Community Democracy, Rural Philanthropy, Arts and Collaboration: An Interview with Anne Kubisch of The Ford Family Foundation

August 25, 2014

Earlier this year, Jeff Clarke interviewed Kelly Brown, director of the D5 Coalition, about her important work of raising awareness and spurring action around diversity, equity and inclusiveness in philanthropy. This month, Jeff continues his series of conversations with leaders in the region and across the field with Anne Kubisch, president of The Ford Family Foundation in Roseburg, Ore.

Jeff Clarke: You worked in the international development field, on poverty, health and economic vitality with Ford Foundation in New York and then founded and served as Director of the Aspen Roundtable on Community Change for 20 years. Based on those experiences, how do you view the world? What are your thoughts about organized philanthropy within that worldview?

Anne Kubisch: Well, over the course of my 30 years in and around philanthropy, I’ve seen, first, a huge growth in the number of foundations and the amount of philanthropic resources that are available to promote change and innovation, and I’ve seen growing diversity of the people in them. Second, — and I think this is very positive — I see foundations using a wider range of philanthropic tools. Philanthropy is now acting as an agent of change with many more tools than the traditional grant. It’s the intellectual capital in the form of your staff; it’s your social capital; it’s your convening ability. It’s the ability to take risks and see over the horizon. On the flip side, I’m concerned about a professionalization of the field, where some foundations hold a lot of expertise in-house. They design initiatives for change and then go out and market that approach to potential grant recipients. Our challenge is to marry foundations’ knowledge and resources with communities and organizations that have the passion and expertise to carry out the work. It's about seeking a better balance between what the foundations can bring and what the communities they work with want to change.

What about those experiences and your worldview led you to The Ford Family Foundation in Roseburg, Ore.?

I think The Ford Family Foundation is a fabulous institution with a very rich history. I so admire the commitment that this foundation has to its place — rural Oregon and Northern California. The Foundation has a deep understanding about what it takes to support individuals so they can be successful, and a lot of knowledge about how to promote community vitality. For my part, the reason this is such a great match for me is that I have been a student of community change, an evaluator, an analyst, a technical assistance provider, but I haven’t been on-the-ground trying to apply the lessons that have been learned in a specific place since I worked in Lagos, Nigeria, from 1987-90. I think that we’ve learned so much about what it takes to promote improved outcomes for kids and families and communities. The challenge that we face is not figuring out what we need to do, but figuring out how to do it… in real time, in a real place, with real people, with real capacity constraints, with political dynamics and so on. This is what brought me to Roseburg — the opportunity to combine the lessons that have been learned with the incredible relationships and resources of The Ford Family Foundation. And, what’s more, I get to do it in the most beautiful state in the country. What could be better?!?

We recently had the chance to be together at Kettering Foundation in Ohio with a group of leaders dedicated to the notion of Community Democracy. Through your work at Aspen Institute, you are regarded as a leading pioneer for this philosophy and approach. Can you talk about what it is, how it's a thread in your life and in your leadership philosophy? Does philanthropy as a sector embrace / model this philosophy? Why or why not?

I think of our work in communities as a double helix, with one strand focusing on the technical and programmatic interventions that improve outcomes, and the other addressing the processes and capacities that are needed to carry out those interventions. The technical strand focuses on, for example, what kind of job training or health programs or enterprise development programs will work. The Kettering Foundation lifts up the other strand — the community-building side. This is all about the capacity within communities to actually identify their own needs, to create a vision for their future, to develop plans and implement activities. It’s about leadership development, community engagement in the change process, and so on, which can be called democratic problem solving. I really value the Kettering Foundation and Community Democracy Workshop for raising up this aspect of the work, naming it, defining it and giving it legitimacy.

As you know, in this rapidly urbanizing country (and world) there really is an urban-rural divide in terms of both philanthropic assets and philanthropic support. How does being located in a small town with a largely rural focus shape what you see as the primary opportunities and challenges of rural America? What role should and can philanthropy to build resilient rural communities? How has your own move from an urban area to a rural community shaped your perspective about rural philanthropy?

What I really love about being in the rural Northwest is the incredible commitment rural residents have to their own place. Their total love for their communities, often through multiple generations, is beautiful and deeply moving. This means that community residents really have to learn how to live and work together, regardless of their personal, social or political differences. In urban areas, it’s easier for people to avoid each other. I don’t want to be naïve, I know that there are some deep ideological divides among residents of rural communities. But I’m struck by the number of people who are trying to overcome those divisions and find compromises and pragmatic solutions to, say, the historic rifts between environmental protection and economic development.

