Who Is Hilary Pennington? A Few Questions for Ford's New Executive Vice President

photo: courtesy of the ford foundation

photo: courtesy of the ford foundation

Last week, Hilary Pennington was named executive vice president for programs of the Ford Foundation. She is among the 21 social sector leaders that Vivien Hoexter and Linda C. Hartley interviewed for their new book, Big Impact: Insights & Stories from America’s Non-Profit Leaders. Here is that interview in its entirety.

Who has had the greatest influence on you as a professional?

My mentor, Arthur White, who was a businessman and founded [the marketing and research firm] Yankelovich, Skelly & White. I started working with him when he was 60 and I was 28. We founded Jobs for the Future and worked really closely together while I was in that role for over 20 years. He remained a very influential mentor as I transitioned into working in philanthropy. He was unusual in that he saw potential in me as a young and untested person. He let me take on enormous responsibility and gave me credit and support in doing it.

From the beginning, he treated me as his equal when we met with corporate CEOs or with governors like Bill Clinton. He would structure the meetings and conversations so that I did half the talking. He was a big visionary who needed someone practical to help him realize those visions, so we had a unique partnership founded on deep respect. I was incredibly lucky to work with someone like that.

Thus far, what have been the worst and best events in your life, and what did those experiences teach you?

One of the worst was when I was three years old and my father died, leaving my mother with three children. I was the oldest, and my younger sister was born in the final months of my dad’s life. She was born with a fairly serious cognitive disability. My mom was amazing. She never remarried, and she worked full-time, so she was unusual at that time as a single-mother professional, and she was a great role model.

My father’s death changed our entire lives and my role in our family. Because of my sister, I have an acute sense of how much privilege you can have without earning it, and how different her life chances were from mine. That has been a big motivator for the kind of things I’ve worked on. The best thing that happened to me is a happy second marriage.

What, if anything, keeps you up at night?

The ways in which the norms of civility, empathy and tolerance that stitch societies together seem to be eroding all over the world, and how serious it is for cultures and societies when that happens. It’s puzzling, because I think, in essence, it means that people in many places are saying, “This is too much change. I can’t handle this anymore.” And they’re reverting to almost tribal ways of trying to deal with things. So how do you build back from there? How do you reignite the sense that what we have in common is greater than what divides us?

What is your definition of happiness, or, what is your philosophy of life?

My philosophy of life is to really live your life aspiring to make a positive impact. That requires working really hard to find joy and build trust in your personal and working relationships. If you hit a wall, you try to find the door in that wall, or make a door in that wall.

What would you say is the greatest misconception about you?

That I’m an extrovert. I have a warm energy and I like people, but I need a lot of down time for myself. I’m not the kind of person who gets recharged by being connected and on. I often get depleted. It’s taken a long time to learn that and find the right balance.

What is the most important thing you tell young people who are thinking about making careers in the nonprofit sector?

I tell them to trust themselves and look for opportunities. It can really take time before you find the right path. You can often get better opportunities by being a big fish in a small pond, or working in a relatively smaller, less established organization, so don’t be afraid to do that. Do what you’re really passionate about, because that’s how you’re going to make the biggest impact.

What new opportunities do you see for Ford in the next five years?

Through our BUILD initiative, a $1 billion investment to strengthen the core health and capabilities of grantee organizations around the world, I see an opportunity to increase the effectiveness of key nonprofit sector organizations and to convince other funders that more patience and longer-term general support is the better way to go.

There are also a lot of opportunities to figure out how to work in the world at a time of closing space for civil society. That’s both a challenge and an opportunity. The fields I focus on have to do with institutions of culture like journalism, arts and education. There’s an opportunity to take what we’re learning about developmental and learning science to improve the quality of supports for young people, and to transform education and people’s experience of the arts so that they’re more interactive. That will allow people to express and fulfill themselves more deeply.

We’re in the midst of a national conversation about race and racial equity. What is your organization doing, both internally and externally, to address racial inequity?

Externally, it’s the kinds of things we’re funding. The largest programmatic grantmaking area in the foundation is our Gender, Racial and Ethnic Justice program, which focuses on issues of structural discrimination. This includes our work on criminal justice reform, which is one of the most inequitable systems and structures in our society. Across all our programs, we are looking at how to approach our work in more intersectional ways.

