Taking Risks “Is What We Do”
By Steven W. Lawry
I joined the Ford Foundation in 1992 and feel fortunate to have served under Franklin Thomas until his retirement in 1996.
As Assistant Representative for Southern Africa, I made grants in support of land rights and rural development in South Africa and Namibia during a time when both countries were undergoing transitions from apartheid to multi-racial constitutional democracies.
I was fortunate to be at the Ford board of trustees meeting in Cape Town in April 1996 when the presidency was passed from Franklin Thomas to Susan Berresford, and when M.S. Swaminathan, a board member, read a tribute to Mr. Thomas on behalf of the entire board. I remember one line in particular: “Franklin Thomas transformed the Ford Foundation from a technical assistance organization to a humanistic organization.”
That was a lesson I had come to absorb intuitively, but only then was it given a name: a humanistic organization. Like many of us then, I’d come to the Foundation from a “technical assistance” tradition. Some re-learning was required!
Deference to grantee leadership was perhaps the most important tenet of “humanistic” programming, and for a multitude of good reasons. Grantee leaders, living and working close to the problems, have the intimate understanding of context, work the long hours, know what levers to push and pull to make social change happen, and in many cases bear great risks in advancing their organizations’ work.
Another tenet of Mr. Thomas’ humanistic programming saw the Foundation as the “Research and Development arm of society”. Now, R and D can have a corporate, meritocratic ring to it, but Mr. Thomas, I believe, was aiming to foster an appetite among program officers for risk-taking as a strategic value, believing that private funders have greater degrees of freedom to get behind innovative ideas and take on more risk than public agencies could normally tolerate. Philanthropy, he believed, should take greater advantage of that freedom.
An example of this vision of R and D’s humanistic approach is early Ford support of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. In 1981, Mohammad Yunus pitched a proposal to Ford’s Dhaka office to test uncollateralized lending to women’s groups. He was convinced, he said, that mutual support and social pressure occurring naturally in such groups would ensure that each member repaid her loan. Ford agreed, and provided Grameen an $800,000 recoverable loan to be used as security against actual lending by commercial banks.
Yunus told the Ford team he’d put the money in a London bank and never touch a nickel. “The fact that it is there will do the magic,” he said.
He was right and Ford’s risk was validated. Repayment approached 100 percent and microfinance was born, with far-reaching impacts on poor people’s lives then and now.
I interviewed Mr. Thomas in 2008 for a study on early Ford support for Grameen. I asked him what he would have told the board if the project had failed. First, he said, he would have described the rigorous project design process, recalling meetings in his office with Yunus and program staff, poring over plans spread across his conference table. Then, he said, he’d remind the board that taking risks in support of possible break-through solutions “is what we do”.
During my study, while digging into Grameen grant files in Ford’s archives, I came across a 1985 evaluation commissioned by the Dhaka office. Its last sentence read, “The Foundation’s own contribution [to Grameen’s success] has been its flexible and timely support that proved critical in enabling Grameen Bank to keep up momentum and to maintain the supportive environment in which creative individuals like Dr. Yunus best flourish.”
Steven Lawry worked at the Ford Foundation from 1992 to 2006 in the Namibia and Cairo offices and in Management Services in New York City.
LAFF Remembers Franklin Thomas: Co-Presidents’ Reflections by Suzanne Siskel and Betsy Campbell
He Left the World a Better Place by Susan Berresford
A Man of “Vision, Tenacity and Dignity” by Barron “Buzz” Tenny
Celebrating the Remarkable Legacy of Franklin Thomas by Darren Walker
“A True Humanitarian” by Shepard Forman
From the Class of ’92: “We worked for Frank” by Radhika Balakrishnan, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos, Natalia Kanem, Anthony Romero and Marcia Smith
Grantees: “Up Front and in the Center” by Charles Bailey
Taking Risks “Is What We Do” by Steven W. Lawry
A Leader With “Vision and Courage” by Barry D. Gaberman
Forging “New Paths on Multiple Fronts” by Judy Barsalou
“The Tallest Tree in Our Forest” by Akwasi Aidoo