Ford Shifts Grant Making to Focus Entirely on Inequality

JUNE 11, 2015

Ford Shifts Grant Making to Focus Entirely on Inequality


Ford Foundation president Darren Walker
By Alex Daniels
The fight against inequality will take center stage at the Ford Foundation under a sweeping overhaul announced today by the nation’s second biggest philanthropy.

Not only will Ford direct all of its money and influence to curbing financial, racial, gender, and other inequities, but it will give lots more money in a way grantees have been clamoring for: It hopes to double the total it gives in the form of unrestricted grants for operating support. The doubling of general operating support to 40 percent of the foundation’s grant-making budget, projected to be in excess of $1 billion over five years, will enable Ford to create what its president, Darren Walker, calls a « social-justice infrastructure » reminiscent of the support it provided nonprofits during the civil-rights era.

« By giving a set of institutions core support or seed capital, we helped initiate and support entire movements, » he said. « We contributed to an entire generation of social-justice leaders around the world. »

Now, he says, Ford hopes that providing support without strings attached will help make organizations more « durable » and allow them more leeway in designing their own programs.

« We’re going to move away from bending our grantees to fit into our boxes and do a better job of listening and learning, » he said.

Technology and the Arts

Ford joins a growing number of foundations pouring more money into programs that fight inequality. But its plans to look at every grant to ask how it reduces inequality is a more stringent approach than other foundations have taken. That said, the foundation is taking a broad interpretation of inequality — looking not just at wealth, race, ethnicity, and gender but also access to technology and the arts.

The changes announced today mark the first substantial revisions introduced by Mr. Walker, who became president of the foundation in 2013.

The new approach is a significant rejection of an approach undertaken in 2006 by Mr. Walker’s predecessor, Luis Ubiñas.

Under that plan, the foundation’s grant making supported eight causes: human rights, freedom of expression, democratic and accountable government, economic opportunity, education, sustainable development, sexuality and reproductive health, and social justice.

Now Ford will place a high priority on alleviating what it sees as the key causes of inequality, including broken political systems, discrimination, dwindling support for schools and other public institutions, and a belief that the free market alone can cure social ills.

The foundation will support programs that promote open government, push for more equitable distribution of wealth, strengthen education and opportunities for young people, showcase free expression, and work toward justice based on race, ethnicity, and gender.

Mr. Walker said the foundation will gradually « transition » to end its support for groups that don’t work on issues related directly to inequality. But he stressed that many of the causes Ford has long supported will still be in the mix.

For instance, he said, though it doesn’t fund scientific research on climate change and isn’t likely to in the future, it will continue to support charities working on sustainability. In 2014, the foundation made $23.8 million in grants designed to strengthen local communities’ control over their natural resources and to mitigate climate change among the rural poor. Future grantees, Mr. Walker suggested, will need to show they protect people who are disproportionately hurt by global warming.

And Ford, which started Lincoln Center in 1958 with $25 million in grants, won’t abandon its support of the arts, according to Mr. Walker. But to catch the grant maker’s attention, artists, filmmakers, and choreographers will need to focus on social justice and challenge « dominant narratives » that perpetuate inequality.

Support for Overhead

While Ford’s increased attention to inequality will probably attract the most notice in the public-policy world, Ford’s signal that it will spend lots more on helping groups pay their operating costs will probably spark the most conversation among nonprofits.

Mr. Walker says he came to the conclusion that more general operating support was crucial after the foundation asked grantees and others to provide feedback on what they most needed. The comments he got from some 2,000 people who responded to his annual letter last September led him to believe that the foundation was « project-supporting nonprofits to death » without providing essential basic support to pay the rent, develop technology, and increase the number of staff members needed to carry out ambitious social-change efforts.