Dr. Gerry Salole, The Ford Foundation

Monday, 11 July, 2005 - 13:42

The former regional representative for the Ford Foundation, Dr. Gerry Salole, provided a candid opinion of the state of the local nonprofit sector. Find out what he had to say about poverty alleviatio

The former regional representative for the Ford Foundation, Dr. Gerry Salole, provided a candid opinion of the state of the local nonprofit sector. Find out what he had to say about poverty alleviation and future trends for local civil society.

How long have you worked at the Ford Foundation, what is your background and what are your personal development interests?

I have been working in South Africa for the Ford Foundation since November 1999. I qualified in the field of anthropology and consider myself to be a development specialist. My interests are wide ranging, however, I have a particular dislike for the use of jargon and catchphrases which might serve to simplify very complex issues. My approach is more holistic and intuitive.

What are the key development challenges facing SA today?

Firstly, I think it is necessary to explore the concept of “development”. However, that being said, the following areas are of critical concern to me, namely: HIV/AIDS and the lack of integration between various initiatives, the sexual abuse of children and the many social tragedies that are symptomatic of the legacy left by South Africa’s historical injustices.

What are the biggest challenges facing donors in SA today?

In my opinion, one of the most fundamental challenges that most donors face today is being able to work through the numerous formulaic proposals we receive, which lack both substance and a logical structure.

What are the biggest challenges facing the South African NGO Sector, in general and from a funding point of view?

Based on my experiences, I would say that the sector generally lacks the ability to demonstrate the long-term sustainability and impact of any of its initiatives on its target audience. Also, whilst government is definitely trying to have an impact on reducing poverty, it lacks the earlier support that it received during the first few years of democratic rule. I would also argue that some of the areas which fall within this domain have not been very clearly conceived, for example, government’s response to the HIV/AIDS disaster. I must also question the sustainability of government’s current housing programme.

Finally, there are macro-economic problems confronting South Africa. These are often reflected in the level of crime and the lack of physical and material security of communities as well as the level of household viability experienced by many families.

When was the Ford Foundation established and how has the organisation responded over the years to SA’s various development challenges?

The Ford Foundation was established in 1948. However, the South African office only opened in 1993. Prior to that, numerous grants were made, especially during the 1970s and 1980’s, when the political environment required the Foundation to make grants to South Africa from its New York headquarters or from the Ford Foundation Offices elsewhere in Africa.

Numerous initiatives have been undertaken in response to South Africa’s development challenges. These range from human rights work as well as specific programmes for civil society and governance; development finance, environment and development; higher education; HIV/AIDS and, to a much lesser extent, arts and culture as well as legacy/ historical project support. We have more information on the Ford Foundation website and under the local programs section .

Is there a particular development approach that underpins your organisation’s work?

The Ford Foundation sees itself as a resource for innovative people and our goals are to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation and advance human achievement. However the Foundation does not have a specific agenda of formulaic approach which underpins the organisation’s broad mandate. We recognize that people on the ground know what is really needed and that our role is to provide the necessary resources that will enable NPOs to implement their initiatives. Our approach may be perceived as unusual in that the Foundation does not try to enforce coherence between different initiatives that wish to implement change. Within the Foundation there is an acceptance of ambiguity to the extent that initial failure is not seen as a satisfactory reason for withholding or withdrawing funding from an initiative.

Is there a level of donor co-operation or co-ordination that informs your organisation’s work?

My experience has been that a considerable amount of informal co-ordination and collaboration takes place between the different donors, to the extent that we embark on joint or complimentary funding of NPO initiatives. There is also a conscious effort not to impose too much structure on the various NPOs to the extent that they are unable to concentrate on the work at hand. We also share information on the performance and activities of individual NPOs.

What is the geographic scope of your organization’s work?

We have our headquarters in New York and we have 12 offices in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Russia. The foundation also has partnerships in Israel and Eastern Europe. However, our focus is worldwide.

Where do you see this organisation ten years down the line?

In my opinion, Ford will continue to be a significant grant maker in the interest of social justice across the globe. Increasingly the Foundation has begun to make larger grants – for example, The Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program (IFP) is the largest single programme ever supported by the Ford Foundation, it was a grant of just under three hundred million dollars.

What institutional qualities and characteristics do you think are important for NGOs at the individual level to make a success of their work?

Good governance issues come to mind. More specifically though, I would argue for the need to establish boards which will ask nonprofit executives serious questions. Currently, it would seem that many board members lack the ability to properly interrogate and monitor the performance of NGOs and their leadership.

The Ford Foundation has responded to this need by establishing Boardsource , an institution set up to train boards and improve the quality of governance. Personally, though, I don’t perceive the problem as being a lack of capacity but rather as poor ability to set priorities.

What advice do you have to offer to unknown and new NGOs to get onto donor radar screens?

I would argue that it is usually the successful NGOs, which have already demonstrated a past history of successes and achievements are the ones most likely to be noticed by the donor community. So, in effect, making the transition from “new and unknown” to well-known ultimately depends on the perseverance and proven abilities of an NGO. In my experience, NGOs that seek regulatory compliance such as registration and similar formalities often lose their credibility as a result of this process and the demands it places on the organisation.

My warning to NGOs would be that they should avoid being fooled by the “mystique” of using consultants to draft exotic proposals in the hope that donors are impressed by their efforts. A sincere and honest account of the initiatives that have been undertaken is far preferable to a synthesized, cosmetic document which lacks the passion and authentic “personality” of the organisation itself.

What trends do you predict for the future of funding in SA?

I am hopeful that there will be more private money and that NGOs are able to leverage local resources more effectively. I firmly believe that bilateral and private institutions will continue with their current funding, given the strategic value of South African relative to the rest of the African continent.

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Footnote: Dr Salole was interviewed by Alliance Magazine in December 2005 regarding his subsequent position as the CEO of the European Foundation Centre.  

Read the interview here.

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