Menu Close

‘Supporting innovators, communicating, ideas—a problem-solving philanthropy…’



MAY 16 -31, 1997


‘Supporting innovators, communicating, ideas—a problem-solving philanthropy…’

Susan Vail Berresford was elected President of the Ford Foundation in April 1996, after

having served as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Foundation for many years. Prior to joining the Foundation in 1970, she was a program officer for the Neighborhood Youth Corps from 1965 until 1967, and later worked for the Manpower Career Development Agency, where she was responsible for the evaluation of training, education and work programs. A graduate of Radcliffe College, Berresford is also a director of the Chase Manhattan Corporation. Excerpts from a recent interview with The Earth Times:

What do you think the priorities of the Ford Foundation should be as we approach the 21st Century?

I’ve thought a great deal about that  question, and I have talked about it with the Foundation’s trustees, the Foundation’s staff, and a great many people around the world. I concluded there were three broad sets of questions that ought to be at the heart of our work. The first is how to alleviate poverty in the world. I became convinced that that was not only a question of technique- getting the right economic policy, or poverty-related work going—but also a question of values, of whether societies were going to accept large-scale poverty, or whether they were going to commit themselves to address poverty

seriously. So that’s the first issue.

The second relates to the role of government and civil society, and the for profit part of society as well. Questions such as how can governments be most effective in delivering basic services that are crucial to people’s lives? How can fairness and justice be ensured?

These things involve paying attention to people’s rights, and their understanding of their rights, and to the rule of law. We want to promote better understanding of the different roles of government, the nonprofit  sector, and the for-profit sector. We assume that the for-profit sector is there to make money and to advance the interests of the stockholders. That is, of course, true, but there are contributions that for-profit entities can make to the social environment and to the larger world we live in. I think these are things that people will increasingly want to think about and talk about, and we’ll support that.

The third set of questions has to do with how adequately we prepare young people, through education and cultural activities, to address a future that will be very different from the future their parents faced when they were young. So the adequacy of our educational systems, media, and technology are very important to help equip people for

the future. I believe, too, that artistic and cultural activity is a part of that.

These are what I think are some of the most important questions, and they will beat the heart of the Ford Foundation’s work as we go forward.

You have said that the Ford Foundation would help educational and cultural institutions to adequately prepare students for the future. How will this be done?

We are convinced that students must understand, better than they now do, areas of the world, and cultures of the world, and the relationships among them, along with the powerful trends and national forces that are affecting all countries and all people. The field of international studies is one part of the educational experience of young people that should be revitalized.

Many of our concepts about the world, and our understanding of forces affecting the world, are somewhat outdated now. They do not reflect the post-cold war reality. They do not reflect the movements of people and cultures around the world, nor do they reflect the powerful effects of media and technology.

We believe one of the things the Ford Foundation can do is help revitalize scholarship and teaching in the United States and around the world-exploring questions about areas of the world and forces affecting the world. This will help students to learn from and be better prepared to face the future.

To what extent does the Ford Foundation focus on women in its poverty alleviation programs?

We have had a very strong emphasis on women’s issues since the early 1970s. In part that is because we recognize that large numbers of the poor are women, and that women often face enormous barriers in trying to overcome their poverty. Barriers of culture and of the multiple burdens that many carry in their lives. So a great deal of our work is focused on women, and in fact we’ve put a “gender lens” over all the work we do. That has been a central focus for many, many years, and will continue to be so.

In developing countries, I’ve seen that major NGOs get the bulk of funding, and very often smaller NGOs are left out. How can NGOs compete for Ford Foundation funds?

Well, any large foundation that works globally, such as Ford, is challenged by the fact that there are many small institutions with fabulous leaders and wonderful ideas, yet are far away from the larger institutions that might help them. Our idea is not that we  should be out searching for the best small NGO.  Rather, we should be building institutions like foundations in countries around the world, to which smaller NGOs and the talented new people can go to for help.

We are interested in creating organizations that can take our fund but have their own ideas about how they should deploy those funds. They can reach down to local levels where the Ford Foundation  could never reach. It wouldn’t be efficient, it  wouldn’t be sensible, we’d miss too many  people. We are interested in decentralizing organizational structures outside the Foundation; in a kind of wholesale-retail approach.

One of the things we announced last week was the creation of new foundation in various parts of the world, in Asia, Africa  and Latin America. NGOs can apply directly to those foundations. We think that’s really the best way to go.

How active is the Ford Foundation in funding the implementation of the major action programs that have come out of various United Nations conferences?

We are very active. We have been and involved in each of the major UN conferences. I would say they are an extraordinarily important series of events.  They focus world attention, they set new standards. Following them, of course, there’s a long agenda of action, and in every case, we have tried to identify some things that we can do. I’ll give you a few examples.  The Earth Summit in Rio do Janeiro challenged the world to find ways to develop the earth so that people will have decent livelihoods and living standards, and at the same time not ruin the environment on which life depends.

We have seen that something we could do is to help build some shining examples-projects with the complicated tradeoffs that people in local areas must  make between development and ecology and economic growth. We have done India with joint forest management projects.  We have also done so in support of the Campfire program in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. And we’re helping to create the world’s first environmentally oriented development bank, in the US Northwest.  It will fund local development that is ecologically friendly and sustainable. In this way, and in a number of other ways,\1 pushing ideas to a practical level.

What are some of the challenge Foundation faces today?

All philanthropic institutions face several challenges. One is very high expectation.  People believe that foundations like Ford have the deepest pockets available. In  fact, although we do have a large amount of money, it really is limited measured against enormous worldwide problems.  So, one challenge is deciding exactly how we can use the money to be most effective, that will bring about some kind of change.  That’s the first thing.

