Published in Funding Performance

By Hilary Pennington

Flexible, multiyear funding is the lifeblood of nonprofits, yet this practice is rare in philanthropy. Ford Foundation Executive Vice President for Programs Hilary Pennington calls on funders to move from performative statements to hard self-examination.

Without exaggeration, this is an existential moment—for our societies and for philanthropy itself. COVID-19 has laid bare longstanding, unacceptable inequities. The pandemic’s disproportionate effect on people of color, combined with outrage at police violence targeting Black and brown communities, is provoking important conversation and maybe even some behavior change. As cities are suddenly discovering they can decarcerate people imprisoned for low-level crimes or convert empty hotels to housing for the homeless, and the federal government is finding it possible to suspend student debt payments, so too are foundations discovering that they can provide flexible general-operating support, accelerate grant decisions, and loosen heavy reporting requirements.

Just as society needs to build back better from the pandemic rather than returning to an old normal, so too can philanthropy. We in philanthropy are our own worst enemy, and we are therefore uniquely called to examine and change our own practices. In the interests of advancing that kind of reflection, I offer four lessons from our experience as one foundation on a journey toward deeper, more equitable, and more trust-based relationships with our grantees. We have learned lessons from our own mistakes and from funders ahead of us on this journey.

The Ford Foundation

The Ford Foundation is an independent organization working to address inequality and build a future grounded in justice. For more than 85 years, it has supported visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide, guided by its mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. Today, with an endowment of $16 billion, the foundation has headquarters in New York and 10 regional offices across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

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