Susan V. Berresford, President, Ford Foundation: September 11 and Beyond

May 28, 2002
Susan V. Berresford, President, Ford Foundation: September 11 and Beyond

While the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came as a shock to virtually every American, they also galvanized the country in a way that hadn't been seen since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. In the days immediately following the attacks, countless Americans donated blood, volunteered their time and labor, or sent contributions to relief agencies like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

The response by foundations and corporations was just as swift and generous. On September 13, the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment pledged $30 million to relief and recovery in New York and Washington, D.C. A day later, the Ford Foundation announced a $10 million pledge and the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore contributed $3 million, followed in short order by $10 million pledges from the New York City-based Starr Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. By September 18, pledges of $1 million or more by U.S. corporations had surpassed $170 million. More would follow.

As one of the most visible and respected philanthropies in the world, and with its headquarters in midtown Manhattan, the Ford Foundation quickly became a clearinghouse of information for other organizations involved in the philanthropic response to the attacks. In late March, six months after the attacks, Philanthropy News Digest traveled uptown to speak to Ford president Susan V. Berresford about the foundation's response to 9/11, the lessons the sector may have learned from that terrible day, and what the foundation is doing to make itself a "resource for innovative people and institutions worldwide."

Berresford was named president of the Ford Foundation in April 1996. At the time of her appointment, Ms. Berresford was executive vice president and chief operating officer of the foundation.

Berresford joined the foundation in 1970 as a project assistant in the Division of National Affairs and between 1972 and 1980 served as a program officer in that division. In 1980 she was named officer in charge of the foundation's women's programs, and in 1981 became vice president for the U.S. and International Affairs programs, subsequently serving as vice president of the division in charge of worldwide programming for the foundation from 1989.

Prior to joining Ford, Berresford served from 1965 to 1967 as a program officer for the Neighborhood Youth Corps. In 1967-68, she worked for the Manpower Career Development Agency, where she was responsible for the evaluation of training, education, and work programs.

Ms. Berresford attended Vassar College and then studied American history at Radcliffe College, from which she graduated cum laude in 1965. She is a board member of the Council on Foundations and a member of the Trilateral Commission and the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences. She has also served on the boards of the Robert and Hermine Popper Foundation and the Chase Manhattan Corporation, and as a member of the advisory committee of the Center for Global Partnership.

Philanthropy News Digest: It's been six months since September 11 and things seem to be returning to normal, but the memory of that morning is still fresh in most people's minds. Where were you on the morning of the eleventh?

Susan Berresford: I was right here in my office, having a meeting with a few of our senior staff. Then someone came in and said, "A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center."

We turned on the television, and at that point one or two of the other officers who weren't in the meeting came in, and soon after that the second plane hit. Right away we knew it was terrorism. After the first plane hit, we all were puzzled and thinking maybe it was an accident. But it was clear what had happened as soon as the second plane hit. In fact, someone said, "This is terrorism."

PND: Did you know at that moment that you and your colleagues would need to do something in response to the attacks?

SB: Absolutely. I knew the minute the word "terrorism" was spoken. The first thing we did was to check on our own people. More than three hundred people work in this building, and they were all terrified, as I was, as everybody was. And then, of course, after I realized that the foundation would have to respond, three things occurred to me. They turned out to be the same three things that pretty much everybody was thinking about — namely, immediate relief, longer-term recovery, and broader re-thinking. The need for all three was immediately evident.

PND: Did you speak to colleagues at other major foundations in the city that day?

SB: Eventually, yes, but I spent the better part of the morning on internal matters. I first gathered the supervisors from different staffs to talk about what we knew and about what some of the issues would be. As the morning moved along, the city closed the bridges and tunnels, which meant that people weren't going to be able to get home. So at that point I took an hour and a half to walk through the building and talk to people and see how they were doing. That was my first responsibility: to see that everyone was safe.

But by early afternoon, I called Lorie Slutsky at the New York Community Trust and said, "There must be something we're all going to have to do now." And she said, "Yes, we've already been thinking about it." That was the first call I made and later, I called a few other colleagues. As you know, we have offices around the world, some in countries where the environment for Americans and American institutions is welcoming and some in countries where the environment has been less than welcoming. So we were in touch with those overseas offices pretty quickly to find out what was happening and to make sure they were all safe and secure.

PND: What did the foundation want to accomplish in the first few weeks after 9/11?

