Mariko Silver on Shifting From College President to Foundation CEO

by Victoria Jones, President

Posted August 26, 2020

This month, our President Victoria Jones spoke with Mariko Silver, President and CEO of the Henry Luce Foundation. Since its founding over 80 years ago, the Henry Luce Foundation has awarded more than 6,000 grants totaling over $1B in the fields of Asia, higher education, religion and theology, art, and public policy. The Luce Foundation also supports a range of fellowship programs to ensure that tomorrow’s leaders are well-prepared and well-educated.

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.

The idea of understanding or shaping an ecosystem is certainly timely. When you think about the enormous asset that is the Luce Foundation – and I don’t just mean financial how do you chart Luce’s course?

The good news is that, while we have clearly defined funding areas, we don’t have tight constraints within them. We have a fair amount of space to really challenge ourselves to think differently. Sometimes I think of a visual art class that was taught at Bennington where students were asked to create 100 pieces in 100 days. These tight constraints led to an enormous amount of creativity. Students drew on their tremendous skills of introspection and community conversation in the face of uncertainty.

At Luce, we need to draw on these same skills and be rigorous and imaginative in our own thinking, while still being expansive and open. Finding the right frame of mind and looking outside of our traditional boundaries will make us more impactful. For example, we support the growth and advancement of women in STEM fields. We can work by funding individual scholars and we can address some of the limited frameworks of merit and power structures that dominate in academia, and support work to help shift the mindset.

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?

What insight have you developed about what foundations can distinctly do?

It’s a wide range, but 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.

Foundations themselves are also valuable networks. We can create conversation across boundaries, and that has increased even more during COVID. We have to be careful that it doesn’t veer into groupthink, but we can learn a lot about how systems intersect.

And another thing foundations can do, especially the more established ones, is elevate certain elements of conversation or the voice of influencers by giving them “legitimizing money.” We can lift them as ideas, organizations, or movements to be valued and invested in.

Choosing the right ways to do this is not always easy. Darren Walker has done this notably well at Ford. My guess is that a number of organizations have been elevated in the public consciousness because of the kinds of investments that Ford made in them.

What is the most fun part of your role?

I’m not, as you know, a particularly shy person, but I don’t tend to be a cold caller either. It really is true that when you’re running a foundation, pretty much anyone will talk to you. Being able to be part of a wide range of conversations is enormously fun, and it is a significant and serious responsibility. Being on this side of the desk takes you out of the realm of representing one institution. It means being part of some really exciting thinking from a very different dimension.

How are you shaping the way people work at Luce?

I’m really encouraging the use of more cross-cutting and systems-oriented thinking. As strong as our programs are, we can get even greater value from more cross-fertilization and by learning more about each other’s areas and perspectives—and as a result, we can elevate and illuminate the things that we collectively do and do not know or want to help make possible.

You know that I admire your leadership.  Do you have some sage advice for nonprofit leaders?

I don’t know about sage! But I do have two things to offer. First, we are in for an extended period of uncertainty on a number of fronts. Leading through uncertainty does not mean pretending that we are certain. Acknowledge the fear that uncertainty creates and make the most of it.

And second, if I may: Don’t try to take emotions out of the equation. This has greatly expanded my horizons as a leader. I’m not suggesting that we be overly impulsive or insufficiently cerebral, but instead embrace the fact that emotions can inform and direct in useful ways, which can lead to better outcomes. I learned a lot of lessons on this front as a college president. For students living and studying in a residential environment together, emotions often come to the forefront. If you want a productive conversation, you have to learn and relearn how to engage on multiple levels. Embrace it.

Every month, our President Victoria Jones spends time with leaders from across the nonprofit sector to hear their perspectives, what’s on their minds today, and what they believe the future holds. Read more At the Helm interviews.

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