Interview – Lisa Jordan and Trude Maas-de Brouwer

Lisa Jordan left the Ford Foundation to take up the post of Executive Director of the Netherlands-based Bernard van Leer Foundation at the beginning of July. What does she bring to her new role from the Ford experience? Will there be changes of direction? What has surprised her about the Bernard van Leer Foundation? Does she anticipate any difficulties as an American coming to run a European foundation? These are some of the questions Caroline Hartnell asked Lisa Jordan and Board Chair Trude Maas-de Brouwer.

Trude Maas-de BrouwerLisa, your previous job focused largely on global civil society. What do you bring from this experience to the Bernard van Leer Foundation, with its focus on early childhood development?

Lisa Jordan Well, of course kids are citizens too, we shouldn’t forget that. Today’s children will be tomorrow’s global civil society. Bernard van Leer Foundation is trying to make sure that these children are able to realize their full, and global, potential. From the perspective of the Bernard van Leer Foundation,I think what was interesting about the experience I had at the Ford Foundation was not only the topic of global civil society, but the whole Ford unit on governance and civil society. It was a huge department that worked all over the world. We were investing $120 million a year in social programmes, some of which were service delivery, some of which were policy and advocacy issues, and all of those kinds of activities are ones that the Bernard van Leer Foundation also undertakes. And of course Ford is a big foundation and so is the Bernard van Leer Foundation, so I understand the parameters of the beast.

Ford’s toolkit for creating social change was quite broad, and one of the things that I’d like to do in this position is to expand the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s toolkit in a similar way. I want to look at the sort of strategies that the foundation uses, not only to encompass grants and publications, which is how we share our knowledge, but also to look at advocacy, media relations and perhaps even mission-related investment.

It’s sometimes said that the Bernard van Leer Foundation punches below its weight – it does fantastic programme work, second to none, and has a wonderful grantmaking practice, but it doesn’t communicate what it has learned widely enough. Is that something you’re thinking about changing?

Trude Maas-de Brouwer When we were looking for a new executive director, we realized that the foundation is in a kind of transition. We have been working in the field of early childhood development for 60 years now; when we started, ECD was virtually unknown as a field, but things have changed since then. We also realized that since we don’t have the factories any more [the Van Leer Group Foundation sold Royal Packaging Industries Van Leer NV in the late 1990s] we need new and different criteria for eligibility of countries. We started this process of change and we expect Lisa to continue it with much energy.

With our 60 years’ experience, we are sitting on a pot of gold, and one of the duties Lisa has accepted is to make sure that we really get all the potential out of the knowledge we have built up, for rich countries as well as for poor ones. She’s very much aware of how the world is changing, for example media-wise and technology-wise, so we expect her to help expand our toolkit, building upon our strengths.

LJ Right now you might make that comment about a lot of foundations, especially small or medium-sized ones, whose work is not really well understood in the public domain. I feel that the whole sector has a responsibility at the moment, in much the way that I’ve accepted the responsibility that Trude has just outlined, to be more transparent about what we do. This is partly because we are all operating with smaller resources all of a sudden, because of the global financial crisis, but I think it’s also true that when we’re more transparent we can attract more partnerships and bring other kinds of players in to further the mission of the institutions within which we work. I think operating in a broader public domain will allow us to develop partnerships in a much stronger way than we’ve done in the past.

Do you think that one of the effects of the global financial crisis could be more questioning of the role of foundations – both their tax status and their role in society – and a need to make clearer what they do?

Oscar_van_leer_bookTM Yes, I think so. To coincide with the 60th anniversary of the foundation, a book will be published about Oscar van Leer, and when it was being produced we realized that the Van Leer family was really the first philanthropic family in the Netherlands. Compared with other countries like the US or the UK, this was rather late maybe, but in a way Oscar van Leer was the grandfather of the philanthropic movement here. Over the years, the Van Leer Group Foundation has tried to stimulate that movement, and we hope that publishing the book about Oscar’s life will give a new impetus to the public debate in the Netherlands about the role and place of foundations.

LJ When we’re actively seeking out partnerships with other sectors of society, it’s important that they understand what the foundation sector is all about. Our outreach to create stronger partnerships at this moment in time, which is outreach that everybody should be undertaking, in some way rests on a very good understanding of what the foundation sector is about. Hopefully the book and the publicity around the 60th anniversary will help us achieve that.

Lisa, do you see the Bernard van Leer Foundation making a change of direction under your leadership or is it basically a matter of carrying on the good work?

LJ The important thing to understand is that we will continue to work with young children – that will remain a critical focus of the work that we do. What we’re doing right now is asking ourselves, and others who have child-oriented missions, what the most critical and under-addressed problems facing young children worldwide are. From our tradition we have two main countries of focus and that’s the country where we are and Israel, because of Bernard van Leer and Oscar wanting Israel as a special-interest country, and as it happens the issues we have in our mandate are especially present in Israel.

