Growing up in New York City, Susan Berresford was inspired by figures from American history (Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth) as well as the iconic photographic portraits of Native Americans by Edward Curtis. In those lives and images, Berresford saw and identified with individuals who possessed "courage and determination," individuals who held tight to a vision of a better world and understood the importance of leadership in realizing their visions.
In her own life and career, much of it spent at the Ford Foundation, Berresford has worked tirelessly to strengthen civil society around the globe and has dedicated herself to finding and mentoring nonprofit leaders. At Ford, she helped guide the foundation's efforts to end discrimination, increase minority voter registration, and build a civil rights network in the U.S.; oversaw the creation of a national loan program that has helped tens of thousands of minority and low-income Americans; and was an unwavering voice in the fight against gender bias. Under her leadership, the foundation also expanded its activities around the globe, opening an office in Moscow; taking the lead role in the creation of TrustAfrica, an independent foundation working to promote peace, economic prosperity, and social justice on the continent; and committing $280 million — the largest grant in its history — to create the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program.
In December, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Berresford about her career at Ford, the foundation's activities around the globe, her hopes and ambitions for the philanthropic sector, and how she hopes her tenure as president of one of America's most important foundations will be remembered.
Philanthropy News Digest: You're retiring after a thirty-seven-year career at the Ford Foundation, the last twelve of those as president. Who or what brought you to the foundation initially, and did you ever think, back then, that one day you'd be the person in charge?
Susan Berresford: I started working right after college in an anti-poverty program here in New York and ended up working for a man named Robert Shrank, who was Commissioner of Manpower for the City of New York. After a while, he and I left city government and formed a small company called Manpower Science, which specialized in evaluation for city and private agencies. Ford began to use us more and more, and eventually the foundation's leadership decided it wanted to hire Mr. Shrank on a full-time basis. Fortunately, he insisted I come with him as his research assistant. At the time there is absolutely no way I ever imagined I would one day be president of the foundation.
PND: You joined the Ford Foundation at a time when American society was in turmoil and the foundation itself was being criticized in some quarters for its support of progressive causes. Some even blamed the activities of the foundation, under the leadership of its then-president McGeorge Bundy, for the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which, among other things, imposed the first real set of regulations on private foundations. Did Ford feel like an embattled place when you first arrived in the early '70s? And how did the institution change under the leadership of Bundy's successor, Franklin Thomas?
|"...When you work on these kinds of social issues, it's inevitable that a certain amount of controversy will be part of the package, and there's not much you can do about it...."|
SB: It did not feel like an embattled place. It felt like a place in which the struggles in our country over civil rights, over decent education for all, over community participation in decision making were being worked on in a serious way. It felt like a place where people who were shut out or marginalized or were victims of injustice could find a hearing. I was very excited to be part of an institution like that. When you work on these kinds of social issues, it's inevitable that a certain amount of controversy will be part of the package, and there's not much you can do about it. But the feeling around here was not one of embattlement as much as it was one of a sincere, good-faith effort to try and help this country realize its ideals.
As I say, that was very exciting for me. Like so many of my peers, I was young and idealistic. And Frank Thomas came out of that period of social change and community renewal. I first met him when he was leading the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, one of the most dynamic community development institutions in New York City and the nation. Frank had also been a supporter of the women's movement, and when he was named president of the foundation he brought that perspective with him, along with some real innovations. He insisted, for example, that the foundation function as a single entity rather than as one foundation working on issues in the U.S. and another part of the foundation working on international issues. In addition, he provided great strength to our work in South Africa and the struggle against apartheid there. And he initiated the work we were to pursue for many years on HIV/AIDS, which, again, was a controversial topic at the time. So Frank really continued the tradition established by McGeorge Bundy of active engagement in public issues that are of great importance to society.
PND: You were named president of the foundation in 1996 and shortly thereafter announced a plan that reorganized the foundation's grantmaking into three broad categories: democracy and democratic values; poverty and community; and knowledge and identity. What was the thinking behind the reorganization, and how has your thinking about those categories changed over the last decade?
SB: After I was named to succeed Frank, I solicited advice from as many people as I could, and it was sometimes confusing to them when I started running through the seven or eight programs we had. It became clear, in other words, that things needed to be simplified. I also felt — and, remember, I had been responsible for running the programs, so I'm not blaming anybody else — that by naming our programs and organizing them in the way we had, we were missing out on some synergies. So for reasons of effectiveness, as well as communications, it seemed better to consolidate our existing programs into three large units. At the same time, I did do some pruning. A new chief executive almost always wants to do some pruning in addition to introducing some new things, and I did both. I'm sure my successor will do the same.
