In All Its Forms: Ford's VP of Inclusive Economies Talks Strategy

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In terms of raw assets, the august Ford Foundation may never again be at the summit of the philanthropic food chain. But its iconic status and influence in the sector give it a unique kind of soft power. Under Darren Walker’s leadership, Ford has elevated inequality to a top spot on philanthropy’s list of priorities, pledging to confront the problem “in all its forms.” The story of how that plays out is still ongoing. But one thing is clear: Even if philanthropy hasn’t yet managed to move the needle on inequality, Ford is no dinosaur. In fact, in several areas where economic inclusivity is concerned, it’s leading the pack. 

The officer in charge of Ford’s push for equitable economies is Xavier de Souza Briggs, who holds the title of vice president, inclusive economies and markets. An academic by training with previous stints in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, Briggs assumed his role at Ford in January 2014, shortly after Walker arrived on the scene.

As far as foundation presidents go, Walker is something of a celebrity. But it’s important to acknowledge what people like Briggs bring to the table, not only as grantmakers, but also as thought leaders with a depth of cross-sector experience. Along with his colleagues Martín Abregú and Hilary Pennington—whom we heard from after she assumed her current role—Briggs helps set the tone at this giant among funders. But how did he get there, and what light can he shed on Ford’s strategy and approach?

A Bid for Renewal and a Deep Dive

Prior to joining Ford, Briggs knew Darren Walker for years. The two moved in the same circles, crossing paths among the researchers, policy wonks and foundation execs searching for ways to improve urban policy and drive equitable development. Examining and tackling those issues formed the basis of Briggs’ early work as a sociologist and a community planner. 

Armed with a doctorate from Columbia, Briggs spent much of his career in the academy, first at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and later at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. During that time, he told me, Briggs considered himself “a critical friend of philanthropy from afar.” He came to know “a fair amount about philanthropy, and to see its strengths and weaknesses,” as well as the need for private wealth to hold itself responsible. His 2005 book The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan America examined urban segregation in America, laying out how government and civil society have responded to the problem. 

Briggs has made repeated forays out of the ivory tower and into the halls of government, first as a policy adviser and R&D director at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under Clinton, and later as associate director of the Office of Management and Budget at Obama’s White House. 

When Darren Walker began filling out his program team at Ford, Briggs’ sector-spanning career recommended him. A big-time restructuring was at hand at Ford—major news in the philanthropy world several years ago—and Briggs wanted to engage. “In 2014,” he said, “Darren outlined a vision that included taking a fresh look at issues of economic equality. I thought of it in similar terms as serving President Obama, if ever I wanted to contribute and get an unforgettable experience, and [participate in] the renewal of the Ford Foundation.”

Taking an extended leave from his role at MIT, Briggs joined Ford just as it embarked on its present course. After Walker and the leadership team took several ideas to the foundation’s board in 2014, the decision was made to zero in on inequality, which comprises, Briggs said, a principal challenge to social justice around the world. “It’s one thing to track inequality, and another to understand how it gets produced and reproduced over the years and generations. We developed a framework of the core drivers of inequality, and focused on disrupting those drivers.”

Finding Leverage Points

Ford’s approach puts it in a minority among funders. More typically, grantmakers focused on poverty and opportunity support issue-based or localized work without tackling the structural factors that determine who has power and who gets what. Yet in an era when the deck has become increasingly stacked against poor people and communities of color, not to mention the middle class, such efforts often only nibble at the margins of entrenched inequities. A case in point is Ford's own quest over many years to help black and Latino households build wealth, which was a centerpiece of its U.S. anti-poverty efforts starting in the mid-1990s. While the foundation still supports the asset building movement, this work was dramatically set back by the housing meltdown and 2008 financial crisis—events preceded by the ascendancy of a deregulatory agenda favored by Wall Street. Today, the racial wealth gap is greater than it was 20 years ago. 

The Ford Foundation's determination to tackle inequality at a more fundamental level involves taming, to a degree, the anything-and-everything approach it has long been known for. Ford is still tackling a lot—too much, some might argue—but it’s doing so with a closer focus on public policy, advocacy, movement building, and the political structures that underpin the economy. 

On one hand, Briggs’ work involves facing off against the direct drivers of inequality: problems like unfair labor policies and unaffordable housing. But Ford’s approach also encompasses indirect drivers touching on civil society and the democratic process: issues around voting, the press, and the census. Those indirect drivers don’t lie within Briggs’ direct purview, but he emphasized how much they affect whether citizens are able to have a say over the economic conditions that govern their lives. 

