Giving, with strings attached

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Scott Sherman is a contributing writer of the Nation and a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

‘Large foundations are timid beasts,” Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1956. The Ford Foundation proved this in 2003 when its president, Susan Berresford, yielded to outside pressure and inserted dubious language into Ford’s standard grant-agreement letter, language that outraged civil libertarians, dismayed members of her own staff and left executives at other large foundations shaking their heads.

In January, Ford will have a new president, Luis Ubinas, who should move quickly to rectify the mistakes of his predecessor and realign Ford’s day-to-day grant-making with the lofty principles that have guided the foundation -- the second largest in the U.S. with assets of $12 billion -- throughout most of its history.

The grant agreement instituted by Ford -- which must be signed by each of the foundation’s 5,000 grantees, from Harvard University to the Steve Biko Foundation of South Africa -- reads as follows: “By countersigning this grant letter, you agree that your organization will not promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state, nor will it make subgrants to any entity that engages in these activities.” On quick perusal, these words might seem innocuous or even laudable. But on close inspection, the language is extremely vague and open-ended, as critics were quick to remind Ford.


Richard Saller, then the provost of the University of Chicago, which receives money from Ford, told the Harvard Crimson in 2005 that the “destruction of any state” provision was “hypocritical language” in light of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Ira Glasser, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union, privately warned Berresford that Ford’s new language could lead to 1950s-style blacklisting. The current head of the ACLU, Anthony Romero, believes that “Ford made a big mistake with the grant language. It has created a pall over the foundation and its grantees.” In the face of these and other lamentations, Ford has refused to back down.

Ford’s difficulties sprouted in the wake of the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, where 18,000 people gathered to debate the legacies of the slave trade, colonialism and racial and caste discrimination. Some activists at Durban unleashed their fury on Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, and organizations ranging from Commentary magazine to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch appropriately identified and denounced some anti-Semitic rhetoric and leaflets that had circulated at the conference.

Two years later, in October 2003, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a wire service in New York, published a withering four-part series about Ford, noting that the foundation had provided long-term funding to a Palestinian nongovernmental organization, the Palestinian Committee for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, which had been accused by some of inciting anti-Semitism at Durban. The series endeavored to tar the Ford Foundation with the brush of anti-Semitism, and, in a fast-and-loose manner, implied that some of the NGOs that Ford had chosen to fund had ties to terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza.

The series had the desired effect: The American Jewish Congress asked lawmakers in Washington to examine the tax-exempt status of foundations such as Ford, on the grounds that Ford may have financed “terrorists and terror-related activities.” At the same time, 20 members of Congress, led by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), wrote to Berresford demanding that she immediately investigate the allegations in the series.

The foundation initially denied the allegations, but, ultimately, Berresford promised that Ford would stop funding the Palestinian Committee. Then, perhaps unaccustomed to political fisticuffs and the close scrutiny of determined critics, she went too far and allowed her detractors to help dictate textual changes in the grant letter. (Berresford insists that the language was not imposed on the foundation.)

In any case, Ford’s new grant language sent shock waves through the foundation world. One executive at another large foundation told me, “This is the kind of language that, had it been from the government, the ACLU would have to sue.” A former high-ranking Ford employee noted with dismay: “Susan is very tough and principled, so they must have really twisted her arm to get her to put in that new grant language.”


Ford’s grantees in the upper reaches of academia immediately resisted the new provisions. In April 2004, Ford received a letter from nine university provosts -- including those from Harvard, Columbia, Stanford and the University of Chicago -- who wrote that “it is difficult to see how this clause would not run up against the basic principle of protected speech on our campuses.” Say, for instance, that a student organization at Columbia University were to sponsor a Palestinian film festival -- as one did in 2003. All of Columbia’s Ford grants could theoretically be jeopardized if a film in that series was deemed to be supportive of “violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state.” And it wasn’t clear whether the grant agreement covered the speech of professors, alumni magazines or books published by university presses.

In the end, the provosts, reluctant to damage their relationship with a crucial funding source, forged an uneasy compromise with Ford.

Nearly all of Ford’s grantees opted to remain silent about the language in the grant letter: They rely on the foundation for essential financial support. But one New York-based grantee decided to stand on principle. The leaders of the Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelmann and Glasser, the former ACLU director, told Berresford that “the trouble with such ill-defined standards as ‘promoting terrorism’ or ‘promoting bigotry’ or ‘promoting the destruction of any state’ is that they inevitably embrace advocacy and speech. The rights of those who advocate for unpopular ideas and proposals are then at the mercy and discretion of those who interpret and enforce such vague and over-broad restrictions.” Berresford declined their request that the language be changed and, in late 2004, the alliance returned a $200,000 grant to Ford.

The ACLU, which routinely defends people whose behavior could well be seen as bigoted or terroristic -- detainees being held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, for instance -- initially accepted the language, but after a protracted internal battle, refused more than $1 million in Ford grants.

Large foundations may indeed be timid beasts, but Ford’s history is full of innovation. In the 1960s, under the leadership of McGeorge Bundy, the former national security advisor to President Kennedy, Ford helped to establish the Public Broadcasting Service, the National Council of La Raza, the Urban Institute and a number of public-interest law centers. During congressional hearings in 1969, Bundy aggressively defended the entire foundation sector against the machinations of elected officials.

Berresford’s post-9/11 capitulation to outside critics was a dark moment in the history of a great institution. Ubinas would do well to ponder the mistakes of recent years and move to restore the foundation’s credentials in the realm of civil liberties, and its independence in the realm of politics.


Revising the language in the grant-agreement letter is an appropriate way to begin that process of renewal.