On October 16, 2003, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a New York-based wire service that serves Jewish newspapers worldwide, launched a scorching four-part series on the Ford Foundation. Written by investigative reporter Edwin Black, the series, “Funding Hate,” alleged that Ford had provided financial support to several Palestinian nongovernmental organizations accused of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic behavior at the United Nations World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in late summer 2001. A Ford spokesman denied the thrust of Black’s allegations: “We have seen no indication that our grantees in Durban or elsewhere engaged in anti-Semitic speech or activities.”
One month later, after a political onslaught from members of Congress and some prominent Jewish organizations, Ford reversed itself. In a letter to Jerrold Nadler, a Democratic Congressman from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Susan Berresford, the president of Ford, declared that her institution was “disgusted by the vicious anti-Semitic activity seen at Durban” and that “having reassessed our own information on the Durban Conference…we now recognize that we did not have a complete picture of the activities, organizations and people involved…. We deeply regret that Foundation grantees may have taken part in unacceptable behavior.” Berresford reiterated those sentiments in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, which had published an editorial extolling the JTA series, lashing Ford and, sounding an old conservative refrain, lamenting the existence of “a foundation priesthood funded into perpetuity and insulated from public accountability.”
To some extent, the 2003 attack on Ford–the worst crisis to hit the foundation since 1969–could be regarded as an example of the increased political scrutiny that US nonprofits have faced since 9/11. Under Presidential Executive Order 13224, enacted in late September 2001, the government obtained broad new power to freeze the assets of any US foundation or charitable organization that is deemed to have provided financial or humanitarian support to “terrorist” organizations. Moreover, the government has encouraged grant-makers and nonprofits to regularly consult a series of computerized terror watch lists maintained by various federal and international agencies–watch lists that are full of dubious aliases, generic names and “false positive” matches. The vague, sweeping language surrounding these regulations and the ways they have put new burdens on charities and foundations have provoked considerable anxiety and confusion throughout the nonprofit sector.
The offensive against Ford, however, has deeper roots. It was a brazen attempt to punish a foundation that since the 1950s has disbursed more than $13 billion to more than 13,000 educational, environmental, human rights, social justice and other organizations in the United States and abroad. Under enormous pressure, and fearful that the accusations might trigger increased government oversight of the entire US foundation sector, Ford made a series of concessions to its critics. One of them–a pledge to alter the language in its standard grant-agreement letter, a decision that has powerful civil liberties implications–has left some of the foundation’s traditional allies simmering with displeasure and unease. “Historically, Ford’s best quality has been its willingness to take some risks and fund some controversial things,” says Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute and a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy. “But I think Berresford and Ford caved in unnecessarily to Nadler.” Many people in the foundation world agree with Eisenberg, but few will say so publicly.