Programming on a Blank Slate

GrantCraft (Ford Foundation)



Case Study Sector


Imagine starting a new grant-making program from scratch—no prior grantees, no established procedures, no set objectives. One grantmaker's experience in starting a rural program illustrates some of the questions you'd need to answer.  

The challenge: Upon his arrival from India in the fall of 1981, grantmaker Robert Armstrong found his fifth-floor office—the first program director's office he would occupy at the Ford Foundation's New York headquarters—to be completely empty. The lack of books, papers, or pending requests for grant funds was indicative of the blank slate that Armstrong faced as the new director of a new division, called Rural Poverty and Resources.

With the exception of a fleeting focus on Appalachian poverty in the early years of the Kennedy administration, rural American poverty had long been either ignored or assumed to be in decline. Photographs taken by Walker Evans and others had captured the rural poverty of previous eras but had been supplanted in the national imagination by images of the urban poor. The foundation had planned a modest step to reverse this trend. Its Rural Poverty and Resources Program in the United States would not only be its newest program, but also its smallest: The domestic rural poverty program that Armstrong would head was to start making grants in the coming fall, with at least $500,000 at its disposal. As he settled into the new office, Armstrong knew he would have to do much more than dispose of those funds. He would have to define the contours of the program he had agreed to lead—a program that, he hoped, would begin to give the issue of rural poverty a higher profile by year's end, both within the foundation and on the public agenda. Doing so would require a series of key early grant decisions . . .



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