THE FORD FOUNDATION:                                           Inter-Office Memorandum

TO:         Messrs. Bell and Sutton ; copy to Messrs Gormbley, Staples, and Trottenburg 

FROM:       Courtney Nelson and George Zeidenstein

SUBJECT:      International Division Organization

DATE:       January 5, 1970  

     Last fall we asked if you would like our extra-curricular thoughts about parts of the International Division's organization and on communication within the Foundation. At first we thought the two subjects should be addressed together. However, we have decided that they should not. The attached paper is about the first; the second is perhaps for a later effort.


Courtney A Nelson - Beirut 1973

Beirut, Lebanon 1974

      While writing this paper we have discussed the subject at various times with Ed Edwards, Bud Harkavy, Howard Swearer, and a few others, but the results, for better or worse, are our own and the concurrence of these helpful people cannot be assumed.

      Enclosed are four extra copies of the paper for Messrs Fredericks, Harkavy, Swearer, and Wilhelm if you agree this would be appropriate. We hope that the paper can be circulated to all members of the International Division's professional staff.

The Foundation's Organization for Overseas Development:  A Few Observations and Suggestions

      For several weeks we have been discussing between ourselves various alternatives to the way the international Division is organized. We began with the vexing question of the content of the program officer's job, but we hope and believe that we have come up with suggestions that would increase the Foundation's contribution to development, as well as give the Foundation's New York staff a more challenging environment in which to work.

      It is generally recognized that the Foundation's greatest advantage is its flexibility. In overseas development, stakes are high and the Foundation is relatively small. It plays an important role only by being a little faster, a little more imaginative and less inhibited than other assistance agencies, and by employing better-qualified and better-informed people. The Foundation's record is good, but partly because the league is slow. We are real championship class in only a few fields.

      The population field is one of the favored few. There the foundation exercises genuine leadership. We have a solid sense of strategy. We know what has been tried, what worked and who did it, what failed and -- sometimes – why. We are in contact with every important institution in the population field.

      In basic agricultural production research we are in a similar position, once removed. We are closely wired to the four basic research institutes. A generous share of the credit for their success goes to the Rockefeller Foundation, but the important thing for this discussion is that through them we know the state of the art, we are influential in shaping the pattern of future research and action programs.

      Our position on the agricultural economics front in Latin America is similarly advanced.

      These three successes illustrate varying operational paths to positions of leadership in development. In other directions, where our investments are also substantial, our light is dimmer.

      For example, in many countries manpower planning was pioneered by the Foundation, yet we still meet fresh requests in that field almost as if starting anew. We have no historical sense of what has been tried around the world, even by ourselves, nor a clear strategy for what needs trying next. Nor are we acquainted with the latest research. We have pockets of competence in someone else's pants.

      As an institution, we don't have a coherent sense of strategy about economic planning or development administration either. Although several of the staff are very knowledgeable on these subjects, they are as likely as not to be assigned overseas or in New York to positions that don't permit them to keep current.

      But this is only one way of looking at the record. One could just as well ask how well we have done in India, East Africa or Brazil as how well we have done in population, agriculture or manpower planning. Indeed, since our field work is organized geographically, the latter inquiry may be more natural to us and answers could be found In annual reports and budget documents. Representatives are familiar with all external assistance in their countries and they have clear ideas on the Foundation's priorities over the next few years.

      The country-by-country view of external assistance has served the Foundation well. As the pressure on our resources increases, however, the problem-centered approach in our examples above could also be used to increase our efficiency of allocation. In our opinion, achieving the proper balance between them is the heart of our organizational problem. As shorthand, we can speak of a geographical orientation and a functional one. (Functional is a poor word. We have tried and rejected others: substantive, disciplinary, problem-oriented.)

      Our nearly exclusive* dependence on the geographical approach has had a predictable result. We have strong, coherent country and regional programs, but we lack coherent functional programs.

* The Population Office is an exception. The Office of Latin America and the Caribbean may be too. We do not know enough about Latin America or the functional organization of that staff to be sure.

      This phenomenon has been recognized. The creation of program advisor positions in New York was a serious attempt to make a functional focus available in the regions. The experiment is only a qualified success, in our opinion. The critical mass needed to give coherence to a functional approach is not obtained by our present careful placement of a few disciplinarians at points in the regional operation. Our program advisors in New York are gifted men, but they are attached uncomfortably to a geographical framework that does not offer them the problem-oriented milieu in which they could work most effectively. Working together on problems, not exclusively and independently on regional matters, would make this group more useful to the Foundation.

