Interview – Luis Ubiñas

Luis UbinasThere’s an old saying that new brooms are inclined to sweep clean. Luis Ubiñas came from outside the philanthropy sector (he was previously at McKinsey) to become President of the Ford Foundation in January this year. As he explained to Caroline Hartnell, however, this ‘new broom’ is concerned to maintain and build on the strengths of the Foundation as a global institution and to ensure that fairness continues to be its core value.

Above all, he says, it must remain a learning institution. He also outlines strong views on the importance of collaboration – with other foundations, with other sectors, and with grantees as partners, in fact not just in name.

You have been at the Ford Foundation for six months now. I’d like to ask you about your initial impressions of the Foundation and of the foundation sector more widely. What are the things that seem most different working at Ford from being at McKinsey?

I’m first struck by the similarities. Ford and McKinsey really are both global institutions. They begin by understanding that the world is a diverse place, with very, very specific local needs. I’m struck by the extent to which both organizations are talent-driven organizations. Here at Ford, the primary asset  really isn’t the endowment but the people. It’s the same at McKinsey. And I’m struck by the extent to which both organizations are innovation-driven: they exist effectively to deal with innovation, one in business, one in the social sector. So the biggest surprise is the level of continuity in values and capabilities between the two organizations.

Now, I don’t know if this is a surprise, but it’s something that I value enormously: I love being able to wake up every day and think ‘today we are working on some of the most important challenges facing people who are marginalized, people who are economically challenged’. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by people who spend every day caring about issues that affect those who are least able to fight alone.

Isn’t there anything that surprised you by being different? Either in the Ford Foundation itself or in the foundation sector more widely?

The ability to collaborate across foundations is a substantial difference. I can reach out to other foundation presidents for advice, for sharing ideas, for sharing programmatic initiatives in a way that is in fact barred in business because of the need to compete. If there is a single thing I’d like to have even more of, it’s this ability to reach out across organizations, across programmes, across issues, and work collaboratively with my peers. I think there’s enormous value in that – value to society and value to our organization.

Do you think more could be done in the foundation sector in the way of really sharing experiences of what’s working and what’s not, so that foundations could always start where everybody else has left off rather than having to reinvent the wheel, as too often seems to happen?

Well, many of the Ford Foundation’s greatest accomplishments have been collaborative efforts. The Green Revolution work with the Rockefeller Foundation was a hand-in-glove collaboration. With some of the work we did in the area of civil rights we were the leading organization, but other organizations joined very quickly. The work we did in the women’s movement, under Susan Berresford, attracted other grantmakers and other foundations. So there is a history of real collaboration here at Ford.

But I think you’ll find one of the hallmarks of my time here will be the sense that on almost everything we should have other foundations as partners, grantees as partners, NGOs as partners. This question of partnership is central to how I think, and central to the history of the Foundation and central to our future.

Don’t you think it could be valuable for the sector as a whole to have a more systematic way of sharing information so that other foundations that Ford doesn’t work with directly could benefit from Ford’s experiences and vice versa?

I’m new enough to be cautious about making pronouncements across the foundation world. I have only been here six or seven months. That said, we have a philanthropic sector really dedicated to working on common issues of fairness and social justice, and to the extent to which we are working on those issues on a shared basis, it can only be helpful. So absolutely, we should be, as a sector, looking for more opportunities to learn from each other. I’ve had several other foundations come to me and share their message and their thinking with us, and to the extent to which we can encourage that dialogue, I think we bring a kind of value that private sector organizations can’t bring to each other.

Since Matthew Bishop coined the word ‘philanthrocapitalism’, in an article in The Economist in February 2006, there is a lot of talk about bringing business practices into the philanthropy sector. Do you see that happening? Are there practices from Mckinsey that you could usefully bring to your work at Ford?

I think that learning across sectors is inherently valuable. I think that there are things that foundations do that would be very interesting to businesses – taking a long-term approach, taking a more holistic approach, attacking problems from multiple angles, learning about qualitative measurement.

At the same time, I think there are things from business that philanthropy can learn: thinking about grants as investments, thinking about the possibility of expecting returns, thinking about grantees as partners instead of grantees, people we work with on an ongoing basis, closely, in a shared, open dialogue.

I think the question isn’t what can philanthropy learn from business, it’s what can philanthropy learn from itself, from business, from government? Establishing a learning environment is what matters, who we learn from is secondary. You’ll find successful organizations in every sector are defined by their capacity to learn and the Ford Foundation has a history of that. So I think this is something the organization is very, very comfortable with.

