a look at a body of work. That way work doesn’t get stuck, with the same players being funded, the same lines of work being supported.’

All this has two important consequences. First, it puts Ford in ‘continuous recruitment mode’, and that takes a lot of effort and money. ‘We spend an awful lot of time trying to get the right person, because we don’t want to go through this more often than necessary. We think so far it’s worth it.’ Second, it takes away some important historical memory. ‘That’s why we don’t impose a time limit when it comes to our more senior staff. We’ve got to have places in the institution that have a longer historical memory.’

Does he feel that they lose people they’re sorry to see go because they’re a prisoner of their own rules? Gaberman explains that the six-year limit applies to the specific assignment and not the person. Should the person move on to another assignment at another office, or move up the ladder to take on a more senior post, ‘the clock starts again. We’re more than happy to retain good people after the specific assignment.’

Finally, does he think Ford has a subtext to populate the development world with Ford Foundation thinking?[1] ‘Well,’ he says, ‘there is no doubt that we have a wonderful network of ex-Ford people out there, but I think probably we’re guilty of the opposite. We don’t make use of the network as much as we should. From time to time we’ve thought about ways in which we might keep our programme alumni engaged – maybe an annual seminar that brought everyone back. So I suspect that if we had a plan to populate the philanthropic world with ex-Ford people we would probably screw it up.’

The problem of pay and conditions

What does Gaberman think about offering US pay scales in much poorer countries?
In a country like Afghanistan there are real fears that with UN agencies and other foreign organizations of all sorts coming into the country, it will be very hard for an indigenous NGO or foundation to recruit or retain good staff.

Gaberman admits this is something Ford has ‘wrestled with’. With administrative and support staff, a decision has been made to hire staff based on local market rates, but at the top of the local scale. ‘We don’t want to introduce distortions in the local market, so we try to be as good an employer as possible within that market.’ This isn’t just a matter of pay scales; it also involves looking at other benefits like health provision and time off ‘With attractive working conditions, the discrepancy between those at the top and those at the bottom, drivers for example, is compressed rather than aggravated.’

But it’s different with programme staff. As Gaberman points out, once you’ve made a decision to hire on an international basis with an international pay scale, it would be introducing another kind of unfair treatment if an Indian national who had competed for the job with people from the US, the UK and other places was then paid on a local rather than an international scale. If Ford had wanted to avoid the problem of labour market distortion completely, they would clearly need to have adopted a policy of local recruitment for programme staff too.

But he’s optimistic about the future: ‘There probably isn’t an easy way round the problem, but I suspect that with the globalization of these sorts of markets and labour costs over time the huge differences will tend to flatten out – though not in my lifetime!’

The unintended consequences of professionalization of staff

Asked about the ‘unintended consequences of professionalization of staff’ – something I’ve heard him allude to a couple of times – Gaberman talks about a ‘second phase of professionalization of philanthropy’ in the US and elsewhere. The tendency among foundations was traditionally to hire bright and usually quite experienced generalists, he explains. ‘These people paid attention to institutions; they had a sense of the importance of building their capacity.’ Then foundations began to hire people who were specialists, and naturally very interested in their own particular area of expertise.

‘The plus side of that was that you were able, as a philanthropic institution, to have a depth that you didn’t have before. The unintended negative side was that these specialists tended to be very interested in projects they could assess in some way in terms of impact and effectiveness. You’re then in the ironic situation that the capacity that attracted you to an institution to do a piece of work is diminished by taking on your own project, because you are less interested in maintaining the capacity of that institution.’ In the 1970s and 1980s there was a shift away from broad support to much more project-specific support, and much less of a concern with institutional capacity. This was the first stage of professionalization.

‘I think we’re going through a second stage of professionalization now, which has to do with discovering that grantmaking is a craft and a discipline and one can learn to do it better. Part of this is reintroducing those issues that have to do with sustaining and building capacity in institutions, things that go beyond the specific substantive expertise of a programme officer.’ In a way this second phase can be seen as trying to redress the imbalance created by the first.

During the first phase of professionalization, when recruiting programme officers, foundations tended to look for very specific things, for example a relevant degree. Now, says Gaberman, ‘I think we can add to that list of attributes of a perfect programme officer some understanding of management and supervision, of the importance of relationships, as well as the specific, substantive knowledge.’ Because they’re not always able to find that, Ford has instituted an orientation programme for all programme staff where they will begin to learn about some of the issues related to capacity-building; it has been running for about a decade now. ‘So we’re still interesting in you knowing your stuff, but we want you to know other stuff as well.’

Working across programme areas

Getting people to work across programme areas is something the Foundation is trying to encourage. Gaberman admits it’s difficult because building relationships and working collaboratively takes extra time. ‘But it has a pay-off because often the most interesting piece of work is done at the intersection where two fields come together rather than in the mainstream of the field itself.’ As well as encouraging collaboration, ‘you’ve got to provide incentives, for example you’ve got to acknowledge it in your appraisal of staff so that they understand that this is something that matters to the leadership and they’ll be assessed on it.’ Setting aside small pots of money that they can apply for to add
to their portfolios also provides a little incentive for taking on the extra burden in time and frustration that building a team and a collaborative effort takes.

1 Ford has an office in Moscow, three offices in Latin America, four in Africa, one of which is in North Africa, and five in Asia: one in East Asia, in China; one in South Asia, in India; and three in South-East Asia, in Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines
2 In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Ford Foundation employed 20 per cent of all the paid staff in the US philanthropic sector. Given the growth of philanthropy in the US, it is a smaller institution comparatively than it was. ‘Nevertheless, given that as a base, it’s not surprising there are a lot of ex-Ford people running around.’

Barry Gaberman joined the Ford Foundation in August 1971 as an Assistant Program Officer in the Indonesia field office. He has been the Senior Vice President of the Ford Foundation since April 1996. He can be contacted by email at

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