Eminentoes

Jeez, Luis

New Ford Foundation CEO off to bumpy start.

By 5.22.09

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There was a tizzy of speculation in January 2008 when Luis Ubinas was named the new (and ninth) President of the Ford Foundation. His résumé seemed to be of the garden variety: he was young and Hispanic, born in the Bronx, educated at Harvard, an Obama contributor, married to a professor of Human Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State. He seemed to have punched most of the tickets, eh? What set off the speculation was that Ubinas also held an MBA and had spent 18 years as a management consultant with the pin-stripe firm of McKinsey & Co. (Some of his most important clients were newspaper companies, which, coincident with, but presumably unrelated to, his consultancy, plunged into death spirals.) Ubinas's management background seemed to suggest that Ford might be changing course and preparing to adopt a more businesslike approach to its vast philanthropy. It also suggested that Ford might be trying to rehabilitate the "MBA mystique" -- the 1980s conceit that a skilled manager can manage anything and thus needs no grounding in the particular industry under his management. Ubinas was a textbook example of the type. He had no experience in grantmaking, but he had just been installed as the most influential grantmaker in the world. Both of these suggestions caused a frisson of disquietude to pass through the upper echelons of Ford and the pack of likeminded foundations that have traditionally padded along behind it.

When Ubinas arrived at Ford's rosewood palace in New York, he assumed the lowest of all possible profiles. He announced almost immediately that he would spend the next year meeting staff, touring Ford's international offices, communing with grantees current and prospective and, generally, thinking large thoughts. A listening tour, if you will, scaled to dimensions that would excite even the record keepers at Guinness. And then off he went, rarely to be seen or heard outside a tight circle of Ford associates. (At an annual salary of $675,000, some Ford executives were heard to express the preference that he flash a bit of his much-hyped chops as a quick study.)

Somewhere along the world tour, word began to filter back to headquarters that Ubinas had experienced an afflatus. He had seen the future of grantmaking, it was rumored, and he had begun to draw the blueprint for the next great iteration of Ford philanthropy. Excitement simmered and then boiled. Nothing warms the bureaucratic blood like word of The New Plan. With roll of drum and trill of horn, the Ubinas vision-thing was released last month. The details were leaked, atavistically, to the New York Times, so we quote from the story by the Times' excellent beat reporter, Stephanie Strom:

The overhaul will bring additional focus to what Ford calls "lines of work," which are individual initiatives managed by individual program officers that have at times numbered more than 200, by condensing them into 35 new lines of work handled by groups of program officers around the world. Those teams will report to a director with responsibility for several of those 35 areas. Thus a single line of work devoted to advancing and supporting Native American arts and culture has been melded into a new, broader line of work supporting and promoting native, indigenous and minority contemporary artists.… the overhaul has not included a staff reduction.

There's more, but trust us, not much. Kudos to Ms. Strom for keeping a straight face. What Ubinas has given his colleagues is, yes, the old McKinsey Shuffle. In the world of management consulting, this type of an org-chart makeover has conventionally served three purposes: a) it has bought time for hapless management; b) it has asserted temporary authority over a restless staff and c) it has disguised the absence of an organizing principle behind a blizzard of boxes, graphics, pie charts and squiggly lines. The opinion is firming up that Ubinas managed to hit all three birds with the single stone. (The New Plan, we note without surprise, has met with a deafening silence inside Ford itself, a silence owing on the one hand to a sense of anticlimax and on the other to intramural anxiety. The real power in a nonprofit bureaucracy is the power to decide who reports to whom and Ubinas has just moved everybody's cheese.)

It is said by Ubinas's supporters, of course, that since he's been on the job only eighteen months he still deserves the benefit of the doubt. Perfectly reasonable, but he is off to a slow start, a career-cloudingly slow start. Indeed, there's only one bright spot for him at this point: he has developed a new and fervent political following. By restating Ford's mission as "social justice," he has begun to tilt Ford away from his predecessor's centrist-liberalism and back toward the hard-Left policies of an earlier generation of Ford leadership.

Two of his rare public appearances have excited special attention. Asked by one interlocutor what motivates him as a philanthropist, Ubinas replied that it was his sense of the "creeping unfairness" of American life. What kind of philanthropist, you might ask, would look out over the vast stretches of human misery -- the continental swaths of disease and illiteracy and hunger and strife -- and single out for priority attention the problem of American "unfairness"? Only a man in the grip of ideological fever, the Left seems to hope. Another interviewer asked Ubinas about his special interest in the Census. Was his interest just residue from the consultant gig, a technocratic fascination with economic trends and social patterns? Or an interest in psephology, perhaps? No and no. As Ubinas explained, "If there is any single thing a community foundation can do right now to benefit the people they are supposed to be serving, it is to make sure that every one of those people is counted because every one of those people comes with thousands of dollars in Federal entitlements." Ah yes, the Census as a tool to max out government welfare spending. If you don't recognize it, folks, that's ACORN talk. And the hardcore "community organizers" think they've just received a secret handshake from the President of the Ford Foundation.

Buckle up. This could be a long, sad chapter in the checkered history of the Ford Foundation.  

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About the Author
Neal B. Freeman is chairman of the Blackwell Corporation.