A Conversation with
Ford Foundation Senior Vice President Barry Gabermanthe Council's 2006 Distinguished Grantmaker Award recipienthas spent 35 years helping to build philanthropy in the United States and abroad.
Many officers of the venerable Ford Foundation have taken long routes to get there, but few as long (and exotic) as this year's winner of the Council on Foundations' Distinguished Grantmaker Award. Barry D. Gaberman, Ford's senior vice president, began life in Shanghaion the eve of America's involvement in World War IIthen went to Israel and on to Madison, Wisconsin. Once at the foundation, however, he put down deep roots: He retires this year after 35 consecutive years on its staff.
Trained as a specialist in Southeast Asia, with a focus on Indonesia, Gaberman snatched up an opening when a grad school professor told him that Ford was looking for someone to fill a position in Indonesia. "I knew very little about Ford at that point," he readily admits. "But I figured I could do the job for a couple of years and come back to the university [of Wisconsin] to finish my doctorate." Instead, he found foundation work "so much more interesting" than academia that he stayed in Jakarta for four years, then returned to Ford headquarters in New York and never left. Never, that is, for a permanent assignment. But he has been a foundation man in motion, traveling relentlessly to destinations both foreign and domestic.
Gaberman has held, in succession, such Ford portfolios as program officer providing liaison and backstopping to Asian social science and population programs; director of the Office of Program Related Investments (PRIs), deputy vice president for the U.S. and International Affairs component of the Program Division, as well as deputy vice president of that division. He has served on a multitude of philanthropy-related boards, and was founding father of the WINGS (Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support) program and Ford's International Initiative to Strengthen Philanthropy.
The most common credential mentioned by Gaberman's nominators for the Distinguished Grantmaker Award is his "passion" for philanthropy. In a wide-ranging conversation about his career and his philanthropic ideas and ideals, it's a trait that shone forth repeatedly.
How did it happen that Shanghai figured so prominently in your early years?
My grandparents were Russian Jews who had left Odessa during a pogrom. They hoped to get to the United States, but were stranded in Vladivostok by the Russo-Japanese War and eventually wound up in Shanghai. It was at that time a very international place with lots of Jews. My grandmother ran a Russian restaurant. My father became a route manager for one of the city's bus companies. When the Japanese occupied the city, the Germans wanted them to extend the "Final Solution" to the Jews who were there. But because the Japanese considered that an unnecessary waste of resources, they simply created a ghetto for those Jews who came to Shanghai after the war started. After the war, my father worked for the U.S. Navy. I went to the Jewish school in a rickshaw. We wore blazers and little hats. It was a strict place; you could get your knuckles rapped for bad behavior.
In 1949, when Mao and the communists were taking over in China, my father led a group of 570 stateless Jews to Israel. We were on the last ship carrying civilians out of Shanghai. We settled there, but my father still dreamed of going to the United States. We finally got papers and were sponsored by a young ensign in the American navy my father had met in Shanghai. Because he'd returned to [the University of] Wisconsin to finish his doctorate after the navy, that's where we went, too.
Your time at the University of Wisconsingetting your B.A. and M.A. and studying for a Ph.D.corresponded with much of the anti-Vietnam war movement. Were you involved in it?
Before I enrolled, I spent three years in the U.S. Army as an enlistee. So I was older than most students. And although I was swept up in the campus events, as an immigrant, I saw them differently than the typical anti-war activist. For me, America was a haven, an opportunity, and I had trouble taking a position adversarial to the government. That changed when Dow Chemical's recruiting led to a major sit-in in the Commerce Building, and the university, for the first time, brought in the city police. Watching the tear gas and the beatings, I realized that all the people I respected were inside that building. In an odd way, however, I always resented the fuss over Vietnamall of the focus on Southeast Asia was directed there. I wanted some of the focus on Indonesia, the country in Southeast Asia I had chosen to study.
At Ford, after years of concentrating on Southeast Asia, you directed the PRI officea notable change. How did that turn out?
Quite well. The office got more visibility when Franklin Thomas replaced McGeorge Bundy in 1979 as the head of the foundation. I was asked to run PRI while someone was recruited for the job. I found I had a bit of an aptitude for it, and I stayed. During my tenure, we increased the set-aside for PRIs from $10 million to $50 millionit's much more nowand brought the unit literally out of the basement and integrated it much more with the foundation's overall program. We imposed a couple of important criteria: The investments had to be directly related to a part of the program; and the risk factor had to be tolerable. We also increased the use of our PRIs outside the United States. For example, we guaranteed a loan to Bangladesh's Grameen Bank, which was led by Muhammad Yunus, one of the saints of microenterprise. Ford's PRI guaranteed the first 10 percent of a loan the bank was seeking. Without the guarantee, the loan never would have been made.
What do you reckon to be your most satisfying achievements?
