Ford Foundation president Luis A. Ubiñas today announced his plan to leave the foundation in September of this year, completing a six-year tenure highlighted by operational achievements, financial acumen and a commitment to serving the poorest and most marginalized people in the world.
Mr. Ubiñas discussed his departure plans with the Board of Trustees during its February meeting, and a committee of the board has been established to oversee the selection of his successor.
“We are grateful to Luis for the leadership and skill he brought to the foundation during a critical period in its history,” said Irene Hirano Inouye, chair of the foundation’s Board of Trustees. “He led the organization through challenging economic times, and he will leave behind an institution that is even more focused in pursuit of its mission, operationally strong and efficient, and brimming with remarkable people and purpose.”
“One of the hardest things for a leader is to know when to step down. I believe it is when he has given as much as he can to the institution he leads,” Ubiñas said in a message to foundation staff today. “After a period of profound transformation, both in our society and at the Ford Foundation, that moment has come for me.
“I cannot emphasize enough the appreciation I have for all of you and for our Board for allowing me to take this journey with you,” he told staff. “It took courage on the part of the Board, and exceptional talent and faith from all of you, to accomplish what we have. For our grantees, it took belief that the enduring values of our institution would emerge stronger than ever. I’m proud to say they have.”
Refocusing Programs and Navigating Crisis
Ubiñas and his leadership team have had a significant impact on the foundation’s operations and the strength of its grantmaking around the world. Appointed in September 2007, Ubiñas was welcomed as a leader with valuable practical experience in the private sector and a focus on innovation.
Supported by veteran foundation executives, Ubiñas in 2008 led the organization through a strategic refocus of its programs aimed at enabling the foundation to achieve even greater scale and impact by concentrating grant resources behind a set of transparent strategies with clearly stated goals.
In 2009, he guided the foundation through the global financial crisis, which cut more than $4 billion from the foundation’s endowment. Emphasizing the long-term financial health of the organization, and aided by the resiliency of foundation staff, he oversaw changes that restructured costs in sustainable ways, permanently shifting nearly $25 million to grantmaking.
At the same time he directed an evolution of the foundation’s investment strategy, allowing the nation’s second-largest philanthropy to recover all of the wealth lost in the financial crisis, as well as better insulating it from market fluctuations. Today the endowment stands at nearly $11 billion, up from a low of $8 billion in 2009. During Ubiñas’s tenure, the foundation additionally made some $2.4 billion in grants.
With the support of the operations team, Ubiñas updated the foundation’s systems and ways of doing business. For example, technology systems—from grants budgeting to payroll—were upgraded for heightened efficiency. Under his leadership the foundation’s landmark headquarters building in New York, designed by legendary architect Kevin Roche, became a major convening space for leading nonprofits and social change organizations. Some 30,000 people a year now use the building as a center for national and international dialogue.
In the U.S., Education and the Economy
Ubiñas also encouraged fresh approaches to the fulfillment of the foundation’s long-standing mission.
In the United States, he led a vigorous foundation-wide response to the financial crisis, supporting grants focused on quality jobs, access to financial services for low-income people, and streamlined government services and benefits. The foundation’s program teams also ramped up work on affordable homeownership and housing finance, as well as efforts to help government and markets reduce foreclosures. They also invested heavily in the economic and social renewal of cities, with particular emphasis on Detroit and New Orleans.
Ubiñas also inspired the foundation’s education team to zero-in on the innovative concept of expanded and redesigned learning time to transform education in America, giving children in high-poverty districts the time they need to succeed and compete in a global economy.
And under his leadership the foundation embraced initiatives to invest in arts institutions in New York City and around the country as drivers of economic growth and as spaces for diverse communities to cultivate creativity and voice.
Abroad, Deepening Democracy and Promoting Rights
Outside the United States, the foundation under Ubiñas’s leadership launched its first program on climate change, building on long-standing community forestry work and strengthening efforts to promote land rights for the 1 billion rural and indigenous people who steward forests and other lands vital to reducing global warming.
He encouraged Ford staff to forge new partnerships around an initiative to end child marriage in a generation, joining with The Elders and Bishop Desmond Tutu to tackle a difficult traditional practice that reduces the life chances of 10 million girls a year—200 million women in a generation.
And he endorsed efforts by the foundation’s field offices to fulfill the promise of inclusion and democracy in Latin America and Africa, where many populations are still excluded from the decisions that affect their lives.
Ubiñas also helped establish and fund a major new program supporting films and documentaries that put a spotlight on social justice issues worldwide. Called JustFilms, the program has supported more than 80 projects in its first two years and seen 13 films selected for competition at Sundance.
Other major areas that received renewed focus and investment during Ubiñas’s tenure include migration, global human rights, and market-based approaches to financial inclusion and saving among low-income and rural populations.
“The foundation has been fortunate to have someone of Luis’s business acumen and ability devote an important part of his career to a philanthropic institution such as Ford,” Hirano Inouye said. “He has led us to our next era of accomplishment, and we are grateful for his commitment to the foundation and its mission. Equally important, the board stands fully behind the foundation’s staff and grantees, and we are committed to the continuity of their important work.”
Over the next six months Ubiñas will visit many of the foundation’s field offices, complete a busy speaking agenda, and continue to promote fairness and dignity as core values that ought to shape policy on the critical issues now facing the country.
“The Ford Foundation was transformative to my early life,” Ubiñas said. “From its support for Head Start to its work to ensure college access, Ford’s work has made the life I have led possible. To be able to give back to an institution which has been so instrumental in my life has been a deep honor and privilege.”