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2007 John W. Gardner Leadership Award

October 25, 2007

"Leaders come in many forms, with many styles and diverse qualities. There are quiet leaders and leaders one can hear in the next county. Some find strength in eloquence, some in judgment, some in courage."

-- John W. Gardner

Established by Independent Sector in 1985, the John W. Gardner Leadership Award is presented annually to an outstanding American who exemplifies the leadership and ideals of founding IS chairperson John Gardner (1912-2002). Berresford_lg_2

On Monday evening, IS presented Ford Foundation president Susan V. Berresford with the  award at a ceremony in Los Angeles. Berresford, who earlier this year announced her decision to retire from the foundation after thirty-seven years, joined Ford's division of national affairs in 1970 and subsequently served as head of its women's programs, vice president for U.S. and international affairs programs, vice president in charge of worldwide programming, executive vice president and chief operating officer, and -- for the last eleven years -- as the foundation's president.

According to the press release announcing her selection as this year's Gardner Award winner

Berresford has played a pivotal role in many of the Ford Foundation’s signature accomplishments. Early in her career, she was the driving force behind grants to organizations leading the fight against gender bias. She also helped guide the foundation’s landmark efforts to build a broad civil rights network in the United States, steering critical resources towards programs that increased minority voter registration and reduced housing discrimination.

Ms. Berresford oversaw the creation of a national loan program that has brought home ownership to tens of thousands of minority and low-income Americans. In 2000, the Ford Foundation launched the International Fellowships Program with the largest grant in its history -- $280 million -- to enable talented community leaders in poor countries to obtain graduate education at the best universities in the world. To date, more than 2,500 men and women have been selected for the program from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Russia. More than 1,000 fellows have completed their study and many already have returned to their home countries to infuse their leadership skills in bettering their communities.

Under Ms. Berresford’s stewardship, the Ford Foundation has established institutions that promote international cooperation and support philanthropy throughout the world. In 2006, the Ford Foundation, with a $30 million commitment, launched TrustAfrica, an independent philanthropic foundation based in Senegal. The organization promotes peace, economic prosperity, and social justice throughout the continent and gives Africans a voice in the international donor community. The Ford Foundation also was a prime funder of the International Center for Transitional Justice, which has helped more than 30 countries emerging from conflict foster justice and secure sustainable peace. In addition, the foundation has supported the creation of two dozen new foundations around the world, which are now improving the quality of life in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

I interviewed Susan (as everyone calls her) in 2002, eight months after the September 11 attacks, and was impressed then by her directness, collegiality, and sense of humor. Those qualities were on display again Monday night as she accepted the Gardner Award and shared her thoughts with those in attendance.

After starting with a few anecdotes from her travels in Africa to illustrate the fact of our growing global interdependence, Berresford expressed her conviction that "we have new opportunities to come together and create community and safety on a wide scale." She then laid out three challenges -- in effect, a call to action -- for the independent sector:

First...we have to ensure that economic opportunity is open to all in societies around the world. In the next decade, for the first time in human history, the majority of the world's population will live in cities. And unless we generate far greater living and earning opportunities than our urban landscapes currently provide, tragedy is surely in store for all of us.

We already see in the U.S. growing proportions of our working-age population in dead-end, low-reward jobs, [even though] our social contract taught us that if you play by the rules and work hard, you can get into the middle class, you can pay for college, you can cover your health costs, and you can have a decent retirement.

I think if we tolerate the growing concentrations of compound disadvantage, we make a dangerous mockery of that idea. And I hope as we think about that, we'll remember that huge advances in well-being our country occurred not just when the economy was rising or expanding. They also came when the U.S. made ambitious investments in people and in public moral standards. Think of the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by Abraham Lincoln; the GI Bill, signed by Franklin Roosevelt; the Federal Home Mortgage Act, which created a whole generation of homeowners who had a stake in their communities; recall the Civil Rights Act of 1957 that Wade Henderson reminded us was an Eisenhower innovation; and then the more familiar 1964 Civil Rights Act and the American for Disabilities Act of 1990; and many such sweeping laws.

I believe it is the time for us to consider dramatic public investments that will have significant inter-generational payoffs. Over the last decades, lots of you in this room have been working on ideas and programs that will become the base of new, ambitious, generation-boosting investments. Just to take one example from the Ford Foundation's experience, we and other foundations have tested a variety of ideas around accounts -- children's savings accounts, individual development accounts, college accounts, life-long-learning accounts. These programs could be knit together into a national system of publicly and privately supported, individually earned asset accounts. And that could have a very dramatic effect on the ambition and aspiration and economic opportunity in disadvantaged communities. That's really the first challenge I see for all of us.