As human beings, we are all more than one thing, so how do we think about coalitions that are built around the idea that all people should thrive and have their dignity recognized? In our education work, for example, we’ve decided to pivot away from institutional efforts like curriculum and teacher development and college access. We’re focusing instead on holistic supports for the young people who are the most likely to experience inequality within big systems like education, immigration and juvenile justice.

Internally, we are doing a lot. We have a pretty intensive effort at diversity, equity and inclusion across multiple dimensions. Starting from the top, more than half of our board is made up of people of color and women. That’s a big change from what it was before. We bring this same lens when it comes to recruiting staff at every level, and ensuring we have equity in compensation and leadership positions. And we ask the organizations we work with a lot of questions about their own commitment to diversity—this is true from the vendors we hire to the organizations we select for grants.

For example, our Creativity and Free Expression program prioritizes works of art and stories from people whose voices have typically been excluded. If you look at the composition of the decision-makers of media and cultural organizations, you’ll see they haven’t changed that much. Newsrooms are 90 percent white. Heads of museums are mostly white. A lack of diversity would be a serious setback in our consideration to give them a grant. In cases where we’ve made grants and we see an organization is not trying to make progress toward becoming more inclusive, we would eventually stop funding them.

After the election, the New York Times reported “the widening political divergence between cities and small-town America reflects a growing alienation between the two groups and a sense, perhaps accurate, that their fates are not connected.” What role could the nonprofit sector play to help the two groups find common ground?

That sharpening our focus on what we’re for, rather than what or who we’re against, is one way to start. I’d start by reminding people of our common story. People have shared aspirations to have access to decent education, work, and health care for themselves and their children. There’s a huge amount of regional dependence between cities and suburbs, even in the more rural areas. We should try to strengthen those links where they exist in a more intentional, physical way. It’s important to disaggregate the data.

That’s what so powerful about the work of Raj Chetty, the economist at Stanford University. His data is broken down by counties, cities, ZIP codes and neighborhoods across the United States. You can see which regions promote mobility from the bottom to the top. For example, there are places where some things happen and places where they don’t. You can see why one side of Cleveland is more effective at doing something than the other side. We need to think with less generality and learn more about real particulars and what’s happening to the mobility in specific places. It’s the particularity of Chetty’s data that’s so powerful, so we’re helping to fund the research, and we’ll definitely use that data.

How would you say the choices of the very wealthy, private philanthropists are influencing traditional foundation giving, if at all?

The advent of new philanthropists is causing traditional philanthropy to think about how we can partner. Often new philanthropists have particular passions, a set of beliefs about how change happens, and a lot of confidence in that because of their experience. I think many of them start in philanthropy with a lot of enthusiasm for particular kinds of interventions, whether it’s some sort of technology, intervention or model. They have a very constructive urgency about impact and scaling.

Because they tend to focus so much there, it allows philanthropies like ours to focus more on a complementary set of things that have to do more with the root causes. What is it about the rules of the game, power dynamics, underlying beliefs and narratives that keep inequalities in place? For example, at the Ford Foundation, we’re supporting efforts that drive social change, like building strong coalitions and networks, investing in grassroots organizing and promoting more inclusive narratives. We are able to do this, in part, because there are so many resources from other funders going toward systems change and testing or scaling new models.

Many of the new entrants are still learning about the combination of evidence, politics, social change, and what it means to get something from one place to many. Sometimes it’s more of a question of public will than it is about whether a model or particular solution is effective or not. The presence of evidence alone doesn’t mean a particular solution will be adopted or used in a way that has a lasting change. That’s why it’s a good moment for partnership among newer and older philanthropies, because you always need proof points and models, but you also need to pay attention to the power dynamics in a democratic society that cause those things to become expected practices.

Vivien Hoexter and Linda C. Hartley are principals of H2Growth Strategies LLC, which provides strategic planning, fundraising and governance counsel to mission-driven organizations. H2Growth has partnered with more than 100 organizations to raise over $1.5 billion. For more information about the book and the authors, please visit http://www.h2growthstrategies.com/book.