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Susan Berresford, president of the $12.2bn Ford Foundation, learnt early on that if she was going to be a successful grant-maker, she would have to trust her gut.

“One day a woman walked into my office and her name was Connie Field, a filmmaker, and she wanted to make a film called The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter about the role of women in the war industries and I was making feminist grants at that time,” she says. “I didn’t know how to fund a film but I believed she was right about the subject, and I believed it was a very important subject, and I liked her. So I took the grant up to my boss and I said: ‘I don’t know about this but I want to try it’ and he said ‘fine go ahead and do it’ and it turned out to be a fabulous film.”

Rosie the Riveter, a documentary about women factory workers in the second world war, premiered at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center in 1980. It went on to win several awards and launched Field’s career as a director.

“Often there isn’t enough evidence to make a decision about what to fund and often people bring you wonderful ideas and they may have a weak organisation or they may be inexperienced but they have a fabulous idea,” says Ms Berresford. “At the end of the day you have to decide: are you going to fund them or somebody else? You can only use analytics so far . . . you have to trust your instincts to some extent.”

Ms Berresford has spent most of her career at the Ford Foundation’s airy headquarters in Manhattan, where she has worked for the past 37 years. During that time, the 64-year-old has seen many changes.

“When I started there were very few women in grant-making positions or in positions of authority running these institutions or even on boards of foundations. There were, however, a great many women philanthropists in the sense that they wrote cheques and they gave freely of their time very generously and in fact women were, I think, the backbone in many cases of non-profit organisations,” she says.

“Today you see a very different picture: there are a good number of women who lead foundations, there is much better representation of women on the boards and, of course, the voluntary activity and cheque writing continues. So it’s an enormous change. There has been much more change in the gender composition of foundation leadership and boards and staffs than there has been on the minority side.”

Ms Berresford, who retires in January, is the Ford Foundation’s first female president and brings a brisk intellect to her work. After graduating from Radcliffe in 1965 with a degree in American history, she started working for New York City’s Neighbourhood Youth Core, a youth employment programme. When her boss left to help the Ford Foundation build an anti-poverty programme, she went along too.

Today she oversees about 554 employees operating out of New York and 12 field offices around the world and is part of a select group of women who head big philanthropic organisations, including Patty Stonesifer, chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Sally Osberg, president and chief executive of the Skoll Foundation; Carol Larson, president and chief executive of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; and Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation.

Ms Berresford says she doesn’t see many differences in the leadership that men bring to foundations versus their female counterparts.

“There are many men who are fabulous feminists and who care a great deal about traditional feminist issues, for example. But I think a larger proportion of women care, so there’s some difference there.” she says.

“On the broad programme side you see the same difference that you see in the Congress and in other senior bodies where women tend to be concerned with family issues, education issues, peace issues, but increasingly you are seeing women involved in investment questions, in military questions, so I think the differences are diminishing.”

The foundation – created by Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, in 1936 – receives 44,000 written requests a year. Last year it awarded just under 2,000 grants worth $563.5m.

Ms Berresford says the biggest misconception about foundations is that they start every year with a blank slate. “Probably close to half of our grants are follow-on grants because we have strategies that stretch over five or 10 years, so you don’t start every year with the coffers full and waiting for people to come,” she says.

Another misconception that is gaining ground is the division between “old” – that is long-established foundations – and “new” philanthropy, and the association of “new” with “better”.

“I think the dichotomy is a dangerous one,” Berresford says. “The way new philanthropy is characterised in the media often is to say it is more ambitious, more results-
oriented, and uses business principles more and to great effect and I don’t think there is anything more ambitious about new philanthropy than old philanthropy.”

She adds: “Hundreds of foundations for decades worked to address apartheid, hundreds of foundations worked to support the civil rights movement in this country, there is nothing more ambitious than those noble aims. They were extremely results-oriented – they wanted the end of apartheid, they wanted fairness for minorities – and the use of business principles has been in the foundation world for a long time.”

That said, what is different about new philanthropy, in some cases, is its scale because a lot of the funding has come from very successful technology entrepreneurs. “Big philanthropy, which they represent, has the opportunity to make enormous gains and dramatic results but enormous philanthropy doesn’t guarantee significant results,” she says. “We have to see.”

Ms Berresford says philanthropy “has to take its own field more seriously”. In particular, she is concerned that not enough foundations think about philanthropy research to tackle issues such as which public policies affect philanthropic institutions, the degree of transparency that is suitable for a foundation and appropriate administrative costs.

One of the critiques sometimes levelled at large philanthropic organisations is that they are inefficient and cumbersome. During her tenure, Ms Berresford tried to rein in bureaucracy by eliminating mid-level desk officers, improving responsiveness to grant requests, and streamlining grant-making into three broad areas: poverty and development; human rights, governmental reform and civil society; and education and the arts.

While Ms Berresford is a widely respected and influential figure in the non-profit world, her 11 years as president also generated criticism. Some Jewish groups accused the Ford Foundation of being anti-Israel by funding pro-Palestinian organisations. The complaints stemmed from a 2001 United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, where some groups sought condemnation of Israel for “genocide and ethnic cleansing”.

“Anti-Semitism harms the justice movement and if you do not challenge it, it discredits the movement that Durban was really designed to support,” says Berresford.

“The community of institutions that was represented there did not strongly enough criticise the extreme and unattractive anti-Semitism. It was very disturbing and I think all of us learnt something from that.”

The Durban incident prompted the foundation to start an initiative to understand and combat anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry in Europe and the US.

In January, she hands stewardship of the second largest private US foundation to Luis Ubiñas. But that will not be the last she sees of the foundation’s headquarters.

Berresford says she will continue to chair United States Artists, a national initiative to support individual artists, and will work with the leader of the foundation’s Hanoi office on Agent Orange and the problem of the war legacy.

Philanthropy, after all, is part of her persona. “What I really like about philanthropy, what I think drew me to it partly, is that it has, at its core, the idea that the success of one can help support the hopes and dreams of others,” she says. “That is a wonderful idea.”

Saturday: Part Five – Giving Circles

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