SB: We stated from the start that we are a national and international funder. We don't know New York City half as well as many other donors and institutions here do. So our goal then became to come up with a list of near-term needs that we could help address, as well as a list of institutions that we knew we could rely on to do that kind of work. We approached that task with a sense of urgency and quickly made about $12 million in grants, with several objectives in mind. One was to help nonprofit organizations whose offices, equipment, or finances had been damaged to do whatever they needed to do to get back on their feet. For that, we funded the Nonprofit Finance Fund and the Fund for the City of New York.

The second was to help people who had had micro-businesses and, we felt, probably wouldn't make it onto the radar screens of the larger relief agencies. So we turned to Seedco to help us with that. Another grant went to the Legal Aid Society to help low-income people affected by the attacks address their problems. We were also concerned with the damage done to the public radio infrastructure in the city and so we gave to WNYC. And, of course, we were concerned about the tremendous human suffering and need created by the attacks, as well as the longer-term recovery, and so were very interested from the outset in the September 11th Fund created by the New York Community Trust and the United Way and contributed to it. I'd have to look at the dates, but within a very short period of time, we committed the money, told people they were going to get funding, and got it out the door.

PND: Were you at all surprised by the outpouring of charitable contributions from individuals, corporations, and private foundations — not just here in New York but from across the country — in those first few weeks?

SB: Not really. This is an amazingly generous country. We don't have a culture where we wait for other people to do things for us. In times of crisis, we have a history of mobilizing and responding. So the outpouring of support itself was not a surprise to me. What was a surprise — although I didn't know about it at the time — was the geographic dispersion of the donors and the variety of ways in which they gave. I was surprised to learn from the data that your organization [i.e., the Foundation Center] gathered, for example, that giving by corporations and foundations in California represented something like eight percent of the total giving to the relief and recovery effort.

PND: Was there a point at which you started to worry that the agencies involved in the relief and recovery effort would be overwhelmed by the level of contributions?

SB: Again, not really, because from the very start I was concerned about relief, recovery, and re-thinking. Recovery can be a very long process. If you look at any devastated area, whether it has experienced a man-made disaster or a natural disaster, it always takes a long time for it to recover completely. And you can't hope to do that without institutional and individual support.

"...My understanding always was that the charitable response to 9/11 was going to be available for a combination of things — although, obviously, the first priority would be to help the individuals and families that were directly affected by the attacks...."

My understanding always was that the charitable response to 9/11 was going to be available for a combination of things — although, obviously, the first priority would be to help the individuals and families that were directly affected by the attacks. So the very generous level of funding was, I thought, totally appropriate for what was going to be needed over the long term.

PND: There were calls from many quarters in those first few weeks for the creation of a centralized board or agency to oversee the distribution of relief and recovery funds, as had been done in Oklahoma City. The Ford Foundation, along with other major philanthropies in the city, was less than enthusiastic about that idea. Why?

SB: From the number of people killed, to the type of damage that was done and the range of businesses affected, to the suffering that occurred as a result of the attacks, September 11 was a crisis of huge and unprecedented proportions. And against that backdrop, it was hard for me to imagine a new centralized agency addressing all those issues as well as the alternatives that were already in place. New York is a city blessed with an enormous variety of skilled and diverse philanthropic institutions — institutions that work with immigrant populations, that work with businesses, that work with nonprofits. I wanted to see us capitalize on that rich array of organizations and not create another layer between those who needed help and those who were in a position to provide help. That just seemed like the wrong approach.

But I was very sympathetic to the idea that there ought to be a mechanism for coordinating and sharing information on who was being helped. I think what was unclear to many people at the time, although it may have been clearer to those of us who've worked at the grassroots level, is that such a mechanism was a great deal more complicated to create than it appeared to be. For two reasons: one, because each institution has its own way of operating in an emergency; and two, because many institutions, including the Red Cross, have rules about what they can and cannot share with others.

PND: Let's talk about the Red Cross. By mid-October, the media had raked the agency over the coals for announcing its intention to use a portion of the 9/11 contributions it had collected for other purposes. Shortly thereafter, Red Cross president Bernadine Healy resigned and the agency reversed its course. What do you think happened there?

SB: I don't know the Red Cross all that well. I know what I read in the newspapers, and what I learned from a few people who knew something about it. I will say this. September 11 was an event that was so complicated and unprecedented that, looking back on it, I understand a lot better now than I did then some of the challenges the Red Cross faced.

For starters, the Red Cross is an organization that relies on volunteers. And for it to operate in the kind of chaotic, high-stress environment created by the events of September 11 with a lot of volunteers and sustain that activity over a long period of time had to have been extremely challenging.

