Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Search For Terrestrial Intelligence: The New Ford Foundation

Two headlines in this morning's Times caught my eye: first I read "New Leader Overhauls Ford Foundation" and then "Boldly Going Nowhere."

The first piece, by beat reporter Stephanie Strom, tells the story -- in the headline -- as we were taught in J. 101. The second is an Op-Ed piece on the unlikeliness of interstellar travel if ever because the long journeys could not be fueled through any extant technology. Damned if that didn't make me think of how tough it must be for Ford Foundation CEO Luis A. Ubinas, imported from McKinsey two years ago, to make this NASA of philanthropy more accountable and less intimidating to applicants.

When Mr. Ubinas was brought in Those Who Mattered wondered why the Ford trustees would hire a guy with no previous experience as a non-profiteer. But now their reasoning is clear. Ford had become an example of drip-up management. It seemed to me that individual program officers essentially controlled the grant-making process. Those of us who dealt with Ford learned that these POs had "portfolios" and grant budgets that they controlled and it was incumbent on the mendicants to convince the right one that their program deserved funding. This system, never planned as far as I could observe, more or less evolved and though it could be frustrating lent a human bent to the process.

Reading between the lines of today's articles I infer that Mr. Ubinas's two year evaluation of what he took on has resulted in the corporatization of Ford as a top-down managed organization which given its size and unwieldliness is I guess how a McKinsey consultant would work a client. Ford's last financial statement showed assets of $11 billion (before the free fall) and direct grants of $532 million net of expenses and hold-backs for losses.

A visit to the Foundation web site -- which by the way has the full Ubinas manifesto on which Ms. Strom reported -- struck me in an odd way as a don't-bother-coming-in scenario. Interstallar thinking does not seem to me to be encouraged. If you are worthy Ford will find you as in " ... Our programs will address eight significant social justice issues ... grounded in our mission and history and ... familiar to our partners." (Italics added).

I hope there is a side hatch on the Ford vehicle where new ideas and new organizations short on fuel out of gravitational pull but with all rockets firing might enter.

Here's to the Ford galaxy:
  • Access to education
  • Democratic accountable government
  • Ecobomic fairness and opportunity
  • Freedom of expression
  • Human rights
  • Natural resources, sustainable development
  • Sexuality and reproductive health and rights
  • Social justice philanthropy.

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