The Future of Work

The declining fortunes of workers, especially those with fewer skills and less education, lies near the heart of today's inequality crisis. In turn, that trend—as economist Jared Bernstein wrote recently— is "mainly the outcome of a long power struggle that workers are losing." Among other things, a concerted and long-standing effort by conservative funders has chipped away at the old labor movement, culminating in actions like the Supreme Court’s recent body blow to public sector unions

“There has been an erosion,” Briggs says. While unions have sustained a heavy pounding, “there are sectors that have never been unionized. Often, those workers are low-income women.” Briggs points out that domestic workers, for instance, can be especially vulnerable because they have no collective workplace. Nor do many care workers. “The American economy has been the biggest creator of bad jobs lately,” he told me—a fact that “future of work” funders seldom dwell on. The burgeoning gig economy is the latest twist in the story. “Labor laws weren’t drawn up to handle things like Uber,” Briggs says.

To bolster the status of workers, Ford has become by far the most important backer of groups advancing a new labor movement for those who don’t fit the old union stereotype. Top grantees include the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, and the National Employment Law Project. Other recent grantees include the Jobs with Justice Education Fund, the Partnership for Working Families, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. These groups have scored notable gains in recent years—including securing minimum wage hikes and paid family leave in some places. Ford's funding here is so critical because most other foundations don't back activist groups that are going head-to-head with employers.  

At the same time, though, Briggs also wants to work with entrepreneurs and investors to look at reforms from that end. He implied that the classic struggle of labor versus capital isn’t always so clear-cut today, and emerging entrepreneurs aren’t by definition hostile to the notion of workers’ rights. Another trend scrambling the equation is the rise of artificial intelligence and increasing automation, which are changing how the economy operates and demanding new kinds of solutions "to ensure that all people experience the dignity of meaningful work in the future," as Darren Walker wrote earlier this year. Briggs says the foundation is working with a wide range of partners as it tries to figure how to make good on this ideal. 

Housing: A Quiet Crisis Gets Louder

When I spoke with Briggs, it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to housing. Given his deep background in housing policy, that wasn’t surprising. But it’s also true that inadequate housing is looming ever larger in funders’ minds as record numbers of homeless people sleep outdoors in the nation’s most prosperous cities. 

Homelessness, of course, is just the tip of a very big iceberg. Unless you’re rolling in dough, the housing crunch affects anyone who’s trying to rent or buy in expensive urban markets. And the legacy of intentional segregation shapes opportunity even as redlining and discriminatory covenants fade into history. 

The housing crisis, Briggs says, isn’t new. “What should jump out at us is that it’s so quiet a crisis. It’s been grinding on for years, but the problem of backbreaking rents has been quite serious for years, now. Why are we not reacting with a sense of urgency?”

One problem, according to Briggs, is that we tend to view housing as a market good, not a public good, and that assumption informs local land use regulations. Provisions for affordable housing are scattered across America’s cities, but “the field of affordable housing, one part industry and one part advocacy, is not yet an effective movement. We lack a compelling narrative about why the country should address this with much greater commitment.”

As we often observe, philanthropy’s pockets aren’t nearly deep enough to finance the construction of all the new affordable housing it would take to build our way out of the housing crunch. But other avenues exist. Ford is one of a group of national funders that’s trying to tell a new story about housing, and to foster new thinking and community leadership that just might translate into policy change. Funders for Housing and Opportunity, a donor collaborative that Ford’s a part of, launched earlier this year to start delving into that project. 

Briggs offered some insight into what such a reframe might look like. “Many of the most powerful narratives in our society combine enlightened self-interest with a moral case—the combination of deciding that this is not only insensible; it’s also deeply unjust.” Briggs pointed to parallels with mass incarceration, another challenge Ford has partnered with other funders to address. A growing recognition of that system’s senselessness has begun to spur bipartisan support for stronger actions. “Something similar needs to happen with housing.”

Racial disparities lie near the core of this challenge. After all, de facto residential segregation is the rule, not the exception, in American cities. Briggs has spent a good portion of his career confronting that fact. “It’s the root of many political ills,” he told me. Zoning lies at the heart of the matter. Far from an innocuous technocratic tool, Briggs said, “zoning was always about the creation of exclusivity. With zoning rules as a tool, you are able as a political community to ensure that nothing affordable to people of low or moderate income can be built at all in your area.” 