Second, on the fundraising front, at the time of the attacks it was not at all clear that there wouldn't be attacks on other institutions or facilities. So it didn't seem strange to me for the Red Cross to be thinking that this was a situation that might repeat itself, or that they would want to put aside some money for that possibility. Granted, that wasn't entirely clear in their appeals. But it doesn't seem to be an unreasonable position for them to have taken.

"...Now we all look at what happened and think we would do it differently. But we shouldn't forget the terrible emotional experience that this was for people, or how that affected the decisions they made...."

You know, when we look back on the first few weeks after 9/11, it's very easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback and to forget the fear that people felt, the uncertainty and tremendous confusion that people and institutions had to deal with. No one does their best thinking under conditions like that. The human response is to try and raise money and do something with it, rather than say, "We got our message exactly right." Of course, now we all look at what happened and think we would do it differently. But we shouldn't forget the terrible emotional experience that this was for people, or how that affected the decisions they made.

PND: What lessons did the philanthropic community in New York learn from September 11?

SB: I think it's just beginning to be time to learn a few lessons about the early stages of our response. There will be, I'm sure, a spate of reviews and articles and maybe even books about this, and I hope some of the people who are planning or writing them wait a little bit longer before they start, because I think there are still parts of the recovery that are just getting underway.

However, if I look back now as an individual who was part of this, one thing I learned is the value of coordination. For example, with donors: we all played rather different roles, and I think it's important to recognize that. Some people wanted to act quickly and were able to do that. Other people acted as conveners, and that was very important. There were things shared at some of the early meetings that made it clear who would be responsible for a certain type of activity, allowing others to simply funnel money or talent or whatever to the organizations that were ready to move. Other people, ourselves included, tried to act as a clearinghouse of information. For example, I decided, prompted by a suggestion from a colleague, to call a group of foundation presidents with whom I normally work. And we ended up agreeing that we would have a conference call once a week, which ultimately turned into an e-mail communique put out by my office. And we did that for quite a long period of time, sharing with each other what we were doing, things we were thinking about doing, as well as things we wanted to do but couldn't. So one lesson is to look to different people and organizations to play different kinds of roles.

The second lesson — and I've thought a lot about this — is the internal lesson. Every person in this organization experienced the same fear and confusion and uncertainty that the person in Tribeca, or on the Upper West Side, or in Cleveland did. And, in our case, I found that one of the most important things we could do was to comfort and reassure each other. Initially, it was difficult for people to talk about why 9/11 happened — not least, because people had different ideas about that, some of them quite at odds with each other. But within a few days there came a point at which people wanted to come together as a group, to make a statement institutionally. And the way we did that, ultimately, was to ask all our staff to gather in the foundation's garden for a brief ceremony and then to sign their names on sheets of paper to be bound together and forwarded to 9/11 grantees with the checks for our emergency grants. We also asked staff in our offices around the world to do the same thing. This symbolic gesture had emotional value for each of us, and I gather from people I've talked to who received grants that it really meant something to them, too.

PND: It was common in the weeks after 9/11 to hear people say that the attacks had changed everything. Did September 11 change everything?

SB: No. September 11 changed many things, but not everything. It did create a sense of vulnerability in this country that I don't think we had experienced for a long time. And that prompted, in turn, an outpouring of patriotic sentiment that we hadn't seen for a long time. However, I don't think it has yet prompted what needs to occur, which is a spirited debate about the role of the United States in the world. It's still hard to do that. I think fear and the understandable desire to strike back, the kind of war-footing mentality we've seen, makes it difficult to have a thoughtful discussion about our role in the world. But I think it will happen, and has to happen.

September 11 also changed some grantmaking agendas. It certainly changed some of the work we do here — intensifying it, as it were, if nothing else. Many of our staff said that they felt their work was more urgent than ever, that they wanted to get on with things, to get to the end point quicker while discarding some things that didn't seem to be as significant as they did before the eleventh.

"...What's important to remember is that we still have an agenda in this country independent of 9/11. And that agenda has to do with poverty and diversity and school reform and issues of race and gender...."

But what's important to remember is that we still have an agenda in this country independent of 9/11. And that agenda has to do with poverty and diversity and school reform and the health and life of our cultural institutions and issues of race and gender and sexual preference and so on. So while 9/11 should and will change some things, other things will remain as they were and deserve our full attention.

PND: You've spoken eloquently over the years on the subject of civil society and its importance to the democratic experience. Did September 11 alter Americans' view of the role that government should play in a democratic society?