I hold particularly dear the founding of WINGS. Associations of philanthropy had been popping up in many places abroad, but with very modest resources and very little visibility. The people running them felt isolated. We said, "Let's set up a network of these groups, bring them together now and then to enhance their skills, provide ways to exchange useful information." I chaired the coordinating committee for that effort, and since the start-up in 2000, WINGS has really taken off. The network now encompasses about 120 organizations.
I would also mention the International Initiative to Strengthen Philanthropy. Ford had long been involved in helping foundations get started in various parts of the world. But, I noticed that they faced a common series of obstaclesregistering, converting an organizing committee into a functioning board, recruiting an effective CEO, developing a sound program agenda and so forth. It was taking five years, by and large, to make those organizations functioning entities, because along the way several of the obstacles were being dealt with ineffectively. So, we pulled together, under the initiative, 18 private foundations we were already working with and between last year and the next couple of years combined, we'll spend about $100 million to strengthen capacity and put together a plan to enhance resources. Most of these foundations work on social justice, but not allthere's the Indian Foundation for the Arts, for instance.
Third, I've been one of the strongest backers of civil society and the philanthropic slice of it both in the United States and elsewhere. I have argued for that inside and outside of Ford, and I'm proud that the foundation has become such a major supporter. I've also made a personal commitment in this area in terms of service on a variety of boards.
You're knownand hailedas a master at running meetings. One of your nominators cites your ability to "make sure the full spectrum of voices is heard really heardand respected." What's your secret?
It starts with the fact that I'm fairly patient; I don't get antsy if things drag a bit. In getting to a consensus, you need to give people a feeling that their point of view is on the table. And if people do get to say their piece, they're usually more apt to agree with the decision later. Also, I often take the time to call around before or after meetings to talk about things that will concern individualsand I try to get the group together for an informal dinner the night before the meeting begins. This isn't rocket scienceI like people, and I enjoy the give and take.
"Wise heads" in the field are supposed to be able to expound on lessons they've learnedor unlearned. Can you give us a couple?
How a foundation enters a new area of work is important, but how it exits is important, too. Sometimes we don't do the latter as sensitively and responsibly as we should. You owe it to the grantees you've been working with to tell them that a reassessment is under way and to give them a sense of it and a time frame for it. If you decide your foundation should extricate itself from a project, that has to be done with as little damage to the grantee organization you've been working with as possible. And, putting up resources will allow it time to readjust. If, as a result, you can't move on to a new project as quickly as you'd like, that's one of the costs of leaving a field of work in a responsible manner.
Another lesson involves professionalization, and its intended and unintended consequences. In the early days, bright generalists largely ran foundations. Then they started hiring program officers who were professionals in their fields and who could engage the grantees intellectually. That was the intended consequence. Unintended was that specialists are prone to fund discrete projects and to have less concern for the organization and its overall capacitytherefore, more project support, less core support. Nowadays we're in a second phase of professionalization, one that requires us, as foundation officials, to be dual-skilledto have a mastery of a subject but also the skills of a capable grantmaker. At Ford, we're addressing that need through our GrantCraft project.
A corollary point: There's an endless and tiresome debate about core support, "overhead." To me, it involves an ethical premise: Foundations have got to pay the freight for overhead, not say, "We only fund projects." We can arm wrestle over the amount of overhead we should pay. But, it takes ongoing institutional capacity to do the things we're funding grantees to do, and the notion that nobody is responsible for that is silly.
Personal lessons aside, what do you think about the state of the grantmaking art?
A couple of trends concern me. The first involves the important question of foundations' role in society. One view embraces an activist role for them, utilizing foundations' unique abilities to take on sensitive issues, support things that require a subsidy, act flexibly and make mid-course corrections, act rapidly as well (as in tsunami and post-9/11 relief), conduct pilot and demonstration projectsall of that often unlike government and for-profit institutions. But in this country and elsewhere, there's now a different, competing view of the role, one that sees foundations as more passive and status-quo oriented. That view has an intellectual underpinning and is not easily dismissed. It's found by and large among people who want to narrow and limit our rolethose who, for example, espouse the premise that governments shouldn't confer tax exemptions on organizations that turn around and criticize those governments.
Another concern is that it's quite in vogue to talk about "strategic, developmental" philanthropy, as distinct from "charitable," as if the first represents a higher order. That's very tricky. There are 70,000 foundations in the United Statesthe vast majority of them small, local and unstaffed. When we describe the kind of philanthropy those foundations practice, it tends to sound pejorative or dismissive. But what they do in their communitiessupport the Boy Scouts, for instancemay be every bit as useful and important as what we big foundations do. These small, local foundations build social capital, and rather than suggesting that they are not strategic, perhaps we should refer to their activities as "social capital philanthropy."
Photographs by Clark Jones
Roger M. Williams is a regular contributor to Foundation News & Commentary. He can be reached at email@example.com.