In-Depth Interview:Elizabeth Knup, Ford Foundation

China Representative for the Ford Foundation

Elizabeth Knup.jpg

Few know China's NGOs as well as Elizabeth Knup. As the Ford Foundation's China Representative, she leads a team of 17 that in the past year directed $16 million in grants to nonprofits and academic institutions tackling inequality. And in her decade working outside the nonprofit sector, Knup stayed engaged by joining AmCham China's Corprorate Social Responsibility Committee and serving on the boards of Chinese NGOs.

Knup had her sights on China for a long time – earning her master's in Chinese studies at the University of Michigan, then working at the National Committee on US-China Relations – before she landed her first China-based post in 1998 at the Hopkins Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. Now, as an experienced leader of nonprofits, academia and multinationals (including Pearson), Knup has become a strong guiding voice in the discussions surrounding the role of NGOs in China and the much-talked about foreign NGO management draft law.

Thanks to the foreign NGO management draft law, organizations like the Ford Foundation have received a lot of attention. How do you keep your team focused when you’re thrust into the spotlight?

We haven’t really had any trouble continuing to do our work. In 2015, we made grants of over $16 million related to China, so that’s a pretty big budget for us and we’re just continuing along with our work. I of course pay close attention to the law and the environment and keep my feelers out. The broad environment is a little harder to read than in the past. At the moment, things are good.

AmCham China has been a really important actor in helping the community to think about the draft law and form an opinion and make comments on it. For Ford, because we don’t know what the final law is going to say, and we don’t quite know when it will come out, we’ve just decided to keep on doing our work, and when the law comes out, we will comply. That’s our plan.

With the extra attention, especially media attention, how do you make use of headquarters for help?

It wasn’t just in China that there has been this shift in how governments see foreign NGOs. For the Ford Foundation, because we’re a global foundation, (we saw) things were happening in Russia and India, too, all related to the environment for foreign NGOs. We made a decision to really put a lot more effort into thinking about our communications strategy in a strategic way and thinking about our stakeholder engagement strategy in a very intentional, very well thought through way. At the same time we were doing the same in other countries.

What we’ve done over the last year is to be intentional about the Ford Foundation message and what we want people to know about us. And we have spent time thinking about how to put that message in different medias and contexts. I’ve tried to do more speaking engagements. We do media interviews when our vice president comes to town. We've begun to tell our own story.

For a long time, Ford thought that our grantees should speak about their own work; we provide funding but the actual work is carried out by them. No one on our team actually does research or runs the projects. We enable our grantees to do these things. We’ve always wanted to stand back because it’s the grantees that are doing the great work and we thought their work would be sufficient to let people know what the Ford Foundation is or does. But in fact, that’s not quite sufficient. We do have to be a bit more proactive in telling our own story.

Did you worry about how being more visible might affect your relationship with government?

That’s what we try to balance. If we never talk about ourselves, then other people can tell our story and we don’t have control. We thought about the balance between those two things and decided it was better to be more present in the discourse.

Besides keeping an eye on the law, what's new at the Ford Foundation?

We just went through a two-year strategic review of the whole foundation. We’ve settled that the key issue the foundation wants to address globally is the question of inequality. At the Ford Foundation, we understand inequality to have a set of key drivers that relate to economic inequality, political voice, social and cultural inequality and we have decided that what we need to do is address these underlying drivers. That’s what the foundation is now going to do globally, and each office – we have 11 offices around the world – has then taken that broad global strategy and tried to interpret it in their own context.

In the China office, we just finalized our strategy last month and it will focus on the people who are affected by urbanization – both the people who migrate as part of the urbanization process and the growing number of people who are urbanized in place, for example, when villages become urbanized. We want to look at the economic inequality and economic security of those individuals as well as their social inclusion. And on top of that, we are particularly concerned about the experience of women and girls in that process.

The rapid urbanization process in China is, policy-wise, designed to promote growth and inclusion. We want to support our grantees to contribute to making this a reality.

Is such a review common for the Ford Foundation?

This is something that the foundation hasn’t done in a while so it was time to do a deep dive on the questions that confront the globe and then to try to understand Ford’s entry point. What do we bring to the table that others don’t?

Ford is a big foundation. We’re the second largest private foundation in the US in terms of endowment, only behind the Gates Foundation. We’re a pretty big enterprise that has the capacity and the wherewithal to undertake a process like this. It took a lot of time and resources to allow ourselves to do this. Different kinds of organizations may not have that kind of time and those kinds of resources, so they do a different kind of strategic planning.

Another part of our strategy now is to be much more intentional about collaborating with other organizations including the private sector. If you look at the question of inequality, a foundation alone can’t solve that problem; neither can a government, the private sector or academics alone solve the problem. You need to have all the parts working together. A foundation can bring the parties together to help them think through the bigger issues.

