At Ford, the Revolution That Wasn’t

Don’t be fooled: For all the smoke around the Ford Foundation lately, its chief, Darren Walker, hasn’t come anywhere close to torching the status quo over there. After two years of “transition,” more will stay the same than will actually change. Walker and the board have decided to let Ford continue to be Ford—a foundation that serves as the mothership of social justice philanthropy worldwide, spreading itself thin as a matter of strategy in order to backstop myriad advocates working on a dizzying array of causes.

Is it a good thing that Ford has largely opted for business as usual? I’ll come back to that question in a moment. But with Walker today proclaiming that Ford is done with its strategic planning, let’s look at what is and is not changing at the foundation.

First, consider the fuss about Ford taking on inequality. Back in June, Walker released the “news” that Ford would focus on combating inequality in all its forms. Now, maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t this pretty much what the foundation has long been doing? For example, one of Susan Berresford’s signature causes as Ford’s president—helping the poor build assets—was all about economic inequality and, more precisely, closing the wealth gap. Ford’s work on democracy over many years has been about reducing political inequality, while its funding for gender, race, and rights has tackled a range of other inequities.

To his credit, Darren Walker has openly embraced inequality as a central theme, saying out loud what’s long been obvious, and he’s made this a tighter through-line guiding the foundation’s work, one that excludes some grantmaking the foundation had previously been doing. Walker has also brought a new level of rigor to the foundation’s thinking about inequality after extensive internal deliberations about what is driving inequality and how to address those drivers. (See this handy diagram of how Ford sees things.) Ford is articulating, in a new way, how inequality is deepened by reinforcing trends in different spheres of society—economic, political and social—and Walker writes that Ford’s work will “target specific drivers of inequality,” but also be “designed to have collective impact.”

All that makes a lot of sense and is worthy of praise. Just keep in mind that for all the talk of “difficult choices,” the way that Ford has defined its approach to inequality encompasses most of the grantmaking it was already doing. Previously, the foundation made grants across eight major funding areas; after two years of rethinking, it will be funding across—drumroll, please—seven areas, which are mostly the same as the past priorities.

Walker notes today that the foundation has more than halved the number of initiatives that it works on from 35 to 15, and this is significant—especially for groups in areas being cut, including LGBT rights, education, microfinance, and religion. But make no mistake: Ford is abandoning little of the core territory where it has worked in recent years. In that sense, this foundation makeover is nothing like what’s gone down at MacArthur, which really has pulled the plug on some of its historic commitments.

Two years ago, some wondered whether Walker might do a “Nixon goes to China” move by slashing the foundation’s work on racial and gender rights—in effect, declaring victory in the culture war in order to free up resources to take on economic inequality in a much bigger way. Instead, the foundation has opted to stick with its more comprehensive approach to equity, although new funds are indeed likely to flow to economic work.

As for how the foundation does business, here, too, the actual changes are unlikely to live up to the hype. Walker got loads of praise in June for promising that the foundation will give more general operating support. It was a big deal for him to say that, since Ford has given as much as 70 percent of its grants in the form of program support in recent years. Come to think of it, a great many things Walker has said lately about how foundations should behave have been music to the ears of nonprofits that have long sought funders who’ll support basic institutional needs and stick with them over the long run. Walker has even openly addressed the need to right the power imbalances often resulting from funders putting themselves in the driver’s seat, using program grants as a means of control. In that sense, he’s a rare foundation chief, and you can see why people have been cheering him on.

In practice, though, it’s unclear how dramatic any shift in grantmaking by Ford will actually be. While Walker today reaffirms that the foundation is putting aside $1 billion for general support over the next five years to anchor institutions through its BUILD program, he doesn’t say much about how the majority of Ford’s grant dollars will be distributed during this same period.

In his message today, Walker estimates that the foundation will cut the number of grants it makes annually—which has been around 4,000—by 20 percent. To put the same point differently, Ford will still be a foundation that makes several thousand grants a year, and I’m guessing a majority of these will take the form of program support. As well, Ford seems set to maintain its large organizational infrastructure of staff and offices, at a cost of over a billion dollars a decade. Walker believes this capacity is an asset to the foundation, not a drain on its resources.

Walker says the foundation will make a number of other changes in how it operates to better work across issue areas and fight silo-ization. He writes, “We’re breaking down silos so that program officers join interdisciplinary teams with flexible assignments.” Walker also says that Ford will invest more in networks that work across different divides.

Again, amen to all that. But as any veteran of a reorganization aimed at combating silo-ization knows, these efforts may or may not stick. Staff have a strong affinity for their own tribes, and getting them actually to work across issues and approaches is famously hard. Walker deserves credit for pushing this goal, but we’ll need to check back later to see how successful he ultimately is, here.

There remains an outstanding question mark about Ford’s endowment investment policy. Walker says:

My own view on this subject has evolved, and I no longer find it defensible to say that our investment strategy is only to maximize the value of our endowment… There is growing evidence that it is possible to find impact investing opportunities that deliver financial and social, double bottom-line returns.

This is good to hear. But Walker and the board are still deliberating on what changes Ford will make in this area, so stayed tuned.

The bottom line in all of this, as I said at the start, is that the Ford Foundation under Darren Walker’s leadership is still largely going to be the same place it’s been in recent years—fighting for most of the same causes with a grantmaking strategy that leaves the foundation stretched extremely thin across many issues and multiple continents.

This outcome doesn’t reflect how Walker has been thwarted from enacting bigger changes by defenders of the status quo. (Although, surely there was some of that.) It reflects the fact that, during his long listening tour through the Ford universe, Walker came to believe deeply in the foundation’s emphasis on breadth. He came to believe that the foundation’s impact derives, in part, from the fact that it is a friend of so many social change agents in so many places.

Yes, Walker came to see the need for greater clarity on Ford’s mission and some changes in how it operates, so it’s more effective. But fundamentally, he’s chosen to keep the mothership formula and ensure that Ford continues to be Ford.

Is that a good thing? I guess we’ll see. With a different and more streamlined strategy, the foundation might be able to achieve bigger, more clear-cut victories in coming years—of the kind that Julia Stasch is gunning for at MacArthur with its “big bets.” 

But such greater focus would have come at the expense of Ford’s unmatched ability to tend to a vast and under-funded ecosystem of social justice groups worldwide. Remember, Ford plays a unique role in the realm of top tier foundations—it’s the only one that really is unabashedly committed to social justice funding. It’s the most powerful friend that many advocates will ever have in a philanthrosphere where technocratic funders increasingly hold sway. And, at the end of the day, Darren Walker decided that continuing in this role was more important than anything else.