      We agree that field operations require a geographical orientation and would not suggest that our field or regional offices be scrapped or diminished in authority. We do not advocate the Rockefeller pattern of New York-based specialists who make occasional forays to distant lands, each with his narrow portfolio. But what could the Foundation reasonably expect to gain from a dual staffing pattern, a pattern of functional staffs taking the lead in their fields and serving the needs of the geographically oriented field and regional offices?

      Let it be clear at the threshold that the functional staffs we have in mind are not narrowly disciplinary in nature. We are not contrasting generalists with specialists. We do not see that distinction as operationally useful. In the Foundation, all of us are expected to operate professionally in the development field. Some may work in a geographically oriented harness and some in a functionally oriented one. Some will be more suited by training, experience or inclination for one rather than the other, but it would not be at all unusual for a person to be qualified for both. And we do not envision that highly specialized disciplinarians would be sought for functional staffs, at least not exclusively or primarily. These staffs would be problem-oriented, not academically oriented.

      We conceive of a group concentrating on rural and urban development; one on economic planning and development administration; one on human resources, combining training, education, child development, manpower; and one on the ecological impact of development activities. The population office would continue as is and would have links with the human resources group. (Each of the groups would establish links with other divisions of the Foundation where there is a mutual interest.)

      The functional orientation could produce the following benefits:

1. Research strategy

      When Watson was a boy, molecular biologists knew that the Nobel Prize awaited the men who could discover the structure of the DNA molecule. That was the next critical question that had to be answered for their science to advance. As The Double Helix so vividly describes, the race was tight among three teams of scientists right down to the finish.

      In the social sciences the shout of "Eureka" is less often heard. Frontiers of knowledge are fuzzier. Frequently, critical problems are not neatly confined to single disciplines. The Foundation, however, is peculiarly well placed to keep up with the latest work on a problem, to gather research from different disciplines, to synthesize, to help define the frontier, ask the key questions, and judiciously grease the wheels of progress. The Foundation's greatest comparative advantage may be in developing its competence to deal with these opportunities, but in our present organization there is little chance for strategic thinking about problem-centered research.

2. Action strategy

      We now have a mechanism for designing the Foundation's posture vis-a-vis a given country. Functional staffs would enable us to fashion a strategy for dealing with problems on a broader basis. It is not enough to know that the Foundation has a role to play in rural development in Pakistan; we need also to know how what we might do there relates to what we are doing elsewhere in rural development. This type of strategic planning would also relate projects to research results in a beneficial way.

3. Project selection

      Although the representative is fully able to rank project priorities in his area, he is in no position to rank those in his area against those in another. The program officer is normally prevented by a similar geographical focus from advising the head on inter-country priorities. Only the head and the vice-president's staff have the breadth of view to make inter-country and, in the latter case, inter-regional comparisons, but they cannot be expected to have the time to do so systematically. Functional staffs could give the heads and the vice-president sets of functional priorities to consider along with the priorities set by representatives. This could provide a stronger basis for allocation of budgets than seems available now.

      All field projects would continue to be shaped in the field with full awareness of local conditions, but the grasp that functional staffs would have on research strategies would commend them to the regional offices and representatives as advisors on project mix.

4. Information

      The functional staffs could ensure that regional offices and representatives and their staffs are better supplied with current information about problem areas. (The information work of our population office is a good example.)  Better interchange of the Foundation’s field experience could also be stimulated through internal papers and meetings on problems.

5. Recruitment

      We would be less likely to mistake the sophisticate for the real thing, would have additional ways of checking out candidates, and would have a far greater range of possible leads, if people professionally acquainted with the problem areas in which we seek candidates were regular participants in the search. Moreover, functional staffs of top quality would be likely to draw a flow of equally superior candidates. Program officers and manpower services would still have crucial roles to play in recruitment, but they could turn to the functional staffs for leads and quality control.

6. Institutional memory

      Our present memory is haphazard. There is no ready record of our accomplishments in the many fields in which we work, nor of our failures. Functional staffs could take on much of the work for which consultants and program advisors in the field are now employed, and could brief those still needed much more effectively than we can now.