Briggs points to a debate within the left about how to handle racial and economic segregation. On one hand, there are those who advocate for integration, funding tactics like housing mobility. Others argue that it’s "demeaning to poor people to point to racial concentration as a problem, and lets the body politic off the hook.” Ford adheres to neither position, instead focusing on “expanding the geography of housing opportunity.” In other words, it doesn’t need to be either-or. 

Briggs says that the younger generations are, on average, far more racially tolerant and less given to NIMBYism. At the same time, America is unlike other advanced economies in that “as a country, we’re growing at quite a clip. If you’re going to accommodate that growth, you need to be building. And the way you grow becomes a huge opportunity.” To steer that growth in an equitable direction, Ford is supporting places like PolicyLink, the Center for Community Change, Fair Share Housing Center, and Right to the City Alliance. Local advocacy groups for housing equity are also getting Ford money, as well as low income housing information services.

Ford’s Impact Investing: A Year Later

Generational attitude shifts also have a lot to do with another one of Briggs’ responsibilities: mission-related investments. Impact investing has been a hot topic in the philanthrosphere lately, and Ford’s $1 billion commitment last spring certainly made waves. Outside philanthropy, asset managers have been more willing to explore double and triple bottom lines. But despite moves from places like the Nathan Cummings, Kresge, and MacArthur foundations, most major funders have only dipped their toes in. And pressing questions remain for foundation CEOs and boards who are considering this approach. It's safe to assume that quite a few of these folks are keeping an eye on how Ford's large-scale foray into impact investing plays out. 

Briggs reports that Ford’s work in this area is going well. That’s especially true of “sweet spots” like affordable housing development, which comprises the bulk of Ford’s mission-related investment portfolio. “The response to Ford’s move has been positive,” he said. “There are signs that it has emboldened others in philanthropy.” 

When Ford made its initial impact investing push, Darren Walker promised a careful rollout. The foundation would approach the initiative as a learning process and consider expanding its investments down the line. While it still isn’t clear what the timeline for such an expansion might look like, Ford has been actively attempting to get other funders on board. In addition to monetarily supporting groups like the Global Impact Investing Network and Mission Investors Exchange, Ford also plays a leading role at the U.S. Impact Investing Alliance. Its philanthropic partners include 19 funders who’ve led the impact investing charge. Julia Stasch of the MacArthur Foundation co-chairs along with Walker.

When we spoke, Briggs seemed eager to push the conversation beyond what private foundations can do. That makes sense. Private capital markets dwarf philanthropic endowments, and the kind of big, risky bets that give foundation leaders the jitters are standard procedure for venture capitalists. Increasingly, folks from the VC sector and wealth management firms are targeting social and environmental returns. For leaders like the Hewlett Foundation’s Larry Kramer, that’s one reason why philanthropy should avoid going all in. His line of thinking is that foundations can achieve more with relatively limited resources by sticking with nonprofit grants and building up the field of impact investing. 

Ford is doing a bit of both. Briggs wants to see more uptake by asset managers outside philanthropy, and pension funds are one place where the triple bottom line could easily apply, he says. European pension funds are much bolder in their pursuit of social returns, he told me, and the same could eventually be true in America as younger asset managers see fewer contradictions between fiduciary duty and social impact.

Spadework: Ford and the Politics of Community Development

Ford’s foray into mission-related investments may only be just over a year old, but in another sense, the foundation has been thinking for a long time about how to invest capital in ways that harness market forces to advance the social good. Community development is a case in point. Going back over 50 years, the Ford Foundation has been a staunch supporter of community development corporations (CDCs). It helped get the first one off the ground in Brooklyn back in the mid-1960s, and remains dedicated to the cause through its recent restructuring. Ford also played a key role in the establishment of community development intermediaries like LISC, which it originally conceived in the late 1970s. 

Darren Walker is no stranger to CDCs, having served as chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation in the 1990s. Both he and Briggs are intimately aware of the fact that while America’s cities have changed substantially in the last half-century, entrenched poverty remains a constant. And housing segregation, along with the legacy of redlining, ensures that it often follows racial lines.

Take Detroit’s infamous 8 Mile Road, which in addition to providing fodder for Eminem’s ventures into film, starkly divides the city’s black and white populations. As the Motor City descended into its decades-long predicament, Ford has made the city of its birth a centerpiece of its community development strategy (though it certainly funds elsewhere). 