Of course, the three areas we set up in 1996 have evolved and changed over time, but I think it has served us well to have three vice presidents overseeing three big blocks of work and taking Frank's concept of a single foundation even further. Obviously, we have technology and communications capabilities today that the foundation didn't have when Frank was in charge. And that has enabled us to knit together the work of our grantees and international offices in ways that we couldn't have imagined back then.
PND: Speaking of Ford's international offices, I'd like to spend a few minutes touring the world with you. The Ford Foundation has worked in China for almost thirty years and has had an office in Beijing for almost twenty. What's your view of the U.S.-China relationship today? And what can or should the civil society sectors in both countries do to maintain and build on the productive aspects of that relationship?
|"...Every country has its own history and culture, but there is enormous possibility for the evolution of civil society and civil society organizations in a country like China...."|
SB: The U.S.-China relationship is evolving. At times it has been strained, as relationships between any two countries can be, but I think it is a relationship with great potential, and increasingly we see the role that civil society can play in moving the relationship forward in a positive way. Both countries have different but serious problems having to do with poverty and inequality. Both countries have a need for governmental reform. And both countries have a need for developing their considerable human resources and for managing the environment in a way that supports people's livelihoods in a sustainable fashion. Ford works in China, and in other parts of the world, in a way that enables us to share knowledge about what works in one field or another. And I think we can be helpful to our Chinese colleagues as they develop a civil society and think about appropriate ways to support it, regulate it, and empower it. Every country struggles with this. Our country struggles with it. Every country has its own history and culture, but there is enormous possibility for the evolution of civil society and civil society organizations in a country like China. We are privileged to work in China and have a good relationship with colleagues there.
PND: Those same kinds of tensions can be found in Russia. Ford opened an office in Moscow in 1996, your first year as president of the foundation. Has the focus of Ford's grantmaking in Russia changed over the last twelve years? And to what extent, if any, have your activities there been constrained by President Putin's less-than-favorable view of foundations and international NGOs?
SB: Wherever the Ford Foundation works we concentrate in the three areas I mentioned — poverty alleviation, education and arts, and civil society/human rights. Those are the building blocks of our work, and those are the areas our staff in Russia started exploring after we established our office in Moscow in 1996. Our work in those areas has evolved over time, but we continue to work in those areas — and in Russia — in a comfortable way. Of course, we're aware of the tensions that have developed around civil society there. But we continue to make grants in Russia, and we are working with governmental authorities and nongovernmental groups to try and resolve some of the complicated questions about the role of civil society in Russia.
PND: For most Americans, the mention of Africa brings to mind images of the suffering in Darfur, violent civil strife in Somalia, the Congo, and elsewhere, and the continuing scourge of AIDS. Ford has been making grants in Africa for more than forty years and today has offices in four major cities on the continent. Are you discouraged by the seeming lack of social and political progress in so many African countries?
SB: On the contrary, I am encouraged by the determination of Africans themselves to support and develop institutions that can deal effectively with the problems and challenges facing their countries. I'm not discouraged at all, because the human capacity is there, the determination is there, and in many countries of Africa there is much greater political openness today than ever before.
As you probably know, Ford is part of a group of foundations that has launched a major program to build the capacity of African universities, particularly in countries that have had democratic transitions. And we've worked well with various partners on the problem of AIDS. All over Africa there are very effective and interesting institutions and organizations working on AIDS prevention and treatment, not to mention many more people than ever before living with AIDS that are actively representing their own interests. We recently saw the launch of something called TrustAfrica, a new foundation-like entity run by Africans that grew out of a Ford Foundation initiative. It's led by Akwasi Aidoo, and it is working to bring together African leaders to address violence, discrimination, economic isolation, and foster conflict resolution throughout the continent. It's because of institutions already on the ground, as well as new organizations such as TrustAfrica, that I'm optimistic about the future of the continent.
PND: One more stop on our world tour. The news out of Central and South America is mixed. Entrenched poverty is a fact of life in much of the region, drug trafficking and corruption are serious threats in more than a few countries, and liberal democracy seems to be in retreat in countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia. Should we be concerned about social and political developments in Latin America, a region that many Americans have found easy to ignore?
|"...All countries go through periods in which they achieve social, economic, and political progress, as well as periods in which they give some of those gains back...."|
SB: We should be concerned about social and political developments everywhere, in our own country as well as in other parts of the world. At the same time, I don't think we should assume that every country makes progress in a linear fashion. All countries go through periods in which they achieve social, economic, and political progress, as well as periods in which they give some of those gains back. And in those situations, it's up to the citizens of those countries to get things moving forward again. So I wouldn't single out Latin America in this respect. Brazil, for example, is leading the way in some interesting ways. It has an extraordinarily interesting constitution, and it is of special interest to countries around the globe that are now rewriting theirs. Brazil is also leading the way in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and it's showing us new ways to explore the use of renewable energy. In addition, there's a strong tradition of civil society and philanthropy in many Latin American countries, as well as a growing business sector that is more and more involved in philanthropy. So, again, I'm optimistic rather than pessimistic about the future of the region.
