Buyouts at Ford Foundation show no sector is immune to layoffs

A buyout or pink slip may be less hard to swallow when you know your sacrifice helps preserve programs that help the neediest communities in the world.

At least, that's how the Ford Foundation is spinning its latest cost-cutting move: An offer of buyouts to staff members at its New York City and foreign offices, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

So far the Ford Foundation has eliminated 30 jobs this year, and closed offices in Russia and Vietnam. These moves, along with other budget trimming, have saved $40 million.

But with the endowment 30% down and economic recovery expected to take a long while, the foundation decided those cuts weren't enough. Hence, the buyouts, which were reported in the Chronicle of Philanthropy this week (Wednesday.)The goal is to reduce expenses and avoid cuts in its grantmaking, which is vast. This fiscal year more than $358 million will be distributed to programs like the National Community Stabilization Trust, which is working to revitalize communities in the U.S. hit hard by foreclosures; and others around the world that preserve open lands, send impoverished people to college, and work to reduce the scourge of AIDS/HIV.

The Ford Foundation awards more than 2,000 grants annually, and its mandate is broad: to advance human welfare.

"Every dollar we could save internally is a dollar we could put toward grant making, and we are really committed to not reducing our grant making," the Ford Foundation's vice president of communications, Marta L. Tellado, told the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Many people who've lost their jobs in finance and media have looked into jobs in the nonprofit sector, some seeking more meaning in a job, others thinking nonprofits are less vulnerable to market forces.

But as this example shows, nonprofits are not recession-proof. Even one of the wealthiest foundations in the world -- the Ford Foundation, the second largest foundation in the country (after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), with an endowment of $9.1 billion -- has to adjust to a different world.

On the other hand, it's good to see a legacy of the automative industry -- Edsel Ford founded the Ford Foundation in 1936 with the fortune he and his father had amassed in assembly-line built cars -- looking to survive into the next century, especially when the Detroit auto companies probably have a much tougher road ahead.

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