SB: It's too early to tell. Certainly, the public's confidence in government, as measured by public opinion polls, has risen substantially, after what was a long period of cynicism and distrust of government. Whether that will hold over time remains to be seen. September 11 was such an unprecedented event that it's hard to predict what it will lead to.

In terms of the nonprofit world, I think it's interesting to see what has happened. We have such a broad, capable nonprofit sector in this country, and people rely on it for so much of what happens in their lives and communities. And yet they don't think of it as a sector. If you stop any person on the street and ask, "What's the nonprofit sector?" they'd probably have a hard time answering the question. In other words, I'm not sure the country thinks about the nonprofit sector in a way that would allow us to evaluate whether we're viewed more or less favorably in the wake of 9/11. But I do believe that the outpouring of contributions, most of which went to one relief fund or another, suggests that people had great confidence, in a moment of crisis, in the capability of these funds to do something positive with their money. And that suggests to me a sort of indirect vote of confidence in the sector.

PND: Civil society is an important focus of the Ford Foundation. What is the foundation doing to improve the health of civil society in the United States and around the globe?

SB: For a long time, we've believed that our grantmaking programs should support not only the activities of civil society organizations, but also the strengthening of those institutions. So we give a good number of general-support grants to the organizations with which we work, as a vote of confidence in the organizations themselves as well as in their work. It also helps to ensure that they have good bookkeeping, good legal advice, good personnel practices, and other back-office systems to fall back on.

Second, we support groups like Independent Sector and BoardSource that represent civil society organizations or work to strengthen civil society organizations. Internationally, we fund the counterparts of those kinds of infrastructure organizations in many of the countries that we work in.

I think a very interesting question that we're focused on overseas is the question of what role civil society organizations should play vis-a-vis the new multilateral structures that are emerging. If you think about the evolution of UN conferences, for example, you can see that they used to be held without an accompanying forum for non-governmental organizations. Today, typically, you'll have an NGO conference and the official UN conference side-by-side, with increasing interaction between the two. The Ford Foundation has supported a lot of the NGO conference activities at these UN gatherings, both because of their intrinsic value and as an expression of support for the role of NGOs in global civil society.

PND: The Ford Foundation has long been one of the premier domestic philanthropic institutions working in the international arena. But in many respects, from the number of people living in poverty, to environmental degradation, to the spread of HIV/AIDS, to the situation in the Middle East and the rise of global terrorism, the situation in the world today is bleak and getting bleaker. Do you think we've reached a point where the magnitude of the problems in the developing world have overwhelmed private philanthropy's ability to deliver effective solutions to those problems?

SB: Before I answer the question, I would point out that there are some very encouraging realities in the world today. There are many countries that in recent years have renounced repressive regimes and forms of government and have begun to build more democratic governmental structures. Africa, for example, is arguably more democratic today than it has ever been. South Africa has changed dramatically. I just returned from China and saw a far different picture there than I would have twenty-five years ago in terms of public openness, the freer expression of ideas, and a growing role for things that look like nonprofit organizations.

Similarly, with public health around the world, there are many examples of problems being addressed successfully and diseases eradicated. We've also seen broad social changes. Look at the mobilization of women. There are women's movements and organizations struggling for women's rights in just about every country in the world today, some of them very robustly and successfully. So I don't think it's as bleak a picture as you paint.

"...We need to recognize that people have to be enabled to create their own structures, to set and fight for their own agendas, to work for change. And to recognize that there are ways to support that that are not patronizing or paternalistic...."

Nevertheless, I think that if there is a turn in thinking, in recognizing that these continuing realities are part of the picture, the solutions to them will be found in three things in combination. One is finding ways to mobilize people at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to work for their own good. We need to help poor people build grassroots organizations that can negotiate on their behalf for a greater economic share of whatever that economy is able to produce. We need to recognize that people have to be enabled to create their own structures, to set and fight for their own agendas, to work for change. And to recognize that there are ways to support that that are not patronizing or paternalistic.

Second, we need to recognize that a variety of democratic principles need to be supported. Free elections are not enough. We need to think about how legislatures and local governments function, how the police and courts function. Implicit in the attention the world has paid in recent years to the decentralization of governmental power is a recognition that we need to create structures that produce change at the local level, as well as in the capital city.

