During the 12 months since I accepted the honor of serving as president of the Ford Foundation, I have traveled more than 125,000 miles. I wanted to get to the frontlines of social change. I wanted to listen to and learn from you. And I must say, it has been the most inspiring, uplifting journey of my life.
On a trip to Beijing, I was reminded of the foundation’s pioneering program that helped train an entire generation of Chinese jurists. In Jakarta and in Java’s rural areas, I admired the early success of civil society in transforming the world’s largest Muslim democracy and setting a powerful example for others to follow.
In the Makoko slum of Lagos, I was struck by the community’s perseverance and determination in the face of a development effort that sought to uproot, dislocate and exclude thousands of poor people. In Johannesburg, on the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s first free elections, we commemorated Ford’s 1953 grant to study the effects of apartheid. We also visited organizations we support in the Khayelitsha township, and elsewhere, who still are working to disentangle apartheid’s knotty inheritance.
In Detroit, I experienced the gathering resurgence of an iconic American community, and joined a partnership with 14 other foundations to help the city navigate an unprecedented bankruptcy—demonstrating, along the way, that philanthropies can break free of their traditional constraints and rise to address complicated challenges in real time.
And in Colombia’s Pacific region, I visited Quibdó, a primarily Afro-Colombian city along the Atrato River. As I walked the streets, I saw a community desperately poor in wealth, but rich in leadership. I encountered the remarkable Paula Moreno, working valiantly to advocate for Afro-Colombians, who face discrimination in most facets of life. Paula made such an impression on us that we later asked her to join the foundation’s board of trustees, becoming our first board member from Latin America of African descent.
A 12-month awakening
Getting close to the work we support through travel in the U.S. and internationally—and through hundreds of meetings at our headquarters in New York—is not just thrilling for me, personally; it really is the only way to become fully conscious of the important role the Ford Foundation and other philanthropies play in an elaborate ecosystem of human aspiration and action. Through these interactions, my unwavering belief in the foundation’s core social justice vision has been affirmed, as has my resolve to ensure that we rise to the challenges posed by a changing world.
Indeed, for me, these last 12 months have been an awakening—energizing and emboldening in a way that I never expected after the better part of two decades in philanthropy. I have learned a great deal about the demands that our mission and history place upon us. And I have been humbled.
Chief among these lessons was just how unready I was to begin a job for which one might assume I had been preparing for years. Easy as foundation work may look from some vantage points, the truth is that it is hard. Hard because you want more than anything to get it right. Hard because you want to earn the joyful privilege with which we have been entrusted. And hard because you know for sure that in at least a few cases you will get it wrong.
And while a reflection like this could be seen as characteristic of our sector’s navel gazing and self-regard, I share it out of an opposite instinct: as an effort at transparency and mutual understanding.
In fact, the biggest challenge I have encountered this year stems from the contradictions inherent in what this foundation actually does, in the very rudiments of what it exists to do: We give money away for urgent work now; we steward it for the years ahead. We strive to be ambitious in what we support; we strive to be pragmatic. We aim to take risks; we aim to avoid unbridled bravado. We serve a venerable legacy; we serve a bold vision of human dignity and social justice.
Balancing these multiple vested interests means making tough choices—choices that are unlikely to satisfy the many stakeholders who care about our mission or rely on us to support theirs. I can assure you, however, that the decisions the foundation trustees and I will make in the months and years to come—about the direction of our programs, about how we apportion our funds—represent purposeful resolution of competing and equally compelling extremes.
I also assure you that I will continue to be as candid and open in the months ahead as I have tried to be throughout my first year. I am working to build a foundation culture where this sort of openness is held in as high regard as our intellectual curiosity, our rigor and our commitment to the values we share.
Reflecting on what’s next
So let me tell you where we are and what to expect.
Like so many others, we are working to understand the changes underway in our world, and to anticipate the changes yet to come. Simply put, the greater the challenge, the greater our determination to meet it.
To this end, my colleagues and I have spent the last six months identifying and analyzing significant trends that are having—and will continue to have—a major impact on the pursuit of social justice around the world.
Foremost among these trends are the rapid rise of disparities during a time of declining global poverty (what we call the inequality dilemma); the increasing dominance of market ideology (what we call the consolidation of capitalism); and the failure of many democratically elected governments to deliver on their promise (what we call the democracy quandary).
We also are exploring fast-moving transformations, such as disruptive technology, growing extremism, threats to free expression, changing patterns of international cooperation and conflict, climate and natural resources crises, new patterns of migration and urbanization, the youth bulge and demographic shifts, and the heightened urgency for women and girl’s agency.
To be clear, these trends do not signify the areas our work will address in the years ahead. They do signify our effort to step back from grantmaking to consider, from different perspectives, the status of human dignity and the shape of social justice in the world today, and to ensure that our contribution to advancing both is in step with the changes around us.
Given the scope and pace of those changes—and the change in leadership at this institution—ambiguity and anxiety are likely in the air. I understand. I am working to strike a balance between taking the time we need to reset our compass and the urgency of marching ahead without delay. (Xav Briggs cites a Peruvian proverb that says the world can only be changed by those with “burning patience.” I am trying to work out exactly what that would feel like.)
A personal request
At the Ford Foundation, transition is complicated by a deep history. Not a day goes by without me hearing: “The Ford Foundation gave us our first grant” or “The Ford Foundation’s support is critical, it needs to continue.” And yet we also know that the trends shaping our world require us to support new ideas, new institutions, and new forms of organizing and movement-building.
We always have been about building. The operative question now is, What should we help to build next? This is the issue we are interrogating among ourselves; in conversation with you; with help from experts, friends and kitchen cabinets. We are reading, listening and reflecting.
From this process we expect to identify, by this November, the four to six key themes that speak to the social justice issues of our era—themes which will organize our grantmaking during the years ahead. I urge you to anticipate evolution, not revolution. Our mission remains unyielding and tied to core principles of justice, opportunity and understanding. I am excited about the direction in which we are headed.
At the same time, it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that everything we now support will continue or that everyone will be content. Wherever we land, I can assure you that, while hard, the choices we make will be based on thorough exploration, consultation and reflection. And that the work we support into the future will reflect, as it always has, the vision of courageous, creative people on the frontlines of social change.
So I have a favor to ask, and it is a big one. I know how hard it is to speak candidly to a foundation president—I have faced that uncomfortable moment enough times over the last 20 years, both as a grantee and a staff member. And we all know why it is hard—the power dynamics, the stakes, the personality variables. But from my vantage point, nothing could be more valuable. In truth, my single greatest fear is that I am not hearing enough constructive criticism. It is essential to our work together, and I need your input and feedback.
Ultimately, whether you agree or disagree with the choices we make, you will see a Ford Foundation that is as dynamic as the times in which we operate—that reflects our deep, abiding optimism that, with “burning patience,” we can help seed and spread justice around the world.
Every single day, I am privileged to come to work in a place—and with an exceptional group of trustees, colleagues, grantees and partners—that so fully embodies this ideal. We have much yet to learn, much yet to do, and I could not be prouder of the new beginning we have made together.