A second and closely related challenge is to show that our organizations support the worth and dignity of every single human being. That means ensuring that differences based on gender, on ethnicity, on race, on sexual orientation, on disability, on geography do not marginalize the other. But I think inclusiveness is something that far too few of our organizations think about, or are very creative about. Think of all the debate we now have in our field about new philanthropy, or the buzz we hear about combinations of nonprofit and business efforts. We have far less buzz and far less dialogue regarding inclusion. Leaders in our sector need to show that we know how to make a real asset out of our differences. In the U.S. this means intentionally including in our hiring pools, in boards, and in decision-making bodies people who have been marginalized. It means examining what may be out-of-date concepts of qualifications. And it involves seeing that formerly underrepresented people, when they come in, are welcomed and helped to succeed.

And I believe we still need affirmative action. For one thing, we have very clear evidence of prejudice that remains from paired studies of black and white job applicants, health care, and housing-seekers. So declaring that we want to be a color-blind society doesn't make it so. We have to take many kinds of difference into account to ensure equal opportunity, and when we do that we must be sure to embrace our full diversity. Bishop Tutu said this wonderfully when he said, "We can't pick and choose for justice."

Affirmative action, in my view, is a very modest measure when compared to the power of excepted advantage. We need to reveal how many people have advantages that they don't recognize. How many of us have heard someone say, "I made it they hard way; why can't everybody else?" Often that person doesn't see what really helped them along the way -- perhaps being in a family that had a tradition of work and knew how to smooth the way for [young family members] into work, even though the family was very poor. Maybe the advantage was a school teacher or a relative who reached out and plucked a child out of a very disorganized and dysfunctional neighborhood or family. Or the advantage of having a family member who can just make a loan at an important moment, on an emergency basis.

The truth about advantage is complicated; it's not just about being rich. And I think we have to help people see how advantage works, and then extend to others the advantages that we all know make an enormous difference.

The third challenge I see is ensuring that our sector's organizations are effective and accountable. I think our sector is making tremendous gains here, particularly in standard-setting. Civil society organizations across the nation and in many different subfields have now developed standards of governance and operation, and Independent Sector has made a wonderful effort to try to pull them together and consolidate the core principles.

But I think the question is whether we will vigorously promote those standards. We need to make them so widely understood that people feel pressure to live up to them and embarrassed if they don't. And that will not happen if we try to do this on the cheap. So I hope everybody in this room will dedicate time and funding to make the kinds of standards that you all have in your own fields, and that the independent sector now has, vivid and powerful.

And in that connection I have to say that I remain disappointed by what I see as a lack of commitment to our field's general well-being by many people in it. For example, in the foundation field I think too few foundations support research and analysis about philanthropy. We should be banding together to make sure we have sophisticated and accurate research and data on our field, because we need to be sure that when policy makers come to us and try and figure out how to regulate us, we have good information that informs their decision making. Part of our difficulty, I think, in the legislative arena today is that we have lousy data and it sets up damaging norms and benchmarks. We are responsible for that ourselves.

I think the same is true of the broader independent sector. We need to know about the diversity of our field's leadership and who is in the talent pipeline. Are poor people really being served by organizations set up for that purpose? We should be asking those questions, not waiting for our regulators to do that.

We will be better off if we band together and generate sophisticated research that helps us reform our field. Putting it simply, I guess I would say that if we don't take ourselves seriously, I don't know why anyone else should.

Finally, as we put our standards to work, I think we need to be willing to critique and repair organizations that fall short. Critique and repair. Let's not gossip about them; let's engage with them. I think we have a corresponding obligation to support those that are unfairly criticized, and not just feel relieved that we are not in in the crosshairs. I think the Council on Foundations and Independent Sector have done a marvelous job in this area, citing missteps and chastising bullies. And I bless them for that.

John Gardner expected us to aim high, and I don't think we want to disappoint him. Let us not leave people behind, and let us beseech our country to invest in dramatic generation-boosting investments, earned by striving. Let us keep difference and equality in the forefront. And let us take our sector very, very seriously.

Classic, no-nonsense Berresford, especially with respect to her suggestion that foundations need to do more to demonstrate their -- and their grantees' -- impact and effectiveness. As Susan said, paying lip service to the idea is not enough; it will take time, effort, creative thinking, and money -- lots of money. And, quite frankly, it may not be possible, in any meaningful way. But if the independent sector wishes to remain relevant -- and largely free of onerous regulation -- we need to try.

(Ed. note: I'll be posting a new interview with Susan in the coming weeks as part of our Newsmaker series.)

-- Mitch Nauffts

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