Foundations Then and Now: an Interview with Rob Ivry


Halima Leak has over 10 years of experience in the non-profit sector, including organizations and educational institutions such as: Communities in Schools of Wake County, INROADS, Barnard College of Columbia University, and New York University. She is currently the Director of Alumni Relations and Development at the CUNY School of Professional Studies.  In addition to her professional experience, Halima is involved in the theoretical study of philanthropy in education as a doctoral student in New York University’s Higher Education Program. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at New York University and Articles Editor with Philanthropy NYU. Her scholarly interests include Historically Black Colleges and Universities, African American Philanthropy, and issues of race and gender in Higher Education. Halima holds a B.A. in English from Hampton University and an M.A. in Sociology of Education from New York University.


As the field of fundraising and philanthropy matures, its culture is constantly evolving.  The expectations of donors have changed as have the needs of organizations they support.  As both veteran and novice fundraisers we face the challenge of responding to these changes while remaining true to the core values of our respective organizations.  While there have been advances in technology and other areas that have influenced the way fundraisers interact with donors, some conventional wisdom still rings true.   In my conversation with Rob Ivry, Senior Vice President for Development and External Affairs at MDRC, an organization committed to improving the well-being of low-income people through research and influence on social policy, I had the pleasure of gaining some insight into how the changes brought on by cultural shifts in the field have had an impact on how fundraisers work with foundations. 

Robert J. Ivry has been at MDRC since 1980.  He is a nationally known expert on education and social policy issues, especially in the areas of workforce development, high school reform, community colleges, welfare reform, and youth development and employment. Ivry is responsible for program development, incubating and launching new projects, and fundraising. He also manages the dissemination activities at MDRC, working with national organizations, federal and state agencies, Congressional staff, public interest groups, foundations, and research organizations to actively communicate what is learned from MDRC’s work — both to inform public policy and improve practice in the field. He directed the effort to extend MDRC’s work into the field of education, centered on evaluations to improve the educational outcomes of low-income students in the K-12 system and on promising initiatives to improve the success rates of low-income community college students. Ivry has played a leadership role on most of MDRC’s youth employment projects. He is also part of the leadership team of the National Center for Postsecondary Research. Ivry plays a central role in corporate governance and management. Before joining MDRC in 1980, Ivry was the Director of Youth Services for the Mayor’s Office in Baltimore. Ivry received both a B.A. and a master’s degree from The Johns Hopkins University.

Leak:  Rob thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.  I have a few questions about your career and the changes that you have seen in the culture of fundraising and working with foundations.

First, I want to get a sense of what path your career has taken over the years so if you could give me some insight as to what your experience has been in fundraising, that would be great.

Ivry:  I was never trained or expected to be a fundraiser and fundraising has always only been part of my job at MDRC.  You know, I used to work directly with programs.   I came to MDRC for a subset of reasons; partially because of my experience in social policy and my training in the field and for the first 10 years here I was doing much more work around managing programs.   Over time, probably by default, I ended up being the “quick person” for foundation work.

Just to give you some perspective, revenue is generated two ways at MDRC: responding to federal procurements which represents historically 60 -70% of our funding and then the other way is through philanthropy and that historically has represented between 30 -40% of our budget.  We have somewhat of an advantage in that the Ford Foundation created us in 1974 along with five federal agencies so Ford was part of our creation and there has been a sustained commitment to MDRC.

So, I got involved in being the “quick person” in philanthropy but it was not so much through any type of training in fundraising or development.  It was mostly in talking about our work and how that was aligned with foundation interests. When I meet with foundations 80-90% of the time is spent talking about emerging lessons from our work or projects in the pipeline that are germane to what the foundation is interested in.  It’s about the content and 10-20% of the time is a discussion around fundraising explicitly.

Leak: I believe you have roughly 30 years of experience in development.  Is that correct?

Ivry:  Well 30 years of experience at MDRC and I’d say 20-25 of those years were spent on development.  At MDRC we define development somewhat differently.  Development at MDRC is the conceptualization and the incubation of launching new projects and then there is the fundraising that’s often associated with that.  I’ve probably been involved with programming for 30 years and fundraising for the last 20 to 25.

 Over those 25 years that you have been involved in fundraising at MDRC, have you noticed a difference in the culture of fundraising?  What was it like early in your career versus what you see today?

Well I see a couple of trends.  One is that foundations in the earlier period were more open to reacting to ideas that were generated from the outside and now I think that a greater proportion of their support goes to projects that they initiate, not for projects for them to implement, evaluate or advocate for.  I think that there are more “home grown” projects within philanthropy now than there were before.  Consequently, there is less money to support ideas that originated from the outside.

I think there has also been a tendency away from general support and more towards projects.  Of course people define general support in different ways.  At MDRC it’s not about infrastructure.  At a lot of non-profits it’s about basic infrastructure.  For us it’s about capital for new projects and disseminating what we learn from our research.

I think the other big change is the proliferation of new foundations with living benefactors.  They are very much driven by what the benefactors’ interests are and since the benefactors are living, those interests can change on a dime.  So there is probably more and more idiosyncratic grantmaking.