7. Functional resource base

      Increasingly we are impressed with the need to build resource bases along functional lines. Area studies programs may justify support, but seldom because of their direct usefulness to development work abroad. On the other hand, there are frequently good reasons why functional strengths (for example, in education planning and agricultural economics) should be supported for work in more than one country or region.

The overall resource base question is complex but we have no doubt that functional staffs would be of great value in designing increasing numbers of our resource base grants.

8. The Foundation as a resource base

      Experienced project specialists and program advisors often make the best consultants other field offices could hope to find. At the moment this valuable interchange is likely to occur only when the representative or head has personal knowledge of the work of an individual.

9. Project performance evaluation

      The representative's staff does not normally have comparative experience to draw upon in evaluating project performance. Functional staffs should not undertake to evaluate each project that is terminated, but a selection of notable successes and failures could usefully be studied by these groups, with the objective of drawing guidelines for future actions.

10. Impact

      The concentration of knowledge represented on the functional staffs could serve to heighten the impact of the Foundation on other donor organizations. Just as those now thinking seriously about agricultural economics in Latin America are likely to seek Lowell Hardin's wisdom and experience, so should the functional staffs come to represent knowledge about the frontiers in their various problem areas.

11. Lateral communication in the Foundation

      Functional staffs would link not only the regional offices, but domestic divisions as well.

      We think this list of benefits is worth breaking through program management budget ceilings to achieve if necessary, but we do not assume that it is. By asking several members of the New York staff to serve on task forces for the next year, we should be able to accomplish the following objectives in each of the functional fields suggested above:

  1. Review the literature;
  2. Become familiar with relevant Foundation projects both current and planned;
  3. Design a research strategy;
  4. Design an appropriate organizational pattern;
  5. Present a budget for research and organization;
  6. Work out appropriate functional staff and regional office relationships; and
  7. Make contact with the original thinkers in the field.

      Work on these task forces would probably require extra hours, but we believe many staff members would be sufficiently challenged to participate willingly. We would hope that some staff time during regular working hours would be available for task force efforts, and that program advisors would be encouraged to devote at least half time. The task forces would, of course, need to coordinate their work with representatives and program advisors in the field.

      We hesitate to anticipate the findings of these task forces, but in support of the idea that they should be appointed, we have sketched out below a staffing pattern that they might recommend:

  1. Reorganization of regional offices, each to include only two senior program officers (or deputies), one to be responsible to the head for operations, and the other for program and budget planning, and resource base grants. Assistant program officers, normally skimmed from training associate and program assistant ranks, would handle the more routine work of the desks with the aid of non-professional administrative assistants.
  2. Establishment of division-level functional staffs, each to be headed by a program-advisor-in-charge and staffed by program advisors, assistant program advisors, research and administrative assistants. Each staff would have a limited number of senior positions, making them roughly equivalent in size to the regional offices. The regional heads would be senior to the program-advisors-in-charge because the functional staffs are meant to service the regions.
  3. Specialists would typically not be hired for either the regional offices or the functional staffs. Knowledge of the Foundation itself is a key to an effective service role, as the population staff ably demonstrates. Senior functional staff positions, and senior regional office positions, would be rotational slots for overseas representatives.
  4. For purposes of discussion, we have attached a schematic pattern showing ways in which a person might move from New York to field office and vice versa.

      It might appear that our minds are made up about how the task forces should come out after a year's study. This is emphatically not the case. We believe strongly that the organizational pattern of the Division is of vital interest to each of us who works in it, and that radical changes such as those proposed should be thoroughly discussed by all of us before they are made.


Draft Follow-up:

January 30, 1970

      On January 5 we submitted to Messrs. Bell and Sutton suggestions about the organization of the International Division, some of which could have implications for the Foundation as a whole. We would like to respond to your memorandum of January 8 by adding only one recommendation to those already expressed.

      We suggest that a task force of three or four staff members be appointed to study the structures of successful modern organizations, discuss with the officers and staff the Foundation's own strengths and weaknesses and recommend, after six months or so, organizational changes which seem appropriate. Modern management techniques hold clues to improvement, but we believe they can be applied best by the Foundation staff, not by outside management consultants.

      Our hypothesis is that the Foundation is not as hot a bed of creativity as our conservative critics believe, or our clients might wish, and that more vitality could be infused into the organization by rethinking the processes by which we set priorities, and reshaping our uses of staff.


