Ford Foundation joins global fight against inequality

Grants of $500m will focus on fairness, president says


Non-profit arts organisations in the US sat up and paid attention when Darren Walker, the president of the New York-based Ford Foundation, published a new mission statement online in June.

Walker announced that all of the foundation’s grants will now focus on one of its most pressing concerns: “inequality in all its forms”, including income, education and cultural access. “The reality of America is that talent is spread across America evenly but, unfortunately, opportunity is not,” he tells The Art Newspaper.

Funds to stabilise non-profits

Walker also announced a change in how funding will be allocated. In the past, around $100m of the foundation’s $500m in annual grants went towards non-profit organisations’ operating budgets; the rest was project-specific. He says that $200m will now be available for unrestricted grants, to help cover operating costs and ensure “long-term stability”. This shift is driven by the number of non-profit groups that say they are being “project-supported to death”, Walker says.

Many organisations find the idea of helping to dislodge deep-seated global inequities exciting, although the idea is still in its early stages. “I’m cautiously optimistic. We can define diversity in different ways, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what they mean,” says Cesar Garcia, the founder of the Mistake Room, a Los Angeles-based non-profit group.

Garcia applauds the foundation’s more concrete idea of increasing its commitment to operating budgets. “That message was music to my ears,” he says. Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the head of Colorado’s Aspen Art Museum, which is not a Ford recipient, says that it is “unprecedented for a foundation to shift funding away from projects and exhibitions to core values and organisational support”. She thinks that this will have a wider impact. “The Ford Foundation is such a philanthropic leader; the hope is that other organisations will start to follow suit,” she says.

Fine words—and cash to match

A philanthropic focus on funding operating costs has a historical precedent, says Katharine DeShaw, who launched the non-profit USA Fellows with help from the Ford Foundation in 2006, before becoming a philanthropy consultant. Thirty years ago, she says, “you only got general operating support. Then the pendulum swung to the other side, with the vast majority of foundations only funding programmes. It would be great to see the pendulum swing back. We all know that if you can’t keep your lights on and get your salaries paid, you can’t deliver the programme.” DeShaw adds: “A lot of people recognise the importance of general operating support, but Darren is putting money where his mouth is.”

Walker expects cultural organisations to see an “incremental increase” in funding. “More than ever, we need to recognise the centrality of culture and cultural organisations in social change,” he says.

Walker says the foundation is in the process of hiring its first director of arts, a slot he expects to fill by the autumn. There was previously a programme officer in this area, but “we are now hiring at the director level, which makes them part of the management team”. This is another sign, he says, of the importance of the arts to the foundation.


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