In an interview with Victoria Jones, President of Development Guild DDI, Luce President and CEO Mariko Silver discusses the path that led her to the Luce Foundation, the Foundation's approach to grantmaking, and the role and power of philanthropy in effecting social change.
“One thing that foundations can do is provide patient money—to support the early shaping of an idea that may not bear fruit for some time. We can also be risk capital, funding experimental ideas in their infancy. That can be pretty powerful. But we also have to remember that we don’t do the work. We make it possible for others to do the work—that is our job. We shouldn’t micromanage or overdetermine outcomes. We should invest in people close to the problem or opportunity that we are hoping our funds will help to shift.”
Earlier in her career, Mariko held roles at Arizona State University and Columbia University, as well as in state government and at the US Department of Homeland Security. She was President of Bennington College before assuming her role at Luce a year ago.
Mariko shared what brought her to Luce, how COVID has caused the role of foundations to shift, and her advice for fellow leaders as they adapt and look forward…
Victoria: How does the Dept. of Homeland Security and Bennington College – among other things – lead you to the Henry Luce Foundation?
Mariko: One way to think about a job is by sector. Many people stay in one sector and become experts—I didn’t choose that path! I’ve had the opportunity—and perhaps the personality type—to explore and delve into many. I am really interested in systems and how they interact. That is something I’ve always wanted to build on.
And then, having been on the fundraising side of the table, I thought it’d be really valuable to better understand the giving side. And, having had the opportunity to serve in multiple sectors, I felt like I had some insights to bring to the table around how to think across sectors as a grantmaker. Here is where the systems piece comes in. I believe that for funders to really understand how to effectively create societal shift or sector change, we have to understand the relevant nested, interlocking systems. We have to consider the larger ecosystem. My range of experience taught me to look for this. It doesn’t mean I always see it the right way, but I think I understand what questions need to be asked and how to evaluate whether our funding will get where we want it to go. I also believe I can help the foundation think about multi-sector, multi-system and multi-time scale change in non-linear ways. We are not living in a linear environment right now; we have to think differently.
There is so much incredible generosity happening right now. COVID and Black Lives Matter and DEI are moving some people to “just give” as a way of signaling support while others are being very intentional about where they invest. How does Luce evaluate opportunity?
First, we do not approach an application as just a singular project or institution; instead, we think about how an applicant’s idea fits within a system that we want to see shift. Then, we are able to look deeply into how a project or an institution can truly accomplish something meaningful. We take time to look up and down to see if the values they have articulated are embedded in the project design and in the budget. We don’t want to micromanage, but we do want to ask the right questions. Ideally, it also helps us build deep partnerships and trust; and that leads to great work.
Here is an example: We recently funded two projects related to data surveillance of COVID. So many existing, non-COVID data surveillance projects have been deployed to great negative effect in my view. In too many cases, data is used to contribute to greater marginalization of vulnerable populations: immigrants and migrants, people who have been incarcerated, etc. With COVID, we have the opportunity to collect data from the vast majority of Americans. It’s one aspect of what others have called “the great reveal.” How do we think about the negative impact of these systems? Who is on the receiving end of these systems? Is there a way to do better with privacy protections for everyone while still gathering the data needed to combat COVID? Another example: COVID is preventing all of us from travelling—something that, at any other time, Americans have taken for granted and consider a basic right or fundamental privilege. Now that we have all experienced a version of this constraint firsthand (even Americans with the money to travel can’t simply hop on a plane and zip around the world at will), we can think about how constraints much more severe and threats far greater than COVID impact immigrants and migrants every day. Could that help us rethink some of the assumptions embedded in policies related to the movement of people around the world?