Ford Foundation President Speaks at Yale SOM Leaders Forum
To say that Luis Ubiñas spent two decades preparing to head the Ford Foundation would not be an exaggeration. When he started working at McKinsey & Company, Ubiñas sketched out a plan for himself, with an institution such as the Ford Foundation in mind. "From my very first day at McKinsey I thought of myself as being on a dual track,” he said. “I would be responsible and committed to my current job, but the entire time I would make sure there was a steady drumbeat of nonprofit exposure. I wanted to find myself twenty years later potentially leading a national nonprofit. I left McKinsey at forty-five, freakishly on schedule."
Ubiñas, the president of the Ford Foundation, spoke on March 31 as part of the Yale SOM Leaders Forum lecture series. He began work at the Ford Foundation, one of the country’s leading nonprofits, in early 2008, just as the current financial crisis began to build. In his first year at Ford, he launched three new initiatives: a review of the grant making program; an evaluation of the organization’s costs; and a reevaluation of Ford’s long-term management of its endowment. From a long list of programs and organizations Ford helped support, Ubiñas brought the foundation back to a core of 35 initiatives in 8 core issue areas and dramatically increased their funding even while the organization’s overall funding levels diminished. The cost review resulted in an order to take 7 % of the money Ford spends on administration and redirect it to grants — a total of $21 million. And the endowment management plan, which is still under review, acknowledges that the market and economy in the future will be structurally different from what it has been in recent years. Ubiñas said his initial moves all stemmed from a belief that the Ford Foundation was a great institution before he arrived and will continue to be one long after he has left. "Before starting, I spoke to 200 people who worked at Ford or have been in the Ford ecosystem for decades," he said. "A lot of what we’re doing now was informed by that."
The Ford Foundation, founded by Edsel Ford in 1936, is built on four core beliefs: strengthening democratic values, reducing poverty and injustice, promoting international cooperation, and advancing human achievement. It’s a mission Ubiñas said is more important now than ever. America is a country, Ubiñas said, where a person can work 2,500 hours per year and not be able to rise above poverty; where African Americans in some states face impediments to voting; where minorities are undercounted by the census, diminishing their voice in our democracy; where a boy sitting in a computer lab last year was shot for being gay. "Who’s going to raise these issues?" he asked. "It’s our responsibility to step back and challenge the status quo. Our society typically doesn’t work for the people at the bottom — women, the poor, minorities, gays. These populations have to be at the heart of our work. And while Ford should never do anything reckless, we ask hard questions so we don’t sit idly by while things happen."