Internally we’re starting to look at our mission and our vision, and to go right back to the fundamental question of what those problems are. We know that there are problems in the fields of health and education; we know that discrimination has become a much bigger problem, because of a multiculturalism that people don’t really know how to deal with; and we know that young children are experiencing a significant level of violence, so those are the main areas where we have started to create some goals for the next five years. Our goal of addressing problems that young children are facing worldwide, in both the North and the South, and that focus on young children’s lives, hasn’t changed.

What will change is that there will be a strong problem orientation and knowledge-sharing strategies that move beyond the strategies of service delivery. In fact I think knowledge sharing will become a lot more important to each one of the goals we establish, regardless of what country we’re in, because when you have a global mandate, sharing that knowledge worldwide becomes one of your responsibilities.

What about mission-related investment? Is that a direction you will be moving in?

LJ Mission-related investment is one type of strategy that foundations use in order to be able to create the change that they wish to see in the world. At this juncture it would be premature to say that we’re going towards mission-related investment, but it’s one of the strategies that’s on the table and that we will start to consider once we have our problems and goals clear, along with advocacy, lobbying, service delivery and knowledge sharing through our publications.

What do you see as the main challenges facing you over the next few years or so?

LJ The biggest question is to identify the main challenges facing young children, such as the ones that I just named – inability to learn, lack of educational access, poor physical health, violence and discrimination – and then to figure out how to address those challenges with partners. That’s another part of the strategy, to increase partnership with other foundations, with the private sector, and maybe even directly with governments. This has not been a strategy that we have used over the last 25 years, but those are the kinds of things that we need to ramp up in order to be able to address thee critical issues young children are facing.

TM I also think also we need to keep the focus and make the leverage bigger – and do so with less money!

That sounds quite an all-encompassing challenge.

TM Yes, but sometimes it’s that sort of pressure that makes you creative.

Lisa, you’ve come from the Ford Foundation. Has anything about the Bernard van Leer Foundation surprised you?

LJ I was pleasantly surprised by the systematic way in which programme officers make decisions here, which in some ways is very thorough and quite analytical. I was also completely surprised by how many publications are produced and how well – the turnaround process is incredible. Learning something in the field, writing it up and getting it out into the public domain – Ford doesn’t do that. All of the knowledge is more or less held internally in the foundation, and periodically something comes out into the public domain. This operation uses all the resources it has to bear in the publications process and I thought that was really interesting.

The other thing is that in the US and in the UK, the concept of the foundation is very well understood. What I’m finding out here is that the concept is not as well understood outside other foundations, and needs to be well articulated in the public domain, so that cultural context is an interesting challenge.

Do you anticipate, or have you found, any difficulties as an American coming to run a European foundation?

LJ Well, part of our mission is to build knowledge in the field so I don’t think people really mind so much about where that knowledge comes from. I’ve been in contact with German and Italian foundations, for example, all of whom are eager to work with us on child-related issues, and many have been asking for knowledge acquired from our programme. We were in Berlin two weeks ago to work and share our expertise on what’s happening with Roma children in continental Europe – initiatives taken through the EFC. So I think that the mission of the foundation is strong enough to overcome any latent issues that people might have about the national stripe of the person who’s running it.

TM I also think having an American is helpful in a way because of the different knowledge you build up and culture you bring in. On the other hand, when we looked at Lisa as one of our candidates, we found that she did her thesis in the Netherlands and is married to a Dutch husband. So in a way she’s a kind of cultural bridge, which is interesting in itself, with the foundation itself being a very diverse place to work.

Being Dutch and working in a Dutch environment, we know that we are a small country so we don’t have the natural feeling of being important in the world, but being small doesn’t mean that you can’t have leverage and have an effect on things. I think it can be a strength to be a very determined small country and a very dedicated foundation, maybe because other people and organizations are not frightened by your size. I’m very confident that Lisa will be smart in using all the advantages that are hidden behind that.

Given the priorities and challenges for children you have identified, including discrimination and violence, do you think you will have an even greater emphasis on human rights than previously?

LJ A lot of the work the foundation has undertaken in the past six years has been based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides us with a wonderful baseline to work from. For example, if you look at the HIV/AIDS work that the foundation undertook, or at the right to play, which is another theme that comes straight out of the convention, you’ll see that children’s rights is part and parcel of what we do.

But it is not the only argument that matters today. There are many places where human rights are not well developed, and the frame of human rights is not a powerful messaging frame. So I think that human rights will continue to be an integral part of the way in which this institution looks at young children, recognizes young children’s voices, empowers young children to speak on their own behalf and encourages adults and caretakers to listen to young children, but I would not want to suggest that it will be the only kind of approach that we will take. It will be one of many important approaches.

Lisa Jordan is Executive Director of the Bernard van Leer Foundation and Trude Maas-de Brouwer is Chair of the Board.

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