Archive for June, 2015

Time for a Reboot

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

It’s a tremendous honor to have joined the Ford Foundation in April as the Program Officer for Philanthropy. I’ve long been an admirer of the foundation’s reach and approach, and when I first moved to New York, I lived a block from its headquarters – so this building has long loomed large for me, both figuratively and literally.

And it’s a very exciting time to be here, as so many things are changing. Our fearless president Darren Walker recently announced how our focus is shifting to disrupting the drivers of inequality, and that we’ll be doubling our commitment to unrestricted support. These are big shifts for a nearly 80-year-old organization, and it feels like the place will look very different by this time next year. These types of major change initiatives are never easy, and the hardest part lies ahead, when we translate the new strategies into a new way of operating. But this place is full of brilliant, dedicated people who are fun to work with, and I’m hopeful.

My job is to “program” the Philanthropy portfolio, a term we use around here that I hadn’t heard before. It means articulating a point of view and developing a strategy in collaboration with my boss Hilary Pennington, the VP for Education, Creativity, and Free Expression, and then deciding what grants to make, and what beyond-the-grant activities to carry out – convening, research, advocacy, public education, technical assistance, etc. We’re tremendously lucky here at Ford to be able to play an active role in the fields we support. But that also means a lot of responsibility! In talks at the JAG Unity Summit and the Minnesota Council on Foundations last year, I described a responsible funder role as meaning that you’re sensible, reliable, and accountable. Time to walk the talk.

The tagline I inherited, based on strategy work done before I arrived, is “more resources, better deployed, in service of the social justice causes Ford champions.” Having written my fair share of such taglines from my days as a strategy consultant, I can say this is quite a good one – it gives both direction and latitude. So my immediate task is to flesh out that tagline into a strategy, start making grants, and doing beyond-the-grant work.

The exciting part of this job is that the field of philanthropy is evolving VERY quickly, so there are a lot of opportunities to support really interesting stuff. The daunting part is that the field of philanthropy is evolving very quickly, so there are a LOT of opportunities to support really interesting stuff – and we’ll have to make choices. As my friend and former TCC Group colleague Jared Raynor likes to say, “it’s not a strategic decision if you don’t leave a good option on the table.”

I’m reading the book “Creativity, Inc.,” by the head of Pixar Animation, Ed Catmull. It’s his description of the process by which Pixar has sought to create a sustainable culture of creativity and excellence. Given that their latest movie, “Inside Out,” just had the biggest opening ever for an original property, I’d say they’re making a pretty good go of it, especially after a rough few years (“Cars 2,” anyone?). One of Catmull’s mantras within Pixar is, “all our movies suck at first.” They have a process by which those efforts, which are driven by their creators rather than sourced externally, are continually made better through structured, focused, regular feedback.

That sounds like fun. So, let’s try it. I’m going to repurpose this blog, which for the past five years I used as a personal opinion platform about the relationship between philanthropy and democracy, to be a scratch pad and platform for feedback on my emerging thinking about Ford’s Philanthropy program. I encourage you to ask questions, make comments, interrogate my assumptions, offer alternatives, or even just say, “yeah, okay, that wouldn’t be entirely un-useful to the field.” Together, we can go, as Catmull puts it, “from suck to not-suck.”

In the two and a half months since I started this position, I’ve had 105 meetings, 71 of them external to the foundation; attended more than a dozen convenings, conferences, workshops, or webinars; done three speaking engagements; been featured in an article ($) about careers in philanthropy; and had a post published on the Stanford Social Innovation Review opinion blog about partnerships between individual and institutional donors. I’m grateful to everyone involved in those conversations, which have been enormously helpful as I’ve identified some initial directions to explore. In future posts, I’ll share some of the ideas that have been emerging and ask for your feedback. The topics may include:

  • Broadening the scope of donors interested in social justice
  • The expressive dimensions of philanthropy, or, the ways people use money to build the world they want to see
  • What “integrative leadership” in philanthropy might look like
  • A fundamental issue at the nexus of philanthropy and impact investing
  • Philanthropy and cultural narratives that promote exclusion (one of Ford’s five drivers of inequality)
  • What it means to build and share power through philanthropy

When I was writing my dissertation long-distance in 2007-08, I had a blog called “It Takes a Village to Write a Dissertation,” on which friends would volunteer to monitor a week’s worth of daily posts on my progress. That, and having a writing space 12 minutes from my apartment, were the only way I got the dissertation done. I’m hoping a similar magic can work here. So, you know, no pressure or anything, but I’m counting on you all, okay?

Let’s start with a question. Given Ford’s focus on disrupting the drivers of inequality, and the Philanthropy program’s charge to help move “more resources, better deployed, in service of the social justice causes Ford champions,” where would you start? Who would you talk to, what would you read, where would you visit? I’ve done a lot of each of those things, but I’m looking for what I’ve missed.

Or, if you prefer, try this one: Where can Ford make the biggest contribution with our Philanthropy program given our focus? Keep in mind that grants will be made in the U.S. and will focus on philanthropy (as opposed to the broader nonprofit sector).

Thanks in advance for traveling this path together. Here’s to happy trails ahead!