The “How” Matters to Ford Foundation, Too.

June 16, 2015 //

As I read Ford Foundation President Darren Walker’s letter about the foundation’s newest priorities, I was most stirred by the fact that he asked for grantee feedback and is acting on it. I had to take a pause when the leader of this large, influential foundation shared that “the majority of the feedback [he] received was not about what we fund. It was about how we fund.”

Wait, what?

Hadn’t our own John Esterle been emphasizing the how for years, particularly in how funders show up in funder-grantee relationship?

In fact, here was Darren Walker amplifying several of TWI’s most vital, grantee endorsed Grant-making Practices. Ford has committed publicly to allocating 40% of it’s grant-making to unrestricted or general operating support, to being more transparent institutionally, and their president is taking action on the high level themes of the 2000 responses he received when he asked for feedback last year.

I’m sure in his series on Exploring the Restrictions on Unrestricted Funding, John will comment more extensively on Mr. Walker’s shift towards general operating support funding, described here:

[Ford] foundation was “project-supporting nonprofits to death” without providing essential basic support to pay the rent, develop technology, and increase the number of staff members needed to carry out ambitious social-change efforts.

I imagine this statement resonates in the fundraising gut of everyone in the nonprofit sector. Literally, the thing that nonprofits ask for most consistently is the one thing that the philanthropic sector, writ wide, has not provided. I hope that Ford’s move in this direction will cause a loosening in whatever has been constricting more foundations to give in less restrictive, less directive and more authentically supportive ways.

Given TWI’s core values, we salute Darren Walker’s attitude towards philanthropic leadership as one that requires as much follower-ship as it does initiative. In Walker’s own words, “we recognize that in a time of evolving global dynamics we must be better listeners and more avid learners.”

Yes, and yes.

And we also hope that the practice of listening extends well beyond the shaping of this new direction, and is integrated into widespread implementation, at Ford and in many other contexts.


  1. jblair924j on August 28, 2015 at 3:56 pm

    The tides are shifting on the issue of general operating support – with more and more funders and donors adopting the language if not the intended practice. It’s important to complete the thought on general operating support – the underlying value is trust – the cultivation of mutual respect and trust between the funder and the grantee – the belief – the confidence that the recipient of the resources is in the best position to allocate the resources with priority and value. Too often now i am seeing examples of “general operating support grants” that have attached to them “outcomes,” very reminiscent of project-based funding expectations. Ironically – these outcomes are more often than not process objectives – that is, measures of activities over time, not impact over time. In the more perfect world we would see organizations supported with general operating funds and very clear statements of desired change – that is ultimate impact – the change they we want to make in the world in which they we operate. And we would find ways to help gauge in the short term their progress in the long term – not with process objectives but indicators of change/impact. More power to general operating support – not just in name but in substance!

    • Pia Infante on August 31, 2015 at 5:44 pm

      Jill, thanks for speaking to TWI’s underlying values and holistic approach to general operation support funding – that it comes hand in hand with a spirit of service, a desire to be a thoughtful long term partner in change work, and not play out power dynamics where grantees have to “perform” for the funder, taking precious time and talent away from where its most needed – in the work. Thanks for lifting this up, and we hope to be clarion call for the substance and the long game.

  2. Jon Funabiki on August 28, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    I speak strongly in favor of the notion of general support based on the experience I’ve had on both sides of the philanthropic fence — as a funder and as a grantee. When I worked at the Ford Foundation (prior to Darren Walker’s arrival), we were taught that grantmakers needed to be concerned about the health of the organizations and of the larger field that we were trying to help. We were cognizant that often the best ideas grew from the ground up, rather than the top down. In more recent times, it seems like many funders have used project-focused grants to push their own ideas or to insist on “measurable” outcomes. I hope that the move toward general support — The Whitman Institute is a leader — swells.

    • Pia Infante on August 31, 2015 at 5:45 pm

      Thanks for speaking from you experience on both sides of the fence, Jon, very valuable and insightful. We are happy to be moving this work forward in partnership with you, Jill, and many others!