News and analysis
March 06, 2013

Ford Foundation’s President to Depart in September

Eric Ogden

Luis Ubiñas

Luis Ubiñas, a former McKinsey & Company executive whose 2007 appointment to lead the Ford Foundation came as a surprise to many in philanthropy, announced yesterday that he will step down from the post in September.

During his tenure, Mr. Ubiñas refocused the 77-year-old foundation’s grant-making programs and oversaw sharp staff cuts amid the recession.

Mr. Ubiñas has not said what he will do next.

In a statement posted on Ford’s Web site, he expressed appreciation for the chance to lead the foundation and said he “had learned so much.”

“One of the hardest things for a leader is to know when to step down,” he wrote. “I believe it is when he has given as much as he can to the institution he leads. After a period of profound transformation, both in our society and at the Ford Foundation, that moment has come for me.”

Refocused Grant Making

While at Ford, Mr. Ubiñas organized the foundation’s work around eight broad topics, an attempt to move away from what some critics viewed as a scattershot approach to giving.

He halted some work, like Ford’s efforts to build philanthropic institutions and grassroots groups in the U.S. and overseas. He meanwhile started new projects to end child marriage worldwide, support documentary films on social inequity, expand the school day in the United States, and tackle climate change.

Mr. Ubiñas joined Ford just as the economy was deteriorating. The foundation’s endowment dropped by nearly 30 percent in 2009, to $8-billion, causing Mr. Ubiñas to offer buyouts to one-third of its 550 employees. Its assets have since recovered to about $11-billion, the foundation said. Today, it employs 378 people.

“Luis brought an extraordinary set of skills to the foundation, and he made a significant impact in strengthening the foundation’s financial position despite the economic downturn,” Irene Hirano Inouye, chair of the foundation’s board, said in an interview.

Social-Justice Mission

Some observers said Mr. Ubiñas overcame initial doubts about his lack of nonprofit experience to serve as a strong leader who modernized the foundation’s operations and advanced its efforts to fight inequality.

While many longtime Ford employees left during his tenure, he hired a number of top officials, including vice presidents Darren Walker and Maya Harris, with many years of nonprofit experience.

“Luis has made first-rate hires in Darren Walker and Maya Harris as vice presidents and at many other levels, focused Ford’s resources even more sharply on its core social-justice mission, and showed a passion and boldness on the key challenges of the day that few expected from someone who’d spent 20 years at McKinsey,” wrote Gara LaMarche, former president of Atlantic Philanthropies, in an e-mail to The Chronicle.

Yet to some former employees, grantees, and others in philanthropy, Mr. Ubiñas’s tenure was disappointing. While he reaffirmed the foundation’s commitment to social justice, they said, his top-down leadership style and reduced emphasis on financing social movements and risky endeavors meant his tenure didn’t add up to as much as that of some of his predecessors.

“He didn’t exercise the muscle that someone at Ford might have,” said Pablo Eisenberg, a Chronicle columnist and senior fellow at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute. “One wondered what his vision of philanthropy and of activism was.”

Peter Wilderotter, president of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and former chief fundraiser at WNYC, which received support from Ford, said, “Ford used to be known for its staff and its stature around the world. It seemed like a place that just consolidated all the power at the top. I wouldn’t say it was a successful tenure.”

Concern About Flux

Ms. Inouye said the board would soon hire a search firm to help recruit a new leader. She said the foundation expected to have a new president in place by the time Mr. Ubiñas departs this fall.

William Schambra, director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, said Ford would now be in flux for another few years, as first the foundation searches for a new leader and then that person seeks to put his or her stamp on the institution.

“Here we go again,” said Mr. Schambra, who is also a Chronicle columnist. “You can’t keep having these major upheavals every six years at major foundations and pretend you’re doing strategic, sustained philanthropy.”

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