The scale of rural Oregon has blown me away. The distance between towns is huge, and the size of the towns is tiny. I’ve been largely working in urban environments. I mean, we call the South Bronx, with 500,000 residents, a “neighborhood.” Going from there to John Day, where the entire town is about 1,700 people, is a real culture shift. It changes your whole view about scale. It means that every resident is wearing a lot of different hats; it means that the community leadership and capacity “bench” isn’t very deep; it means that economic development is often about one-job-at-a-time.

The Ford Family Foundation has built a national reputation for its long-term commitment and innovative approach to building civic capacity across Oregon and Northern California. Could you talk a little bit about that work?

I think it's part of the Foundation’s DNA to develop rural leadership — that makes us unique. We’ve accomplished amazing things over 10 years. With our partners, we’ve trained 6,000 people in leadership skills throughout rural Oregon and Northern California. Our challenge now is figuring out how best to work with the people with whom we have developed relationships and how to leverage those relationships to help them make the changes their communities are looking for.

The Ford Family Foundation has also made a substantial commitment to individual artists through the Hallie Ford Fellows in the Visual Arts program. Could you talk a little bit about that work? Is it related to or was it inspired by lessons gleaned from the commitment to building local civic capacity?

The Visual Arts Program is a very special part of the Foundation that was established to honor Hallie Ford, one of our founders, who had a strong interest in the arts. It was established five years ago with two major components: to support Oregon’s visual artists with fellowships, artist-in-residence programs and other mechanisms; and to support the Oregon arts ecology — the infrastructure that supports productivity and exhibition. We have a small-grants capital fund that enables exhibition and storage spaces to be upgraded, for example, as well as a program that brings nationally known critics and curators here to consult with local artists. It’s innovative and, from what we hear, quite unusual in the visual arts world.

Can you talk a little bit about The Ford Family Foundation's philosophy on collaboration / networks and how does that show up in your work?

We believe collaboration and networks are extremely important. We do collaboration at three levels. The first is within the communities themselves, as part of the training embedded in our leadership program, which is directed specifically at community collaboration. We believe that that is the only way that significant and lasting community change can happen. The second way is in particular program areas where we are making significant investments, such as the early childhood development program, which has worked very hard to create regional hubs of work. The third level is collaboration with peer funders in the state. The foundations here collaborate very well — with lots of information flow and lots of effort to check with each other and co-fund programs. One of the most impressive examples of that is Chalkboard, a collaboration of all major funders that is promoting better educational outcomes for all Oregon kids. I can't think of a similar example foundations collaborating like that in other cities and states that I’m familiar with.

Does The Ford Family Foundation engage in policy work or inform / communicate with elected officials and staffs on a regular basis around the issues / places it cares about?

In the areas where we have significant experience, like early childhood, our staff will participate in policy discussions that are designed to help inform policymakers at the state level. Going the other direction, we are really trying to learn what the state is doing around higher education and school reform so we can be sure that our philanthropic strategies are in concert.

Is mission investing a strategy that you and your trustees have discussed as a way to increase your community impact?

We are a young foundation still learning about these kinds of philanthropic strategies but haven’t yet been able to take them on.

What has been your experience taking over as the chief executive officer of a major foundation? Is there anything that has surprised you about the job, and what has challenged you the most?

Well, I surely had no idea about the breadth of the job. I now realize that we probably all define our work using the lens of our own training and experience. I come to this job with a long history of working in the social policy, antipoverty and community building world. So, I thought the job was going to be focused on developing and growing our programs to support people and places in Oregon and northern California. But it turns out that that’s only a part of the work. I’m also the human resources director for a staff of almost 30 people in two different locations. I staff a Board of Directors. I manage a budget. I execute on our investment strategies. I make sure that we are legally compliant. I oversee property management. I have a lot of public and representational duties. Fortunately for me, my predecessor, Norm Smith, who the Foundation’s first president, was a lawyer, and was a genius in setting up the legal, management, financial and administrative systems here. So, I get to ride his coat-tails for a while, as I learn those parts of the job.

What else should we know about The Ford Family Foundation and the issues / places in which it works?

We are at a very exciting turning point. We’ve spent the last 17 years getting to know our communities. We now have solid relationships in rural areas, outstanding strategic partners, and good relationships with peer funders. Now we get to take this well-functioning institution and dream about our future. It’s an exciting time. We're identifying which outcome areas to target for the next generation of our work. It’s clear that we have a strong history with education and supporting Oregon’s kids. We’ll continue to expand and grow in that arena. We’ll build on the solid connections we have in rural communities in a new direction by supporting them in their work to promote community vitality and economic development. We will continue to focus on community building and engagement. So, as we look to the future, we are focusing on the three “E”s — we want residents of rural communities to be educated, employed and engaged in community life. It’s a focus that allows us to build on our history and be ambitious about our future.