Berresford, Susan Vail

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Berresford, Susan Vail

Ford Foundation


Susan V. Berresford is the president of the Ford Foundation, the second-largest philanthropic organization in the United States with about $9 billion in assets. It gives grants and loans to individuals and institutions that promote democratic values, fight poverty and injustice, increase international cooperation, and advance human achievement.

Personal Life

Susan Vail Berresford was born on January 8, 1943, to Richard Case and Katherine Vail (Marsters) Berresford Hurd. She is quiet about her childhood, so biographical accounts begin with her college years. Berresford attended Vassar College from 1961 to 1963, then graduated cum laude in 1965 from Radcliffe College with a bachelor of arts in American History. During her summer break from school in 1962, Berresford worked with the United Nations Volunteer Services in New York City, and in 1964, she served as a secretary to historian Theodore H. White. Her immediate goal after graduation, she told the New York Times, was to "engage directly with antipoverty work."

Berresford married David F. Stein and they have one son, Jeremy Vail Stein, but their union ended in divorce. She is known as a slender, quietly elegant woman who works long hours. Colleagues note her intelligence, her attention to detail, willingness to listen, and down-to-earth nature.

Career Details

After graduating from Radcliffe, Berresford did pursue her goal of social improvement. She became a program officer with the Neighborhood Youth Corps in New York City in 1965, and stayed there until 1967, when she took a job as a program specialist for Manpower Career Development Agency, also in New York. The next year, she was promoted to program specialist there, and then spent a couple of years as a freelance consultant and writer in Europe and the United States. Berresford joined the Ford Foundation in 1970 as a project assistant in the national affairs division, and in 1972 became a program officer in that area. She served in that post until 1980.

In 1980 Berresford was promoted to officer in charge of women's programs for the Ford Foundation. The next year, she became vice president for the U.S. and International Affairs programs, a position she held until 1989, when she took over as vice president of the program division in charge of worldwide programming. In 1995, she was made executive vice president and chief operating officer (COO) of the foundation. She was elected the first female president of the organization, effective April 3, 1996, replacing Franklin I. Thomas, the first African American to head the agency.

Some critics were initially skeptical of promoting an "insider" to president at Ford. As Karen W. Arenson stated in the New York Times, "To critics who viewed Ford . . . as a sleeping giant in need of shaking up, wedded to many of the same projects it supported 15 years ago, the appointment did not seem a prescription for change." But Berresford instituted a number of important changes at the foundation. She brought in department heads from international offices as well as some outsiders to help generate new ideas. She reorganized grant-giving around three major focus areas. She also began to emphasize communications, establishing it as a new department in order to strengthen public relations and advertising.

This emphasis on communications was Berresford's most significant innovation at the Ford Foundation. Previously, the foundation had kept a low profile, but Berresford wanted to push the organization into the spotlight. "The new Ford will most likely be more conspicuous, with more attention to press coverage of its programs and positions," commented Karen W. Arenson in the New York Times. The new president also touted programs for women. "Feminism is now a theme interwoven in everything we do," claimed Berresford in an article in Working Woman. Feminist leader Gloria Steinem supported Berresford's new appointment. "It's more important than naming a woman Cabinet member of president of a corporation," Steinem remarked in Working Woman, "because the Ford Foundation can initiate and support social change here (United States) and internationally."

On April 24, 1997, Berresford announced that $50 million would be put forth to pursue the Ford Foundation's priorities. According to Business Week, the foundation was dedicating $20 million to "create or expand institutions that lend and invest in low-income communities in the United States and overseas;" $15 million to "seed and strengthen foundations in such fields as economic development, women's rights, and the arts;" and $15 million to "revitalize college-level research and teaching on understudied places, languages, and cultures." Berresford also aimed to increase the amount of non-U.S. grants to 50 percent (previously at 40 percent) and to hire more African American, Asian American, and Latin American staff.

Chronology: Susan Vail Berresford

1943: Born.

1962: Worked with United Nations Volunteer Services.

1965: Hired at Neighborhood Youth Corps, New York City.

1967: Began working for Manpower Career Development Agency.

1970: Started at Ford Foundation in the national affairs division.

1972: Became program officer at Ford Foundation.

