In December, I’ll be speaking at the Yale School of Business philanthropy conference on the topic of Information Sharing in Philanthropy. I’ll be on a panel with the same subject matter at the Center for Effective Philanthropy conference in March of next year. So I was thrilled to see the interview with Ford Foundation president Luis Ubinas in the current issue of Alliance magazine. Ubinas’s views on information sharing mirror my own:
Alliance: Do you think more could be done in the foundation sector in the way of really sharing experiences of what’s working and what’s not, so that foundations could always start where everybody else has left off rather than having to reinvent the wheel, as too often seems to happen?
Ubinas: Well, many of the Ford Foundation’s greatest accomplishments have been collaborative efforts. The Green Revolution work with the Rockefeller Foundation was a hand-in-glove collaboration. With some of the work we did in the area of civil rights we were the leading organization, but other organizations joined very quickly. The work we did in the women’s movement, under Susan Berresford, attracted other grantmakers and other foundations. So there is a history of real collaboration here at Ford.
But I think you’ll find one of the hallmarks of my time here will be the sense that on almost everything we should have other foundations as partners, grantees as partners, NGOs as partners. This question of partnership is central to how I think, and central to the history of the Foundation and central to our future.
Alliance: Don’t you think it could be valuable for the sector as a whole to have a more systematic way of sharing information so that other foundations that Ford doesn’t work with directly could benefit from Ford’s experiences and vice versa?
Ubinas: I’m new enough to be cautious about making pronouncements across the foundation world. I have only been here six or seven months. That said, we have a philanthropic sector really dedicated to working on common issues of fairness and social justice, and to the extent to which we are working on those issues on a shared basis, it can only be helpful. So absolutely, we should be, as a sector, looking for more opportunities to learn from each other. I’ve had several other foundations come to me and share their message and their thinking with us, and to the extent to which we can encourage that dialogue, I think we bring a kind of value that private sector organizations can’t bring to each other.
One of the reasons that Ubinas is a notable foundation president is the fact that he came directly from the private sector where he worked at the for-profit consulting firm Mckinsey. The interviewer also asked Ubinas about his views on philanthrocapitalism and business-style measurement of social impact. On this subject too, my views dovetail with Ubinas:
Alliance: Since Matthew Bishop coined the word ‘philanthrocapitalism’, in an article in The Economist in February 2006, there is a lot of talk about bringing business practices into the philanthropy sector. Do you see that happening? Are there practices from Mckinsey that you could usefully bring to your work at Ford?
Ubinas: I think that learning across sectors is inherently valuable. I think that there are things that foundations do that would be very interesting to businesses – taking a long-term approach, taking a more holistic approach, attacking problems from multiple angles, learning about qualitative measurement.
At the same time, I think there are things from business that philanthropy can learn: thinking about grants as investments, thinking about the possibility of expecting returns, thinking about grantees as partners instead of grantees, people we work with on an ongoing basis, closely, in a shared, open dialogue.
I think the question isn’t what can philanthropy learn from business, it’s what can philanthropy learn from itself, from business, from government? Establishing a learning environment is what matters, who we learn from is secondary. You’ll find successful organizations in every sector are defined by their capacity to learn and the Ford Foundation has a history of that. So I think this is something the organization is very, very comfortable with.
Alliance: Do you think philanthropy could learn from the private sector in the area of setting specific goals and targets and measuring progress against them?
I think we need to be extremely careful how we think about measurement. When you move to narrow quantitative measures, you run the risk of moving to narrow quantitatively driven activities. Many of the issues the Ford Foundation works on, important social issues, are long developing, long simmering, long brewing. So we need to bring a very, very sophisticated view to measuring and understanding impact, and that has to take into account the long-term qualitative measures. That’s not to say that there’s no room for the quantitative, of course there is, but you need to be thoughtful; you need to have a deep understanding of the complexity of measurement and how measurement can drive behaviour. Which is why it’s so important for an organization like ours, which deals with long-term social change, to ensure that we take a long-term view that is both qualitative and, where necessary, quantitative.