Luis A. Ubinas faces challenges at Ford Foundation

By A. James Memmott

June 28, 2009 at 7:31am

Luis A. Ubinas began a dream job in January 2008.

As the new president of the Ford Foundation, he was charged with the task of giving away millions of dollars in the hope of improving the lives of people around the world.

But now Ubinas, a Harvard M.B.A. and former management consultant, has a less pleasant task.

The worldwide recession has battered the foundation’s endowment, dropping it from $13 billion before the economic downturn to $9.1 billion now.

That has led to recent cost-cutting measures at the foundation in an effort to still give away $528 million in grants this fiscal year, the total for the previous year.

In May, the foundation offered buyouts to one-third of its 550 employees. This followed the closing of its offices in Vietnam and in Moscow, a move that cut 30 staff positions.

The foundation has also frozen salaries and reduced its travel costs. It remains the second largest in the U.S. after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which had assets of $27.5 billion as of April.

The cuts at Ford come on the heels of an extensive review of the foundation by Ubinas, who came to the organization after spending 18 years at McKinsey & Company, the global management-consulting firm.

A McKinsey director, Ubinas advised telecommunications and technology companies throughout the world.

Ubinas had not managed a philanthropic organization before he arrived at Ford, succeeding Susan V. Berresford.

However, he had served on the boards of non-profit institutions, including Leadership Education and Development, an organization that works with low-income African-American and Latino high school students.

After his long look at Ford’s operations, Ubinas instituted changes aimed at focusing the philanthropy’s mission and grant making.

According to The New York Times, foundation leaders decided to concentrate on eight issue areas, among them access to education and sustainable development.

Ford simplified the reporting channels and attached dollar figures to each of the issue areas.

These changes reflect a use of management tools that other, newer foundations, have embraced.

The Ford Foundation was created in 1936 with a gift of $25,000 from Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company. For several years, the foundation was based in Michigan and led by members of the Ford Family.

As the foundation’s worth increased, its leaders began to see it as a worldwide force. In 1953, it moved its headquarters to New York City.

Henry Ford II led many of these changes, serving sometimes as president and as chairman of the board, from 1943 to 1976.

His departure from the board in 1976 cut the Ford family’s ties to the foundation.

Ubinas is the foundation’s ninth president. A native of the South Bronx, he attended private schools in Manhattan on scholarships before attending Harvard as an undergraduate and graduate student.

“Access to educational opportunities changed my life,” he said at the time he was named the foundation’s president. “I wouldn’t be here talking to you had it not been for the work done by foundations in the 1960s and 1970s to increase equal access to education.”

Ubinas is married to Dorothy L. Tolman, a scholar who specializes in sexuality studies.

She is currently on leave from San Francisco State University and is a visiting professor at Hunter College in New York City.

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