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Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation (photo by Joi Ito, via Flickr)

The Ford Foundation, the second-largest philanthropic foundation in the US (by assets; it ranks 10th in terms of giving), will restructure its grant-making program to focus entirely on fighting global inequality, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported. The foundation will also devote more of its resources to providing nonprofits with operational support rather than funding short-term projects.

The changes are being spearheaded by the Ford Foundation’s president of two years, Darren Walker, who wants to create a “‘social-justice infrastructure’ reminiscent of the support [the organization] provided nonprofits during the civil-rights era,” according to the Chronicle. To that end, Walker and his team have identified five “drivers of inequality” and six areas in which nonprofits are working to fight that inequality: civic engagement and government; creativity and free expression; gender, ethnic, and racial justice; inclusive economies; internet freedom; youth opportunity and learning.

Notably, this means that Ford — which was one of nine foundations that pledged money in the “grand bargain” to help settle Detroit’s bankruptcy (and save its art museum)  — will continue to fund arts organizations. “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,” says the Chronicle.

Equally important is the foundation’s shift to subsidizing more nonprofit operating expenses rather than one-off projects. The model of project-driven philanthropy has long been identified as a problem that prevents nonprofits from building stable structures and keeps them in a funding rat race. Walker received more than 2,000 responses to a letter he wrote after his first year on the job, and those “led him to believe that the foundation was ‘project-supporting nonprofits to death’ without providing essential basic support,” the Chronicle reports. The foundation now plans to “invest in organizations as partners,” as Walker explained it in a letter published online yesterday, allocating up to $1 billion over the next five years — 40% of its grants budget — to unrestricted operational support.

The new model will inevitably bring its own challenges — Walker concede that it will “almost certainly … result in fewer grants, and, most likely, fewer grant recipients” — and the recalibration of one private philanthropic foundation (albeit a major one) is a far cry from the larger systemic overhaul some say we need. But Walker’s changes for Ford are nonetheless heartening at a time when the values of arts organizations’ other big sources of funding — corporations — feel increasingly at odds with the realities of the rest of the world.

Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and...

One reply on “Ford Foundation Refocuses Grant Giving to Fight Inequality”

  1. I do agree that the project rat-race is a loser and that basic funding is money well spent. However, inequality is not a real problem, it’s just an inevitable fact of life in a society of such pronounced diversity. Why should it matter that you had 1000x more than I if I had enough to live? In this land of opportunity, as evidenced by millions of immigrants flooding in, is that the problems of America’s underclass boils down to a culture of broken nuclear families, addiction, dependency, consumerism and human nature’s tendency to take the easy way out when presented via government entitlement programs in lieu of hard work. America’s subsidized poor have cellphones, tattoos, gold teeth, concert tickets and often, cars. I am astonished that The Ford Foundation’s board would let their president take them on a course of utter wastefulness in a campaign against an abstraction, predicated on envy and not identifiable concrete needs. This is just envy-driven leveling.

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