Do you think philanthropy could learn from the private sector in the area of setting specific goals and targets and measuring progress against them?

I think we need to be extremely careful how we think about measurement. When you move to narrow quantitative measures, you run the risk of moving to narrow quantitatively driven activities. Many of the issues the Ford Foundation works on, important social issues, are long developing, long simmering, long brewing. So we need to bring a very, very sophisticated view to measuring and understanding impact, and that has to take into account the long-term qualitative measures. That’s not to say that there’s no room for the quantitative, of course there is, but you need to be thoughtful; you need to have a deep understanding of the complexity of measurement and how measurement can drive behaviour. Which is why it’s so important for an organization like ours, which deals with long-term social change, to ensure that we take a long-term view that is both qualitative and, where necessary, quantitative.

I understand you are going through a comprehensive review of the Foundation’s work? What do you hope will come out of this?

I think that the Foundation’s going to find itself, at the end of this process, much more focused on the issues that have been most central to its history, issues that are at the centre of its DNA, and that that focus will allow us to bring substantially more resources to the things we do. It will allow us to have even clearer objectives, an even clearer ability to understand, in all its complexities, how we’re making progress, and the ability to think of grantees as partners, who we’re working with over the long term to achieve shared goals. And we’re on our way to doing that.

So what are the activities that you see as most central to the Ford Foundation historically?

We’re at the beginning of the process, I’ve only been here just over six months. These things will become much more specific some time next year and we will communicate that very, very clearly in a number of ways.

But I think if you look at the issues that define the Foundation – issues around rights for marginalized people, around economic opportunity and access to economic opportunity, around educational opportunity and access to quality education – all of these issues are basically issues of fairness. It’s these that define the Foundation, issues that say we as citizens, regardless of where we are, have basic rights to fairness, equal access to opportunities, equal access to being heard.

Are there areas that you feel are more peripheral then?

I think it’s important not to think of things as peripheral. Everything we work on now is important. I couldn’t point to an area of our work that I would consider in any way peripheral. The question is how do we make hard  choices among very important things so that we can bring scale to some of them?

What do you see as the main challenges in front of you?

Any new role brings challenges, I think I still have an enormous amount to learn. I remind myself every morning that I’m still new, that six months is a very short amount of time. I think my central challenge right now is to continue to listen and learn. I have the challenge of getting to know the environment, my peers, my friends here at the Foundation, our partners in the grantee community. I think I have a challenge in getting to know how to live in New York – it’s a magical city but I haven’t lived here in almost two and a half decades!

Where would you like to be in five years’ time?

I’d like to think I’d be president of a foundation that really thinks about the broad challenges that we’re dealing with globally – questions of access to opportunity, poverty and inequality, citizens having their basic human rights respected. That we as a foundation are so focused on dealing with these issues, which have been so central to our history, that our economic, and much more importantly our staff, resources are clearly and actively and at scale linked to them. And we’re making progress – progress not measured in months, or even in a year, but progress measured over time.

What do you hope to achieve in your time as President of the Ford Foundation?

When I think about what Frank Thomas and Susan Berresford accomplished – Frank Thomas in helping to end apartheid and in the arena of civil rights and Susan in institutionalizing the women’s movement and in human rights, my aspiration is to leave behind a legacy like that, a legacy that I can point to and say, this world is a better place because the Ford Foundation – not Luis Ubiñas, but the Ford Foundation – focused on a range of issues that really mattered to the poorest and most marginalized people, and we were able to make a difference on some of these issues.

Luis Antonio Ubiñas

Luis Ubiñas became the ninth president of the Ford Foundation in January 2008, succeeding Susan Berresford. He was previously a Director at McKinsey & Company, leading the firm’s Media Practice. In this role, he led research on the impact of new technologies on business and society, worked with traditional media companies responding to the effects of new media, and with emerging technology companies on the introduction of new media services. He also founded McKinsey’s Latino recruiting and mentoring group to introduce and cultivate diverse talent at McKinsey.

Luis Ubiñas has also devoted much of his personal time and energy to working with non-profits. He has advised senior management and served on the boards of Leadership Education and Development (LEAD), a national organization providing educational opportunities to low-income African-American and Latino high school students, the Bay Area United Way and the Steppingstone Foundation.

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