1980: Promoted to officer in charge of women's programs for the Ford Foundation.

1981: Named vice president for the U.S. and International Affairs programs at Ford Foundation.

1989: Took over as vice president of the program division in charge of worldwide programming for Ford Foundation.

1995: Became executive vice president and chief operating officer (COO) of the Ford Foundation.

1996: Elected the first female president of the Ford Foundation.

Social and Economic Impact

Berresford has guided the Ford Foundation through a period of major change. Founded in 1936 by auto baron Henry Ford and his son, Edsel, the private non-profit organization began as a local Michigan philanthropy dedicated to the broad purpose of improving human welfare. In 1950 it became a national and international organization, with its assets composed almost entirely of Ford Motor Company stock from the two men's estates. From 1956 to 1974, the foundation got rid of its Ford stock and spread itself over a range of investments, and in 1976 Henry Ford II quit the board, severing all connections between the Ford family and the foundation. Today, Ford is the largest organization of its kind in the country.

The Ford Foundation's objectives are to reduce poverty and injustice, strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. Grants for these purposes are given in three focus areas, which Berresford has outlined: Asset Building and Community Development, Peace and Social Justice, and Education, Media, Arts, and Culture (EMAC). Asset Building and Community Development focuses on fighting poverty by helping people and communities build assets and give them future options, which includes bank-like programs to assist low-income individuals and areas. Peace and Social Justice promotes democracy and freedom, and helps fund organizations that work for civil rights and fair laws. EMAC funds the arts and cultural institutions and promotes awareness of various cultures in hopes of building strong international relationships.

As of mid-1997, the Ford Foundation had assets of about $9 billion, making it larger in terms of finances than 99 percent of all American businesses, and had provided $8 billion to about 9,000 institutions and 100,000 individuals around the globe. The money comes from a diversified investment portfolio. The organization dispenses about $400 million annually and employs almost 600 people—400 in the New York office and about 200 in 16 offices overseas.

During the 1960s, the Ford Foundation functioned mainly as a springboard for liberal ideas but relied on the government to institute them. Such programs as the War on Poverty, the development of public television, and Head Start—a preschool enrichment program for disadvantaged children-were supported by Ford but implemented through government initiative and tax dollars. But with waning support for government spending in these areas, the Ford Foundation has had to change tactics.

With Berresford in the lead, the Ford Foundation is positioning itself as a leader in socially responsible activism. Since government is drastically cutting funds for social programs and services, the private sector, especially nonprofit groups, has had to find new ways to promote social goals. Instead of relying on tax funds, Ford is now exploring ways to tap into community resources to fund its programs. It gave $2.5 million, for example, to help an Oregon bank develop environmentally responsible lumber and fishing businesses. And its "individual development accounts" provides matching funds to those saved by low-income individuals to buy a house, pay for tuition, or open a business. Such grassroots enterprises have earned the enthusiasm of political conservatives as well as liberals and helped to dispel the notion that Ford only promotes liberal causes. With Berresford's guidance, experience, and insight, the foundation will undoubtedly continue to thrive and promote its goals.

Sources of Information

Contact at: Ford Foundation
320 E. 43rd St.
New York, NY 10017-4816
Business Phone: (212)573-5000


Arenson, Karen W. "At Ford Foundation, a New Chief and a New Style." New York Times, 14 February, 1996.

Collingwood, Harris. "A Woman at the Wheel of the Ford Foundation." Working Woman, April 1996.

Coy, Peter. "Fewer Giveaways, More Self-Reliance." Business Week, 12 May 1997.

Ford Foundation. "The Ford Foundation." New York, NY: Ford Foundation. Available from

"Ford Foundation." Hoover's Online, 26 March 1998. Available from

"Ford Foundation to Host Unique Meeting of Corporate Leaders to Discuss the Benefits of Integrating Work and Personal Life." Business Wire, 14 September 1997.

"Franklin Thomas Set to Leave Ford Foundation." Jet, 23 January 1995.

Mercer, Joye. "The Ford Foundation Shifts Its Focus and Structure." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 August 1997.

Who's Who in America, 51st edition, 1997. New Providence, NJ: Marquis Who's Who, 1996.