Earlier this month, the Ford Foundation announced the selection of a new President who will take over the reigns of one of the nation’s second largest foundation early next year.
The surprise choice is Luis A. Ubiñas, who has worked for McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, for 18 years, to lead the organization, the nation’s second-largest foundation, with $11 billion in assets. I don’t know Mr. Ubiñas, but he comes with many great assets for Ford, first and foremost of which is that he doesn’t come from Ford. In addition, he has a personal story of rising from poverty in the South Bronx and going to private schools in New York on scholarship and eventually Harvard. He has content knowledge in new media and technology which Ford sorely lacks and a passion for providing educational opportunities for minority students.
But, I was struck by a paragraph in the announcement printed in the New York Times on August 14th:
Increasingly, however, high-profile nonprofit jobs are going to people who have done well in the business world or in politics, a reflection on the pressure on charities and foundations to become more accountable.
I read this paragraph a few times hoping that it would make sense the more I read it. Like many mths that aren’t actually true but people come believe them to be over time, this paragraph is both unfortunate and untrue.
Since when did it become conventional wisdom that an MBA is better suited for social change work than an MSW? Since the Ford Foundation has financial assets greater than some country’s gross national products, and presumably some of their hundreds of employees are financial people charged with competently investing and managing those funds, why exactly a business degree and, in this case, business consulting experience, is preferable to someone who has done the work of the grantees, is confounding. Since it appears from his resume that Mr. Ubiñas has never actually run a large organization himself, one reason in particular that some businesspeople might be sought out to run a large foundation, how and why his professional background makes him preferable to other candidates who have actually worked in philanthropy or nonprofits is mysterious.
One has to wonder if his selection reflects the habits of board member, who are very often successful businesspeople themselves, to select one of their own. Or do these trustees have such a low opinion of the talents, skills and experiences of nonprofit professionals that they automatically assume that a “real” business person would be more qualified to run a large institution.
And this brings me to the word “accountable.” The term “accountable” is more often used in a financial context and certainly it is true that how foundations use, or misuse, their money has become closely watched by bloggers, reporters, watchdog groups and state attorney generals. But, again, is the presumption that only a person from the for profit world would not use foundation funds for their own vacation homes and first class travel a safe assumption?
But the word accountability also gives me pause because I spent over a decade teaching nonprofits how to plan and evaluate their programs and organizations. I helped organizations more clearly articulate what they were trying to accomplish, and then measure the results in order to continuously improve their efforts. Many, many times I found that newcomers from the for profit world were confounded by notion that nonprofit impact goes far beyond producing something but to changing the way that people think, believe, and act. We don’t manufacture cars or build computers, we build the self esteem of children to increase their love of learning, rather, we help people become more self sufficient, we raise awareness of climate change issues. And no MBA classes teaches you how to do that.
I wish Mr. Ubiñas the best of luck at Ford, they could use a shot of adrenaline and new ideas. But I reject the notion that the sector, as a whole, needs to be saved by for profit business people. I’d like to propose that any for profit person tapped to run a nonprofit or foundation be required to spend at least three months working for a nonprofit service or advocacy group to find out first hand it’s a heck of a lot harder to serve people and communities than to make widgets.