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Organizations need change periodically, and most of them think they’ve found the perfect one. The Ford Foundation isn’t so sure, but it’s open to suggestion.

At a recent session of Duke’s Foundation Impact Research Group, the Ford Foundation’s vice-president for education, creativity, and free expression, Hilary Pennington, reflected at length on the foundation’s broad re-examination of its organizational structure and grantmaking, encompassing content, methods, and staffing patterns. For example, in seeking to be both more deliberate about social change and more supportive of grantees’ real-world needs, she wondered aloud how and where Ford should try to position itself along the spectrum from “responsive” to “strategic,” and between the poles of directive grantmaking for projects and general support of key organizations. She noted the tendency of Ford’s various lines of work to operate in isolation from one another — a perennial complaint among foundations, and even of many for-profit companies — and described in rough, broad strokes how they might be more integrated into collaborative teams. (See the full video here.)

In the discussion afterward, Hodding Carter, former CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, jokingly chided Ms. Pennington (they’re old friends) for what he described as a “shockingly incoherent” description of the foundation’s change strategy. Tellingly, Ms. Pennington didn’t disagree.

One suspects that Mr. Carter might, on reflection, have preferred “inchoate” to “incoherent.” Ms. Pennington’s description of Ford’s deliberations was perfectly understandable, albeit inconclusive in many parts. It was this latter point that particularly intrigued Mr. Carter. And on that inconclusiveness hangs a refreshing detail about the Ford Foundation’s public personality under its comparatively new CEO, Darren Walker.

It is rare for foundations to air their uncertainties and self-doubts before an audience of relative strangers (Ms. Pennington had a few longtime friends in the audience besides Mr. Carter, but not many). It happens more often at Duke than in other forums: the meatiest presentations at FIRG sessions tend to come from foundation executives who are not merely describing completed work or expounding on well-tested certainties, but working their way through complex issues. Still, even these sessions generally rely on a body of thought and analysis that is mature and refined enough to be debated.

Ms. Pennington, by contrast, was leading the group through a thicket of discussions still in progress, with particular focus on how the Ford Foundation, amid all its other choices and complexities, might support the wider field of philanthropy and nonprofits in thinking more clearly about the clarity of its purposes, the quality of its leadership and management, and the “feedback loops” by which it learns from other players and adjusts course based on what it learns. It’s a big challenge, to which the foundation plans, for now, to allot just $10-12 million a year. But it reflects a refreshing humility, both about its influence in the world and about its certainty (or lack thereof) about the kinds of influence that are needed.

In a recent review of the literature of corporate management and change, staff writer Nicholas Lemann pointed out that “What [today’s] managers consider a problem is typically what their predecessor considered a solution. … One should be wary of the argument that any new company, no matter how brilliantly successful, has figured it out in a way that no previous company ever could have.”

Four presidents ago, under McGeorge Bundy, the Ford Foundation had more than half a dozen separate departments, each proudly ensconced in its “silo” — something then viewed as a solution: a form of institutionalized expertise, and thus a very good thing. Mr. Bundy’s successor, Franklin Thomas, entered the job deploring silos and extolling teams. All the vice-presidents and their departments were gone, but new ones ineluctably took their place. Three CEOs and 35 years later, the new organizational critique sounds eerily familiar — too many silos (even though the foundation now has only three divisions), too little “co-creation” between grantmakers and grantees, too diffuse a body of goals and objectives. But unlike some other CEOs, Mr. Walker and his colleagues at Ford seem determined not to imagine that they “have figured it out in a way that no previous” executive team ever could have.

Atypically for foundation executives, Mr. Walker briefly became a new-media darling last year, when he made a video tribute to Ballet Hispanico, a longtime Ford grantee, which went viral. He ended it with a modern dance performance of his own, in the Foundation’s 11th-floor president’s office. At one point, he appeared to do a handstand on McGeorge Bundy’s legendary Knoll conference table, a piece of furniture that once struck fear into the hearts of program officers worldwide. (It’s possible that some of Mr. Walker’s more demanding moves may have benefited from the help of a body double, but so what?)

Whether Ford can solve the silo problem, or merely explore new ways of dealing with it, the message appears to be that it will not pretend to a mastery of the universe that it does not possess. It will instead benefit from exposing its thinking — even when “shockingly incoherent” — to all sorts of informed audiences, whether friendly or critical, and seek out its own “feedback loops” with all the moves at its disposal.

Tony Proscio