The third part of it, increasingly, has to do with the role of the media in society. In many situations that have turned ugly, tightly controlled media and a lack of free expression have been important contributing factors. As a result, there is a growing recognition that independent radio, independent television, the free flow of information in and out of countries via satellite and newspapers and magazines and books is an essential part of building a new set of possibilities for people. People who are inspired by things they see and read and hear can be helped to learn and develop new capacities — and they will, as long as the messages are delivered to them in a responsible way.

So I think those three things — the mobilization of people, the decentralization of governmental power, and attention to the components of truly democratic systems, in combination with a professional, decentralized media — will help us to address some of the bleaker realities we face.

PND: The Ford Foundation describes itself as a resource for innovative people and institutions worldwide. Can you tell us about some of the things the foundation is doing to put that vision into practice.

SB: I'd like to focus on the "people" part of it, because that's something we're very excited about. In recent years, the foundation experienced enormous growth in its assets, beyond anything we expected. This led us to ask ourselves what we could do on a large scale to share some of our good fortune with people in places that hadn't benefited from the economic boom of the '90s as much as the United States had.

Now understand, we give most of our money to organizations. But organizations are run by people. It's people who come up with ideas, it's people who create social movements, it's people who work hard and dream. So we decided it would be interesting to balance our sizable investment in institutions with a sizable investment in people. After much discussion, we decided that the best way to do that was to create a new fellowship program that would seek out people around the globe from marginalized groups who had had no real opportunity to get an advanced degree but who had done well in college and had demonstrated leadership in their communities.

The program we designed [the Ford Foundation International Fellowship Program], which we're funding to the tune of $300 million — the largest single grant in the history of the foundation — is just wrapping up its first year. Over the next ten years, it will support about thirty-five hundered people around the world for up to three years of graduate study. And we hope they will not only take advantage of this opportunity — paid in full, anywhere in the world — but that they will return to their home countries and begin to function effectively as leaders. Eventually, we think that out of this group will emerge some extraordinary world leaders — at least we hope so.

We do need to be thinking consciously about where the next generation of world leaders is going to come from. If we don't, the pools from which those leaders are ultimately drawn will not include those who are the most marginalized in society. They will not draw upon people who may be terribly talented and wonderfully skilled and have a deep sense of moral urgency about the problems they see around them. We want to be sure that a good number of such people are included in the ranks of emerging world leaders. You can never predict how a future leader of an important institution or political group or country will be chosen, but you can do a lot to see that the candidate pools from which these leaders emerge are deepened and widened.

So we're very excited about the program. As I said, the first cohort is now finishing up its first year of graduate school. We plan to bring them together at different points during their two or three years of study so that they begin to think of themselves as a cohort, learn from each other, and get to know and support each other. And ultimately we hope and believe that our investment in people will have the same kind of payoff as our investments in institutions.

PND: A final question: Are we on the threshold of a golden age of philanthropy? Or will the dislocations caused by the transition from the industrial, fossil fuel-based economy of the present to the knowledge-based economy of the future overwhelm our most cherished institutions, including philanthropy as we know it?

SB: I'm not sure I know what the phrase "a golden age of philanthropy" means, exactly. I would say, however, that I think the philanthropic impulse in this country is strong, and that the huge amount of wealth created in recent decades means that we can look forward to new stimuli in the foundation field, with new monies coming in and new donors bringing new ideas to the table. And that's very important.

What also is terribly important, if we want this to be a great age of philanthropy, is that we not overly constrain it. This country is filled with many different kinds of people from many different kinds of backgrounds. It's that diversity of personality and background and opinions and ideas that makes us such a strong and vibrant society. It's also what makes philanthropy strong. It would be a mistake to say to a foundation, "You should look like this, or only exist for this period of time, or only do this kind of work." Obviously, there have to be some legal parameters within which we operate, and I think the government has done a good job of establishing those. But by the same token it's the creativity of the field that we really want to preserve. Think of it this way: the money foundations give out in the form of grants is risk money; it's money that's not driven by a bottom line or the need to provide short-term value to shareholders. A lot of things we work on take a long time to get traction and yield results. We need that kind of risk capital on the social benefit side of the equation, just as we need it on the entrepreneurial business side. So we have to be very protective of the freedom foundations have to take risks and to innovate. At the same time, we have to trust that people in the future will be as inventive as they have been in the past. We have to trust that certain qualities fundamental to philanthropy — human imagination and the moral commitment to changing conditions that cause human suffering — won't disappear or lose their appeal. And as long as we keep those things at the heart of the field, we should be fine.

PND: Well, thank you, for sharing your thoughts with us this morning.

SB: Thank you.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed Susan Berresford at her office in New York City in March. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at