PND: One of the things that marked your tenure as president of the Ford Foundation was the significant size of some of the new investments made by the foundation. I'm referring specifically to the $280 million commitment to the Ford Foundation International Fellows Program, the $100 million commitment to eighteen emerging and established foundations in developing countries, and a $50 million grant the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa. Does the size of those investments reflect a conscious decision on the part of the foundation to try to increase its impact in critical areas and regions?
SB: I was struck, as I prepared to become president of the foundation, by the fact that Ford made relatively few large grants. As I said a minute ago, I was appointed president about a year before I actually became president, and I took advantage of that time to step back and ask myself, "What have I been a part of here that we could think about differently and do even better?" And it occurred to me that as a large foundation, we had the ability and capacity to do something small foundations couldn't, which is to make very large grants. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me we had not done as much of that as we could have. So I went to the board and said that while it was important to continue the work we do through small and medium-sized grants, we ought to be looking for areas in which we could make a much bigger investment and try to boost our leverage.
At the time, because of the dot-com boom and the strong stock market, we were in the enviable position of having more money to spend than we had had in some time, and I asked the board whether it would consider going beyond the normal payout level that Ford had followed in recent years. The board responded by saying that if we found something exciting that justified the additional expenditure, they would wholeheartedly support it. So we came back with the idea of the International Fellows Program and the board authorized a grant of $280 million, the largest ever made by the foundation. In that year, our payout reached 7.2 percent. And just recently, we committed another $75 million to the program to keep it going.
Of course, it wasn't hard to justify. Ford had made similar investments over the decades in human capacity. And looking back over twenty or thirty years, the payoff was readily apparent; we could point to Ford-sponsored individuals who had emerged as leaders of important organizations, of international bodies, of nations. So we decided to go back to square one and do it again — this time emphasizing access to graduate education. We also decided that we wanted to do it globally, through our network of regional offices, making it possible for thousands of qualified, capable individuals to gain broader exposure to graduate education and helping them develop a network and the sense of a cohort, so that as they stepped into leadership roles in their respective countries and organizations they would have a group of people with whom they could relate and share experiences. I think it has been a very exciting development at Ford.
PND: Do you think Ford will continue to make those kinds of big investments around the globe in the years to come?
SB: Well, as you know, the foundation will be in the hands of its new president, Luis Ubiñas, after I leave in January, and I can't predict what he and the board will or will not do. But I certainly hope so.
PND: Given the complex nature of many of the problems confronting America, do you think general-purpose foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie still play a useful role as incubators of ideas and providers of social capital?
SB: Absolutely. The field of philanthropy ought to encompass foundations that have a sharp focus as well as general-purpose foundations. I say that because, in any generation, there are people who see a clear need or have a specific cause they want to help advance, and then there are people who believe in the possibility of change but at the same time believe they can't anticipate every problem that may present itself down the road. Ford was set up with a broad charter to advance the public welfare. If you go back and read the Gaither report, which helped set the foundation on the course it has pursued for sixty, almost seventy years, you would be struck by the fact that the word environment never appears in it. It's wonderful that the Ford Foundation is able to be flexible and work on environment and global development issues today, even though such issues were not top-of-mind for the people who established the foundation and charted its course. It's an admirable act of public generosity, in my opinion, to institutionalize flexibility in that way.
PND: Earlier this fall, you received the John W. Gardner Leadership Award, which is presented annually to an American who exemplifies the leadership and ideals of John Gardner, founding chairperson of Independent Sector. In accepting the award, you laid out three challenges for the nonprofit/philanthropic sector. Could you talk about those challenges and why it's important we address them sooner rather than later?
|"...I am struck by the fact that for the first time in human history the majority of the world's population lives, or will soon live, in cities...."|
SB: I'd be happy to. Let me start by saying I am struck by the fact that for the first time in human history the majority of the world's population lives, or will soon live, in cities, far removed from the kinds of agricultural settings that, in the past, had provided the majority of the world's people with sustainable livelihoods and stable social networks rooted in tradition. Today, in contrast, we are witnessing the growth of sprawling, mega-cities that are home to huge concentrations of neglected and marginalized people with little or no access to economic opportunity. And it's my belief that if we don't solve the problem of economic opportunity, those concentrations of poor and miserable people will, in the end, be profoundly destabilizing to the countries and regions in which they are found, as well as for the rest of us. I would add, however, that it's not enough to create economic opportunity; we have to do it in a way that is environmentally sustainable. That is an enormous challenge, for all of us.