The second challenge, I think is being clear to the public about what we do , why we do it, and what role we play in society.  Not many people understand foundations.  They don’t know anything them, or they may have a only a very general idea of them  If we believe, as I do, that foundations are important to provide money to test new ideas, to build good small ideas up to a bigger scale, then I think it’s important that more people understand foundations, so they will be willing to protect and value them.  I think one big challenge for us is to communicate the role we play, the effect we think we have and what that means for society in general.

In what areas do you think the Foundation has been most successful?

I’ve been with the Foundation 27 years, and three categories of work stand out for me.  The first is where the Foundation helped create a new field of knowledge supporting the work of people who were creating a wholly new field.  For example, the field of demography was supported by the Ford Foundation in the 1960s and later.  In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the field of women’s studies was introduced to us and we supported that.

I think that development finance is another field that we will be helping to make robust.  So category one is developing new fields of thinking and analysis.

A second category where we’hv been very successful is in helping new kinds of organizations get started.  For example, we’re going to support the first independent grant-making foundation in Kenya, in East Africa, Kenya has never had such an institution.

The third type of work, where Ford has been helpful and effective in advancing powerful social movement that have been ignited by people in different parts of the world, whether it’s the human rights movement or the women’s movement or the US civil rights movement.

Ford can respond to those stirrings of the human spirit in a way that strengthen the movement, helps it analyze it’s problem and help expose its leaders to a variety of ideas and people.

The US has cut spending for people in need.  What effect has this had on the Foundation?

It means there are more people looking to charitable foundations like Ford for help, but it is impossible for us to fill the gap created by those cutbacks.  So it creates a second kind of demand on us, which is to help organizations rethink their missions.  Because many organizations were set up predicated on support system that are no longer there being reduced, many now are saying, “We have to rethink how we address these problems, and what we can do given a new landscape.” We’re supporting a good deal of that work.

What do the big foundations do to prevent a duplication of grant making?

There is a strong, informal network among grant makers. I talk to the heads or senior staff of some of the other large international and national foundations probably every day. We say things like, “We’re thinking about doing this, what do you think of that? Have you done something like it?” Even so, I think it inevitable that  with such a large number of organizations there is some overlap. Sometimes that occurs the case of research and reports. Ultimately the more people who go on record stating that society must, for example, address the worst kind of poverty, the more powerful public support will be. I

think an important part of what philanthropy can do is to support that affirmation.

How does Ford measure the effects its funds have had on a program?

We have a variety of ways of doing that. Sometimes we hire an evaluator to follow a project and comment on how it is working out. Like the development bank in the Northwest that I mentioned before-we will follow it very carefully to find out: One, is it

able to raise money? Two, what kind of loans does it make? Three, do the loans get paid back? And four, do the enterprises supported by those loans contribute to a sustainable, ecological community base?

Sometimes we will ask a team of people  to interview a range of our grantees, and people who are not grantees to find out what contribution the organizations Ford has supported have made in the field, where the stumbling blocks have been and what can we learn from that?

The last point I would make is that I think Ford will now be experimenting, more than it has in the past, with structures in which we, and groups of our grantees undertaking similar work, will come together on a regular basis, twice a year perhaps, to talk about what we think we’re accomplishing.

For instance, our development finance grantees have met twice at six-month intervals in different places in the world. The aim is for us and them to think about this new field, what its needs are and what the Foundation should do to help. So I want to stress that evaluation is not just something at the end of a process, but ought to be an ongoing dialogue, a kind of learning as you go. I think of that in terms of grantees as well as the Foundation itself.

How much does Ford spend on developing countries annually, and in what areas does it focus?

When I became president of the Foundation, we had a rough rule of thumb that we were spending 65 percent of our funds in the US, or mostly in the US, a little bit internationally in non-developing countries, and about 35 percent in developing countries.

I have spoken with the trustees of the Foundation about increasing the developing-country allocation, and we have started doing that. So now, a year later, it is about 40 percent, and we will move that up. I believe we have the capacity- in our 16 offices in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Russia-to spend more money. As our assets increase-the stock market and our portfolio have been kind to us-we will put more of the money we gain into developing country programs.

I think as an American foundation, we always ought to spend a little more than half of our money in the United States, but I’m very comfortable with moving the 40 percent up farther, and we’ll be trying to do that as our assets grow.

We will spend $407 million in grants this fiscal year. Forty percent of this is about $163 million, which we will spend in developing countries in the areas of poverty alleviation; work on governmental systems and the civil society, and the for-profit  society; and then, work in education, media, arts and culture. And I believe one of the great values of the Foundation is having a global agenda of that sort, so that we can learn in the US from our work overseas and visa-versa.

Critics of foundations say that too much money is spent on operations and too little goes to the actual programs in the field. Can you comment on this?

I think it is very important to keep an eye on the percentage of funds that it costs to do business. The more it costs, the less there is to give away, obviously. And so we watch this very carefully. Because we maintain offices in countries around the world, our administrative costs arc slightly higher than organizations that do all of their international work from, say, a New York base, and fly in and out. We believe the extra cost of our field offices is justified because they are closer to the problems, and because they have international staff from the country itself, who know the culture and know the place. We think we can make better decisions as a result.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Every country has some kind of philanthropic tradition. Every society values caring for others, giving to others in different ways. One kind of philanthropy is a very traditional sort of charity. You feed hungry people, you give clothing and shelter to people.

Ford is a different kind of philanthropy. We try to get at root causes, exploring what can be changed so that people don’t have these problems, or have a lot fewer of them. That kind of developmentally oriented, problem-solving philanthropy is going to grow enormously, I think.

Ford can play an important role by supporting innovators, giving them the wherewithal to try new ideas, building the ideas to scale, and communicating what has been learned. The more philanthropies doing that, the more we get to the root of some of these problems. So I find this a very exciting time.