Social Justice Philanthropy
Susan Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation, began her remarks by describing the history of the Ford Foundation and citing how its flexible mandate has served the mission well by allowing the foundation to tailor programs to contemporary needs. She focused her remarks on what she calls “social justice philanthropy,” one of the current directions the foundation is taking to address today’s societal problems.
The Ford Foundation’s mission is to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. Founded in 1936, the foundation operated as a local philanthropy in Michigan until 1950 when it expanded to become a national and international institution. Since its inception, the foundation has provided over $12 billion in grants and loans.
While Ford supports and applauds charitable philanthropy, Berresford distinguished social justice philanthropy as the foundation’s vehicle for “helping people help themselves.” Social justice philanthropy seeks to improve people’s lives by supporting programs that seek strategic change. For example, while charitable philanthropy focuses on income, Ford is focusing on asset building and community development.
According to Berresford, assets enable people and communities to exert control over their lives and to participate in society in meaningful ways. Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), one of the projects supported by Ford, allow low-income families to put money into savings accounts. Ford matches the amount saved in the account, and after a number of years, the money can be withdrawn by the account-holder for the purposes of education, housing, or business. The program’s success led to a United Kingdom program for low-income children in which funds are matched by the government and can be withdrawn at the child’s eighteenth birthday for education.
Ford wants asset building to reach farther down the income bracket than people traditionally thought possible. Foundation research revealed that many low-income families with poor credit scores were successful in making their mortgage payments. “Not all credit risks are the same,” Berresford said. “Since property ownership can be an important step for stability and avoiding poverty, this is a very promising way to help low-income families.”
Berresford said that many of Ford’s projects are controversial. One such program was the relief and recovery efforts after the September 11th terrorist attacks on America. What are the responsibilities of the government, of private business, and of philanthropic foundations? What principles should guide awards to victims? Should there be any distinction between legal citizens and illegal aliens? “These questions pose difficult problems,” Berresford said. The challenge now is to ensure an effective response to a terrorist attack in the future. Action needs to be taken to streamline philanthropic decision making to allow more flexibility in emergency situations and to develop a simplified one-stop application process that would speed up response during a crisis. Other programs Berresford labeled controversial include women and equality in collegiate athletics, the treatment of immigrants at borders, and human sexuality projects.
When asked why the foundation chooses to work on such controversial topics, Berresford says that an impregnable respect for the rule of law makes such causes important. “It is a fundamental principle in our country. It’s vital that we open the decision-making process to people with very little power.” Often, that involves working on controversial and unpopular projects. Berresford said this goes hand in hand with the need for public morality. “We need to use all of our resources, provide access for everyone, use public settings for open discourse, and find rewards and incentives for businesses that support projects