Markle Foundation President Draws Praise and Criticism

As president of the Markle Foundation, Zoë Baird has sought to transform the organization from a small grantmaking foundation focused on children's education into one that shapes the way the Internet is used to address public needs, the New York Times reports. But some critics charge that under Baird's leadership the foundation has been more successful in raising its profile than in building effective programs.

Baird — whose nomination for U.S. attorney general in the first Clinton administration was scuttled over disclosures she failed to pay Social Security taxes for an illegal immigrant she employed as a nanny — joined the Markle Foundation in 1998 and the next year promised to spend $100 million of its $187 million endowment in three to five years. The foundation's accomplishments over that period include the creation of highly regarded task forces on national security and health, the construction of a network of voter education Web sites during the 2000 presidential campaign, and taking a lead role in financing and overseeing the first public elections for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, an important Internet governing body. But while the foundation has succeeded in some areas, it has managed to spend only $40 million of the $100 million Baird promised to spend, with nearly half of that going to administrative costs, including salaries, consultants fees, and public relations.

"They're missing in action," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a public-interest advocacy group. Despite earlier promises, Chester added, the foundation has not done enough to represent the public in major Internet governance issues.

Other critics point to high employee turnover at the foundation since Baird took over, with thirty-three employees from the forty-three-person staff leaving during her tenure; most of the departed staffers have been replaced. Peter Kerr, a spokesman for the foundation, told the Times that a "degree of staff change can be healthy for the organization, bringing in fresh ideas." But some of those who left complained of paralyzing micromanagement, indecision, and an obsession with image. "Initiatives seemed to fall into a black hole and nothing seemed to come of them," said Steven Weber, a former senior adviser at the foundation. Projects with Oxygen Media, the Advertising Council, and Consumers Union have all been dismantled.

Baird, who still has the support of the foundation's board, defended her record, saying it was better to stop a project that is not working rather than to continue it. "We are trying to change a lot, and very fast," she told the Times. "That's going to ruffle some feathers and that's O.K. I don't think we've hurt anybody. I think we've helped a lot of people, and I think we'll help a lot more."

Jim Rutenberg. "A Foundation Travels Far From Sesame Street." New York Times 09/06/2002.