      Major changes in the Foundation's program priorities have tended to result only from rather cataclysmic events such as the installation of new management, or the convening of a full-scale review such as preceded the last decade. Once new goals are selected, or old ones reaffirmed, the structure of the Foundation is altered to reflect them. The familiar dynamics of organization then take over to ensure that, in time, the chosen programs become in effect barriers to new claims on the budget. People responsible for programs that affect important work overseas, or in universities, ghettos, or theaters, are naturally obliged to try to secure as much money as they can for those purposes, and it is bound to be inadequate. Given a limited budget, competing claims must to some extent be resisted, and those without vested defenders have the least chance of all. There is thus a tendency in the Foundation to be as imaginative as possible in the pursuit of accepted goals.

      Program objectives ought not to change with the seasons, and to us it seems wise that priorities have not been altered frequently. At the same time, we think that a continuous process of new program exploration is required to ensure the timely identification of new social problems. The Foundation is now well equipped to deal with the problems of the sixties that will long be with us, but no one is charged with defining our agenda for the seventies.

      We regard your memorandum to be a step in this direction but suggest that the systematic exploration of future program priorities requires time and effort not normally available to program officers with heavy continuing responsibilities. A small staff with a rotating membership could be oriented toward the programs of the future, but the task force we are proposing should consider alternatives. We are attracted by the notion that a man with an idea worthy of further investigation might be detached from operating responsibilities in order to pursue it, but rather than recommend grafting a new unit to the present structure we suggest a broader review of the vital processes of the Foundation.

      Some thoughts on another important process, that of evaluating project proposals, can be found in our earlier paper.


      The most effective staffing pattern for any organization depends upon the quality of the staff and the degree of initiative and imagination required of them. It is hard to conceive of a purposeful group with as talented a staff as the Foundation's, or with a purpose so demanding of all the intellectual resources they can bring to bear. Yet the staffing pattern is essentially hierarchical.

      It is striking that the rising corporate giants of the computer age are new companies, not the old-line organizations that began with vast advantages of funds and manpower. Industrial psychologists are writing excited pieces about the ways in which companies like 3M and Texas Industries achieve phenomenal growth through the controlled ferment of their versatile staffs. NASA, too, has succeeded notably in linking diverse groups of highly trained men to problems never before solved. These aren't plastic models of the ideal Foundation pattern, but the suspicion lingers that these people may know something about human organization that we do not, and structural fluidity seems to typify their efforts.

      We have been impressed, in our limited reading about this new breed of organization, by the recurrence of several themes. One is the frequent use of impermanent staff structures, or task forces, to accomplish particular tasks. In NASA, for example, impermanent groups command the major budgets, and the permanent support staffs such as engineering services must compete with outside contractors for their share.

      Organizational charts, with tidy boxes connected by lines of authority upward and down, are often found to be inadequate to describe the new patterns. In one as-yet unpublished article, the components of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston are shown as clusters of satellites swirling around the central directorate and held together by "creative tension.”   As might be anticipated, this is called the Solar Organizational System.

      It would be equally awkward to arrange boxes for Arthur D. Little, Inc. Each professional staff member at ADL is expected to be in charge of at least one project in a year, an activity he will often have originated. It is his task to budget the project and to staff it with an appropriate blend of skills from the professional staff or, if necessary, from outside. Each staff member has his own billing rate, so the project leader must decide how many hours of each he will need and can afford. The project leader must himself be available to work on the projects of others, and quite commonly he may find himself working on one project for someone who works for him on another.

      In one way or another, these organizations are all able to respect and reward performance, rather than rank, status or seniority; and to shift human and material resources quickly in response to needs or opportunities. In a rapidly changing world, experience may command a low premium.

      They also seem adept in combining individual strengths on teams well equipped for particular purposes. Any effective management system must do this to some extent, but the flexibility the modern organizations have in making short term or part time assignments of special skills sets them somewhat apart. That "synergy" has become a new cliche illustrates the importance with which this process is viewed.

      Relating these novelties to the Foundation would be no simple task. We lack the convenient method of keeping score that the profit and loss statement provides, and our objectives are not as precise as a landing on the moon. Still, we seem to suffer from some of the maladies the new designs mean to overcome. Like any organization, we have people who are better at articulating a problem than solving it, others better at initiating programs than running them, others better at administering projects than thinking them up, yet most of our jobs are designed for rounded generalists.

      The proposed task force would seek better ways to combine the talents available in the Foundation, and to release the creative energies of the staff.  

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