After a year in office, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, asked grant recipients to tell him the truth. He received more than 2,000 emails, and his response — announced last week — is to overhaul the foundation and begin directing all funding and influence toward curbing financial, racial, gender and other inequalities. The shift will also address a constant concern of nonprofits that worry about financial sustainability by substantially increasing unrestricted grants for operating support.
As a planner and the CEO of Next City, I applaud Walker’s genius as well as his brazenness. Let me tell you why.
Walker presides over the nation’s second-biggest philanthropy. The breadth, reach and influence of the Ford Foundation are legendary. For most nonprofit organizations, the Ford Foundation is the brass ring — securing a grant not only enables the project, it also validates the organization.
Next City is a recipient of Ford Foundation support, and the funding has helped us to build institutional capacity as well as enhance our international reporting, including covering advances in equitable development. With an engaged staff, the foundation has been a willing partner in our drive to inspire social, economic and environmental change in cities.
In his letter to grantees and the public, Walker stressed the three “I’s” — institutions, individuals and ideas. According to Walker, these three I’s “have remained constant, reflecting our belief that human dignity is best served by those working closest to the problems and by a diverse community of actors that can catalyze meaningful change.” Ford’s new direction clarifies how the foundation will identify the institutions, individuals and ideas that will “lead the next era of progress toward human dignity for all.”
Recognizing the growth of global inequality, Walker and his staff looked at research and talked to thought leaders and practitioners worldwide to analyze the manifestations of inequality in 11 regions around the world, and assess the underlying drivers of that inequality. Walker reported that, although manifestations varied by region, five factors constantly contributed to inequality: cultural narratives that undermine fairness, tolerance and inclusion; unequal access to government decision-making and resources; persistent prejudice and discrimination against women, as well as racial, ethnic and caste minorities; economic rules that magnify unequal opportunities and outcomes; and failures to invest in and protect vital public goods, including education and natural resources.
In response to this analysis, the Ford Foundation will be operating in six program areas: civic engagement and government; creativity and free expression; gender, ethnic and racial justice; inclusive economies; Internet freedom; and youth opportunity and learning. Appropriately, Walker notes that these six thematic areas will not be silos. He terms them “ingredients that each of our offices — depending on local context and the priorities set by local partners — will combine in creative ways to disrupt the drivers of inequality.”
Most heartening was his acknowledgement that the most dynamic frontlines of social change will be found at the intersections of these six areas. In the 21st century, making these connections will be the most important function any leader or organization can do.
As I review Next City’s work, I can’t help but feel pride and validation that we are operating along the same wavelength. On any given day, our daily posts and weekly features challenge thought leaders to consider these key drivers. And, we’re not afraid to offer unconventional thinking to raise the issue of inequality.
As loyal readers know, we provide the opportunity for instant feedback through our comments section after every post, and boy, do we hear from you! But, that’s a sign of a healthy dialogue, and I’d argue, a more effective and equitable society.
Last, let me say a word about the commitment to increasing funding for general operations. At the risk of sounding self-interested, I believe that this common sense is not only needed, but long overdue. Taking a lesson from the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s most recent “State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey,” Walker advanced that “the single greatest challenge facing organizations today is ‘achieving long-term financial sustainability.’” Amen!
Investing in organizations as partners, as Ford has committed to do, will enable CEOs such as myself to be bold and innovative. It will free us to think imaginatively, and to fail as necessary, without fear of financial ruin. And, it will enable us to be nimble and mission-driven, two key qualities in this new economy. This single decision shows the passion and drive that the Ford Foundation has to work with organizations and leaders to drive social change worldwide.
Next City is committed to continuing to produce high-quality media and events that will advance our mission as well as the new direction signaled by the Ford Foundation. We applaud Darren Walker for his vision, and commit to working with the foundation and others working on the frontlines of social change worldwide. I share Walker’s excitement and optimism, and I encourage other foundations to consider a similar approach to grantmaking. What’s next for the Ford Foundation is what Next City is all about.
Tom was president, CEO and publisher of Next City from May 2015 until April 2018. Before joining Next City, he directed the Center for Resilient Design at the College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Prior to that, he ran the Regional Plan Association’s New Jersey office, and served as a senior adviser on land use for two New Jersey governors. Tom is a licensed professional planner, and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, as well as an adjunct professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he teaches land use planning and infrastructure planning.