Leak: Along those same lines, have you noticed a change in donor approach to philanthropy from 25 years ago to today? Do you find that they are more strategic? You touched on the fact that you believe that they were more responsive to issues in the past as opposed to being more proactive today.  What other changes have you noticed?

I think there is less discretionary money to support new things and its kind of an outgrowth from the fact that foundations are also running their own things and have their own priorities where the big dollars going.  So while there is some discretionary money for new ideas, it seems to be shrinking.

I think foundations are also deliberating more about better accountability and the advancements they are making.  Of course there is a broad spectrum there about whether or not the grants are making a difference in a clear differential way.  They are supporting more rigorous evaluations to on how the funds are spent and to see if the initiatives the foundations are supporting are really making a difference. These evaluations are indicating whether the goals of the grant are met but not necessarily if the grant is making a difference in the lives of people.  There also seems to be more of a discussion around evidence-based grantmaking than there has been n the past even though how evidence is defined varies tremendously across philanthropy.

Another big change is that there is that there is a proliferation of foundation affinity groups and so there is a lot more networking.  There is a lot more joint fundraising for initiatives; a lot more quid pro quo - if you support my initiative I may support yours.  Those kinds of things are going on as well.

What do you believe to be the most significant change or the most defining change that has happened?

Ivry:  I think the biggest change has been the arrival of new huge foundations.   You know you have the traditional foundations like Ford, MacArthur, Rockefeller and Carnegie then you have the proliferation of new foundations with living benefactors like Gates.   Then the there is the magnitude of the resources these new foundations have.   As a result, it may be more challenging to stay the course because of the whims of the living donors.

I think there is also a sense that foundations need to constantly be revisiting what their strategy is.  It seems like priorities are always undergoing strategic review.  Sometimes it feels a little bit like overkill.

Leak: There has been a lot of talk about the impact of social media and technology.  Do your think that these things have had that much of an impact?

Ivry:  I think from the process of getting grants, most foundations now have an online application.  Technology has been very useful and has had a positive impact on the information flow from the foundation to the grantee and in some cases, through surveys from the grantees to the funder.

Leak:  What advice would you give to emerging fundraising professionals who are trying to have as strong as a career as you have had?

Ivry:  This may be more personal but I would say that you should become more knowledgeable about the content of the work of the organization, not just the organization itself.   I think fundraisers would be more effective if they could talk substantively about the field of interest that their organizations address.  I think that while most fundraisers are trained in the science of fundraising, too often they are not as knowledgeable in the work of the organization.

Also, it’s really important to do your homework before you meet with funders and to really understand their interests, and where the alignments are.  The other advice is don’t let money force mission drift in your organization.  There may be a huge opportunity but it would mean that the organization would have to reinvent itself or go through major transformation.  It’s one thing if you are doing that deliberately.  It’s another thing if you are doing it just to respond to a funding opportunity.  I would be very cautious about that.

The other advice I would have is: be to make sure you build a relationship with the funder beyond the ask.  I make a point to meet with funders at least once a year for reasons where I have nothing to ask for.  I let them know how their grant is making a difference; what lessons from our work are coming out that are relevant to their interests; often times to be a sounding board for ideas that they may be considering.  For instance, if a donor knows that you are knowledgeable about education they are likely to call you to bounce ideas off you.

Leak:  How did mentoring relationships serve to develop you as a fundraiser? You shared that you weren’t necessarily trained, but I am sure that you had some people who gave you some insight along the way.  How did those relationships serve to help develop your skills?

Ivry: The three most significant mentors in my career were not mentors in fundraising.  They were more around the area of social policy and education policy.  The reality is that I am pretty much self-taught.  On the other hand I spend a lot of time mentoring other people both who work at MDRC and people who are in the field seeking advice on how to approach a particular challenge in fundraising.

Surprisingly there were a couple of program officers with whom I built relationships early on particularly at the Mott Foundation.  I wouldn’t necessarily call them mentors but they became early colleagues and because they were early colleagues, they were able to be access points to other people in philanthropy.

Leak:  Well, for my final question, I would like to know if there is any other insight that you can give or any key lessons that you have learned over the span of your career?

Ivry:  This may sound a little blasphemous but it’s important to be very candid with foundations in your discussions and to not sugarcoat problems when they arise.  Be transparent and open about it.  Foundations are in the business of taking risks so they should be accustomed to situations where the best laid plans don’t materialize.

I think that also holds true with uncensored feedback when foundations are promoting ideas that don’t seem to have merit or with old ideas that are being recycled.  In a polite way you should feel empowered to speak out about it.  The whole idea is to try to change the power dynamic between funder and grantee so that it’s more collegial and less hierarchical.  I know that’s hard but I go to every foundation meeting with the perspective that the person I am meeting with has as much to learn as I do and much to benefit from an association with MDRC.

 Well Rob, I really appreciate your time.   I am sure our readers will find your insight and advice very helpful.  Thanks so much!

You are very welcome I am so happy that I was able to help!

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