Detroit has bounced back to a certain degree, partially due to Ford’s $125 million investment in a “grand bargain” between funders, city officials, unions, and the state of Michigan to tackle the city’s bankruptcy. But whether Detroit can achieve an equitable renaissance is still a matter of debate. The city is an extreme example, but the same question confronts every American metro where affluent professionals risk displacing low-income people from central neighborhoods. 

According to Briggs, there’s no quick and easy way to fund an equitable solution to that challenge. In a 2016 piece on Detroit’s rise from the ashes, he wrote, “across lines of political jurisdiction, race, class or party, building civic muscle through an inclusive approach to problem solving needs to be as intentional as doing push-ups.” He continues, “There are no signs anywhere in America, or Brazil or South Africa or anywhere else we at the Ford Foundation work in the wider globe, that shared agendas and trusting networks blossom spontaneously. They get built, cultivated, sustained—or not. It’s spadework.”

In both its domestic and overseas work, Ford is convinced that empowering local leadership is a key to overcoming persistent inequality. In American cities, that means funding outfits like Enterprise Community Partners, Living Cities, and the Community Development Advocates of Detroit. It also means engaging with other funders on projects like the Neighborhood Funders Group’s Amplify Fund, which seeks to challenge status-quo power structures on the local level and give disadvantaged communities greater say in development decisions. 

Ford also funds the asset building movement through organizations like Prosperity Now, the Earned Asset Resource Network, the Tides Center for Working Families, and the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, to name a few. That work cross-pollinates well with Ford’s labor movement funding, its housing grants, and impact investment opportunities.

A Problem of Impunity

As has been true for most of its history, Ford doesn’t restrict its grantmaking to the United States. Following its restructuring, Ford’s global grantmaking has embraced a more focused approach and more general support. On top of overseeing extensive grantmaking in the U.S. to advance inclusive economies, Briggs also has extensive responsibilities for Ford's work overseas—in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. He's been keen to tie what Ford’s doing abroad to its quest for a more equitable economy at home.

Among the things in Briggs’ wheelhouse is Ford’s global work on natural resources and climate change, particularly within the context of the corrupt politics associated with extractive industries. One of the key drivers of inequality abroad, he says, is when money from those industries subverts democratic accountability or prevents it from taking root in the first place. “It’s a problem of impunity in societies where the powerful can get away with too much.” 

Broadly speaking, Ford wants to link social and economic justice to the worldwide environmental movement. Deforestation is one issue where all these currents come together. Briggs told me, “The core of our work there tackles on one hand how deforestation is not only a threat to all of us, but is a direct threat to people who live in those forests.” In deforestation hotspots like Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and East Africa, Ford is supporting organizations working at the intersection of sustainability, workers’ rights, and indigenous rights.

As we’ve heard from the International Human Rights Funders Network and the Peace and Security Funders Group, funders in the global North now recognize that top-down approaches to human rights and democracy are often misguided, and that local leadership must be nourished. Ford is fully behind that shift in philanthropy. Briggs told me that care must be taken to avoid “a conversation among elites,” and that people downstream must have a voice when resources from abroad enter their communities. 

At the same time, philanthropy itself is becoming more global. “I’m talking about Asia,” Briggs said, where decades of swift economic growth have minted a new class of super-rich givers. China now has as many billionaires as the U.S., and some of that money is already finding its way stateside. “Partnering with emerging cultures of philanthropy abroad is very important,” Briggs told me. “It’s meaningful to be a global actor with a presence in multiple parts of the world.”

Democracy Embattled: Inequality’s Indirect Drivers

Briggs seemed keen to address Ford’s inequality work as a single oeuvre, which was unsurprising given its past reputation for program bloat and fragmentation. As I mentioned earlier, issues like loose labor regulations and restrictive housing policy constitute what Ford calls inequality’s “direct drivers.” But what about inequality’s indirect drivers? While Ford’s work on those issues doesn’t lie under Briggs’ purview, they intersect with his portfolio in many ways. 

According to Briggs, when civil society ceases functioning effectively, it becomes that much harder to implement policies that reduce inequality. Pointing to “a sustained and systematic set of threats to the franchise,” Briggs cites voting rights as one area where “although there’s no direct line to inequality, we have seen very clearly that if people are not able to make their voices heard, inequality will continue to grow.” 