Second, every society I know has people who suffer some form of discrimination that marginalizes them — it's a corrosive and deeply dismaying part of human existence. But we have got to be sure that all societies respect the rights and dignity of every single human being, whether old or young, able or disabled, gay or straight, of one ethnicity or race or another. Civil society organizations, which are an increasingly important component of global society, can be leaders in this movement by bringing people who have been marginalized in, by making the workplace comfortable for all sorts of people so that they can use their talents to the utmost, and by helping to extend those experiences elsewhere. We have a huge responsibility in this area, and if we ignore marginalization and discrimination in our workplaces and in our sector, we are not fulfilling that responsibility.
Lastly, I think it's very important that our sector take itself seriously. People in philanthropy tend to fund people who are courageous, people who want to change things and make the world a better place. But they don't think much about the field of philanthropy itself, and that's a shame. We need to know a great deal more about patterns in philanthropy, about accountability in philanthropy. We need to make sure there are proper and widely disseminated standards of governance, of transparency. If we don't do this, it seems to me we're putting our field at risk. Most fields are at their healthiest when they have an activist element, when they have a reflective element, when they have a policy-oriented element. Philanthropy is no exception. We shouldn't take for granted that our field will function well unless we are willing to examine it and think about it and fund it.
PND: You've been quoted as saying "There were once many people who could not imagine the world without slavery, and others who could and they changed the world." The lesson, you said, was not to be afraid of setting your sights high. You've been involved in social change work for almost forty years, and you've been president of one of the most important foundations in the world for more than a decade. After all that time, do you still feel the same way about the importance of aiming high?
SB: I do. I think philanthropy should support people who have very high ambitions, people who believe in better opportunities and a better life for all people. Philanthropy needs to get behind those people. Take the issue of the environment — a hugely complicated, desperately important issue. You have to have great ambition to think you can do something to solve the kinds of interrelated environmental problems that are emerging all around us. Or think about the problem of peace in the Middle East — you have to have a soaring ambition to take that on and believe you can make a change, make a difference.
|"...[W]hat worries me the most about philanthropy right now with respect to ambition is that there is increasing pressure in many areas of the field to establish measurable goals...."|
But what worries me the most about philanthropy right now with respect to ambition is that there is increasing pressure in many areas of the field to establish measurable goals. Unfortunately, because not everything that can be counted — and certainly not everything that can be counted easily — is necessarily the right or most important thing to do, if you overemphasize measurement, you tend to deflate ambition. Take the struggle against apartheid, which hundreds of foundations supported. That wasn't a campaign you could put in a business plan and measure the outcomes every year and base your funding decisions on the results. It was a struggle for basic human rights and dignity, and one had to believe it was important to support that struggle for twenty years, thirty years, whatever it took, whether or not progress could be measured from year to year. So I encourage people in our field to set their sights high and to measure what they can but not to let measurement undermine their ambition.
PND: How would you like your tenure as president of the Ford Foundation to be remembered?
SB: I would like people to think of it as representing a continuation of the long Ford tradition of support for individuals of great talent. The International Fellowship Program is an example of that, as is the diversity fellowship program in this country that we've supported for decades. I would like people to think of my record here as continuing a tradition of creating new organizations that help create opportunity for marginalized people and add to our human experience. The International Center for Transitional Justice, which is helping countries emerging from repressive experiences restore the faith of their citizens in democratic institutions and the rule of law, is an example, as is United States Artists, an organization we created in partnership with the Rockefeller, Prudential, and Rasmuson foundations.
I also hope people associate my tenure as president with the Ford tradition of taking up important new ideas and nurturing and developing and testing them. For example, we're exploring the feasibility of children's savings accounts — where every child born in this country would have a savings account opened in his or her name with a tax-free contribution from the federal government that can be matched over a period of time — as a national policy. In the same vein, I think Ford has had a fantastic record over the decades of supporting important social movements, whether it's the civil rights movement or the women's movement or the international human rights movement.
So I guess I see myself as having continued a set of traditions at the Ford Foundation that have been in place for nearly seventy years, and I'm very proud to have been a part of that and very proud to have worked with the institutions that do the work we fund around the world. Every time I meet with the grantees we support, I come away with the deepest respect for their courage, their imagination, and their determination to change their societies and the world for the better. It has been a great privilege to be in a position to help them do that.
PND: Well, thank you, Susan, for speaking with us today.
SB: Thank you.
Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, spoke with Susan Berresford in December. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at email@example.com.