Internet companies are now partnering with the government in China on poverty alleviation, for example, using Taobao stores in villages to help bring local products to a wider market. That’s a good government-private sector collaboration. Is there a role for a foundation to bring some other resources to bear in that conversation? Would it be useful to support research to analyze the underlying assumptions -- did having a Taobao village make a difference, how much does it really help the people, are there obstacles involved? There may be a role for a foundation to support an academic body to do a research project to understand how that main assumption about e-commerce and poverty alleviation played out

How do you measure wins and losses at the Ford Foundation?

That’s a really big question in philanthropy, how you measure impact. The foundation is continually trying to understand how we best measure impact. We are particularly a foundation that’s interested in social change, which takes a long time and the pathway to that objective, where people have more equity, is a very unclear pathway. So it is hard to figure out how we measure impact.

Because we don’t do that many things that are quantitative, like build x number of schools or vaccinate x number of children, it’s a lot harder to say at the end of the year whether you achieved your goals or not. Some of the things that we would look for would be if the project we funded was completed according to the original project design and was the grantee able to execute as planned.  And, what was learned in the process.

For you, what is the difference between leadership at a for-profit and at a nonprofit?

When I went from the nonprofit sector to the for-profit sector, people asked me this a lot. My answer then and now is that there’s not a lot that’s different. Eighty-five percent of my work is about managing people, and people are generally the same.

One thing that’s different is that when you’re working in a company that has a clear bottom line – profit or loss – then sometimes decisions are made super clear by the financial reality that are less clear when you’re in a not-for-profit situation. If you have to make a difficult decision about how you’re going to allocate resources, sometimes in a for-profit company, it’s easier because your choices are fewer. When there’s no profit involved, the decision-making process is driven by other kinds of considerations: by your mission and what you’re trying to achieve and the values of the organization.

But at the end of the day, you have to manage and motivate people, which is the same in both kinds of organizations.

How do you communicate with your team?

We’re pretty small, 17, so I talk to them on a one-on-one basis almost every day. We’ve instituted a “face time week” once a month where everyone in the foundation should be in the office spending time with each other. That’s when we have our programming meetings, our grant-making meetings and senior staff meetings.

How do you communicate with headquarters?

I get back to headquarters at least twice a year, and we have regular monthly telephone calls. They’re very responsive.

Helping the team here to have independent relationships with New York is also important. If it all flows through me, that’s a bottleneck waiting to happen. That’s empowering for people on staff to have their own relationships, and also more efficient.

Who has influenced your leadership style?

I’ve had a lot of good mentors and bosses. My boss at Pearson, Marjorie Scardino, who was CEO of the company, gave me good advice once that I try to remember: she told me to not grip the pencil too tightly. Her point being that you need to just relax a little bit, and if you hold on to something less tightly, then it is easier to let things happen. Not to let go of control altogether, but to let yourself relax a little bit.

I had an excellent colleague at the Hopkins Nanjing Center, Milo Manley. He was very good at reminding me to take a step back and look at the big picture of everything you’re trying to achieve. He would say to me, “Is anybody going to die from this situation?” And if no, then whatever it is, it can be solved.

How do you foster high-potentials in your office?

For a lot of organizations the size of ours, there’s not a lot of upward potential in the organization. That’s a big challenge. How do you keep people motivated when you can’t really offer them promotions? I try to identify areas where they can try something new. When we started the strategic communications, there was someone on staff who I invested time in training and had her go to New York and spend time there to learn from the office of communications. I took some other work off her plate so she could have time and space to learn.

I’ve tried to be patient while people learn a new thing because you can’t just learn it on day one. I also try to understand the person and see what it is that they would really like to do and get at least 70 percent of their job to be something that they really feel happy doing.

In order to do that, you have to spend time talking to employees, understanding them. That’s time I might otherwise be spending somewhere else, but I’ve decided to invest in people. And I think it pays off. People feel that you’re interested in them and their development. Even though I can’t offer them a gigantic promotion, I can off them some possibilities for learning and growth, and that’s what human beings want and need.

You’ve served on many boards over the years, including the AmCham China board (2004-2008). How do you exert influence in these boards?

I’ve been on a couple Chinese NGO boards, which is different because they’re more what you would call an advisory group. Boards have legal responsibilities to the organizations. In China it’s a little bit less formalized. That’s a great way to learn more about how they operate and what their challenges are. It’s the same with AmCham, you’re more of an advisor. So, as an advisor you exert influence largely through listening and then making suggestions and recommendations based on an understanding of what the organization hopes to achieve. Usually people are asked to join nonprofit boards because they are understood to bring some knowledge or expertise into the organization. In these cases the organization is seeking your input and guidance and influence grows from that.

What do you hope to accomplish in China?

I really believe in the idea that the mo­re you bring people together, the stronger the fabric of the relationship is. That has motivated me in my whole career.

What do you do in your free time?

When I have free time, one thing I like to do is ride my bike. My friends and I will take our bikes out to the Great Wall area and ride around on the weekend. That and play bridge. We have about 10-12 people who like to play and we go to each other's houses to play. Those are the two pastimes that have nothing to do with my work, and take my mind off my work.