Voter engagement and the voter fraud debate are steeped in politics, and that’s rough terrain for philanthropy. But across the board, efforts to boost civic engagement have enjoyed greater support since 2016. So has philanthropic funding for nonprofit journalism, another area Ford funds. Along with outfits like the Knight Foundation and the Omidyar Network, Ford is one of a number of players contributing to the “Trump bump” among journalism funders—a trend that shows few signs of slowing down.

Briggs also calls the 2020 census a key leverage point whose success or failure will affect efforts to fight poverty and inequality. Ford has gotten together with a long list of liberal funders to support the Democracy Funders Collaborative, which is confronting multiple incipient challenges to the census’ integrity. Since 2016, Ford has also given substantial grants to places like Demos, the ACLU, the Pico National Network, the Center for Popular Democracy, CIVICUS, and the Tide Center to bolster civic engagement and safeguard the voting rights of minorities.

The key point is that economic and political inequality are deeply intertwined. The disadvantaged see better outcomes when they have a say in where resources are allocated—and vice versa.

The Old Alongside the New

Whatever challenges lie in store for American democracy, skyrocketing wealth inequality all but guarantees that the philanthropic sector won’t have any trouble sustaining itself in the coming years. The age of the new philanthropists has very much arrived. Living donors with vast wealth have disrupted an old order in which legacy funders like Ford once reigned supreme. Often, we point to tensions between these two worlds—with new arrivals casting foundations as lumbering dinosaurs and veteran philanthropoids complaining that donors from Silicon Valley and Wall Street don't understand the complexity of social problems. 

But while living donors and legacy funders often adopt very different approaches, Briggs paints a picture of interdependence. “Living donors want to be personally and actively engaged in tackling big problems. Ford’s work is often perfectly complementary to what they do.” He went on, “If someone wants to use some of their social capital as well as their financial capital, that’s very powerful. That can complement Ford’s expertise with social movements.”

In defense of Ford's model, Briggs says that grantees value the foundation for more than just the funding. Strategizing together, convening, and building soft power are part of the package, and Ford sees those relationships as a crucial step in its bid to confront inequality. “Ford’s model adds significant value, but there are tradeoffs. We know there will be scaling and other steps that we can’t directly enable.” With Ford’s “people-intensive” groundwork in place, leaner foundations can provide resources to scale the most promising initiatives. 

Ford’s recent partnership with the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative on K-12 education is one example, as is Ford’s support of StriveTogether, which the Ballmer Group backed with $60 million late last year. Briggs also cited Ford’s work with the Skoll Foundation on visual storytelling to combat inequality, as well as Ford’s support for the Vera Institute of Justice, which it helped create in the 1960s. In the case of Vera, Briggs says, funders like the Laura and John Arnold Foundation “came in at a scale that we simply could not afford on our own. It was a validation of the work by Ford and others in creating organizational ecosystems.”


A persistent critique of liberal funders is that they've failed to pay enough attention to the power arrangements and public policies that structure economic life and determine who gets what. Few foundations have lately done more to engage these issues at a systemic level than Ford, with Briggs and his team bringing enormous energy and talent to this work. 

But the foundation's quest to foster inclusive economies—a dauntingly heavy lift in an era when capital has the upper hand and democracy is in crisis—is just one part of a broader agenda that also includes backing gender rights and racial justice, as well as work on the arts, criminal justice, internet freedom, and more.

Even after its strategy reboot a few years ago, which entailed some serious streamlining, Ford still works across seven different program areas and four continents. And despite the foundation's commitment to offering larger chunks of general support through its BUILD program, this is a grantmaker that continues to slice the cheese pretty thinly; last year, it gave money to more than 1,000 grantees worldwide. Earlier this year, Darren Walker wrote in a public letter that Ford was still trying to do too much, and the funder has recently engaged in further consolidation of its programs. 

It's not surprising that Ford hasn't embraced a narrower hierarchy of priorities, given its long history as an indispensable funder of myriad social justice groups worldwide. But it's hard to see how a foundation of even Ford's size can have a decisive impact in any one area when it's working across such a broad waterfront.  

Xavier Briggs hits all the right notes in tackling the structural drivers of economic inequality. The foundation, meanwhile, embodies the progressive mindset of the past few decades. Across the social justice universe, taming the deep dysfunction of modern capitalism—a problem that arguably underlies much else that's wrong with U.S. society, including rising cultural conflict—tends to be seen as just one priority among many. It never quite commands the attention and resources required to move the needle—even, ironically, at a giant foundation focused on inequality.