A Better Gala—Here's How This Foundation Marked a Key Milestone

 Darren Walker leads a panel at PSF's gala.

Darren Walker leads a panel at PSF's gala.

When David Callahan, Inside Philanthropy’s founder, was unable to attend the Pershing Square Foundation’s recent 10th-anniversary gala, he conscripted me to go in his stead. He told me the foundation, started by the hedge funder Bill Ackman and his wife Karen, is one of the more interesting new funders to emerge from the finance world in recent years. IP has covered it often.

Unlike many, I do find galas interesting events, but snowed under with my own work, quite honestly, I just didn’t feel like donning the heels and the energy this event would require of me. But I hate being that person who commits and bails, so I dragged myself to the Park Avenue Armory on New York’s Upper East Side.  

When I arrived, my name wasn’t on the list—but neither was a quick escape. With a flourish of apologies, a program was put in my hands as I was guided to a portrait-laden room of old-world elegance. I’d have to stick it out.

I opened the program and thought, “Holy smoke.” The Pershing Square Foundation stands out by backing some truly innovative grantees—but I had no idea two panels would feature such remarkable innovators.

The first of two panels was led by Cheryl Dorsey, a pioneer of social entrepreneurship and president of Echoing Green, and the discussion was about re-imagining intractable problems. On the stage was a doctor who made global health an issue of human rights, a hero to anyone engaged in global health, including me: Paul Farmer.  

Farmer, who holds an endowed chair at Harvard funded with a $4 million gift from the Pershing Square Foundation, inspired the room of about 200, while warning that even well-meaning do-gooders can do harm. We must not impose a "scarcity mentality" on those we seek to help and unintentionally alter their chances with our own limited visions of others' needs and solutions “before they even have a chance.”

But the starring role went to the lesser known Amy Bach, founder of Measures for Justice, a major grantee of the Pershing Square Foundation. Bill Ackman often cites this idea as a scalable and sustainable example of “re-imagining the possible.”

Bach is a disarming and seriously smart lawyer who became convinced that a key to reforming the criminal justice system was to collect and assess local data to identify disparities and injustices. She’d been told her drive for data was mission impossible, by experts and funders. Through Echoing Green, she got herself in front of Pershing’s board, and as the story goes, blew Ackman away with her first data-crammed slide. Ten minutes later, Bill told her the foundation’s board didn’t want to prolong her fundraising and committed to backing Measures for Justice to the tune of over $3 million. Bach was so stunned by the unexpected turn of events that that the board feared she’d walk out the door and into Manhattan traffic.

Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker guided the second panel of grantees, all of whom were immigrants or refugees who’ve since made major contributions to U.S. society in diverse fields. One of Pershing Square’s bigger commitments in recent years has been supporting young immigrant DREAMers, pledging some $25 million to fund college scholarships for documented immigrants with DACA status.

When Walker said, “Our biggest challenge in this country is hopelessness,” Yo-Yo Ma, (yes he was on this panel and he played!), responded, “Optimism is a philosophy and pessimism is a reality. It’s easy to be pessimistic. Optimism must be doing an action that throws light and dispels darkness.“ To which Walker responded, “Yes, democracy needs hope to breathe.”

Sure, it’s not hard to place your bet on the likes of Yo-Yo Ma. But doing so helped his Silk Road Ensemble advance global understanding through the arts. Nor is it tough to bet on leading lawyer Barry Scheck, who founded the Innocence Project, another high-profile grantee of the Pershing Square Foundation, which frees those wrongly convicted and works to reform the system that incarcerated them. Getting behind Paul Farmer is also a darn good play. These three men are heroes in the social change sector.

But seeing these impressive innovators alongside lesser-known risk takers, it seemed this evening was meant to mutually inspire and celebrate innovators large and small.

As we move through these complex times, Yo-Yo Ma provided this resonating pearl of insight: “Sometimes you are the strongest when you are the most vulnerable,” he said, adding that he addresses his vulnerability by asking, “What are you doing and who are you doing it for?”

To date, Bill and Karen Ackman have committed $400 million to fund a wide range of organizations.  The foundation has only six full-time staff and very hands-on leadership. Bill Ackman himself seems to know every project and every grantee on a first name basis, and they him. A famously competitive man, it seems clear that their wins are his wins.

Finding myself in this inspiring room felt like an unexpected win, and a good reminder that one never knows what’s around the corner, so embrace it. Sometimes it’s the determination of hope.

Susan Barnett, a former award-winning network news producer, is a strategic media, communications and advocacy consultant to nonprofits, working at the nexus of media, faith and social justice. More at Cause Communications.