Ford Shifts Grant Making to Focus Entirely on Inequality

Alex Daniels, Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 11, 2015

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ford’s pledge to increase general operating support would place it head and shoulders above some of its foundation peers, according to 2012 Foundation Center data on 809 foundations that the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy analyzed. In 2012, foundations gave, on average, 21 percent of their support in the form of unrestricted grants, according to the committee’s analysis. In the three years that ended in 2006, an average of only 14 percent went to general support.

Aaron Dorfman, the committee’s executive director and a supporter of unrestricted giving, says that when foundations make their grants too prescriptive, nonprofits are often locked into delivering services that can become outmoded or ineffective.

“Change is messy and unpredictable,” he says. “There is a correlation between funding big societal movements and general operating support. General operating support is the way to make it happen.”

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Stanley Katz, director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies {snip} is skeptical of the ability of a foundation, even one as large as Ford, which controls $12.1 billion in assets, to make a big dent in fighting inequality. But he said the foundation under Mr. Walker has taken the lead on specific problems, such as the “Grand Bargain,” in which 10 foundations ponied up $370 million (including Ford’s initial $125 contribution) to help the City of Detroit emerge from bankruptcy.

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With $43.5 billion in assets, Gates dwarfs Ford. But Ford is still far bigger than other philanthropies: The third wealthiest is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with assets topping $10.3 billion.

“Their size empowers them to say: ‘These problems are solvable,’ ” Mr. Marker says.

Mr. Walker acknowledges the size of the task ahead. But he stressed that the foundation is committed to building a movement to fight inequality whose impact will be seen over the long haul. The new strategy is just a starting point, he said. In the coming months, he expects to refine the foundation’s approach.

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