Susan V. Berresford has been President of the Ford Foundation since 1996. In her inaugural address that year, she pledged to continue funding the type of identity-centered politics and programs that she deemed essential to ensuring "racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity."
Berresford first joined the Ford Foundation in 1970, working as a project assistant in its Division of National Affairs. In 1972 she became that Division's Program Officer, a post she would hold until 1980. She then was named Officer in charge of the Foundation's Women's programs, and in 1981 she became Vice President of its U.S. and International Affairs programs. She followed this with a term as Vice President of the Program Division, which manages the Foundation’s worldwide initiatives. Berresford eventually attained the position of Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Foundation, and was finally elected President on April 3, 1996.
In the wake of 9/11, Berresford encouraged Americans to “explore the issues behind the headlines and broaden [their] understanding about the countries from which the attacks came.” Characterizing the deadly hijackings as a wake-up call designed to make Americans see the responsibility they themselves bore for the horrors of that day, Berresford said: “For many living and working near ground zero, the 9/11 attacks had the same effect as any terrible shock. They forced us to think more deeply about what we do, how we live our lives, and whether we can do better.”
In an April 2002 speech to the Federation for Community Planning's Human Services Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, Berresford announced that a post-9/11 Ford Foundation priority would be to fund organizations representing demographic groups that felt marginalized by the American government's response to the terrorist attacks. “Ford and its grantees felt it was important for multiple perspectives to be heard through the media,” Berresford said. “This meant, for example, voices of people from moderate Islamic communities. It included people speaking about earlier periods when the U.S. felt at risk from foreigners and its reaction to the foreigners within our borders, some of which our country now regrets, such as the internment of Japanese individuals and families. It was important to help experts explore the issues behind the headlines and broaden understanding about the countries from which the attacks came.”
Subsequent to Berresford’s remarks, the Ford Foundation gave a $150,000 grant to the Center for Constitutional Rights, specifically “for racial justice litigation, advocacy, and educational outreach activities related to the detention and racial profiling of Arab Americans and Muslims following the World Trade Center attack.” Another $300,000 was earmarked for Fenton Communications’ effort “to promote informed voices in response to the September 11th attacks, with an emphasis on the protection of civil liberties and prevention of discrimination.”
In 2003 Berresford was embroiled in controversy which resulted from public revelations that the Ford Foundation had given considerable financial support to a number of anti-Semitic non-governmental organizations (NGOs), among them Adalah, Al-Mezan, and the Palestinian NGO Network. In addition, it became widely known that Ford money had been instrumental in funding several of the NGOs responsible for creating and disseminating the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist literature that appeared at the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.
In response to these revelations, 17 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter to Berresford, asking that Ford "cease [its] funding of subversive groups."
Berresford is a member of the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector, an independent group of foundation leaders that lobbies Congress on issues pertinent to charitable organizations. Fellow panel members include Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Raul Yzaguirre of the National Council of La Raza. Other panel members include officials of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Council on Foundations, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, and the United Nations Foundation.
Berresford is a Board member of United States Artists (an organization that grew out of the Urban Institute), which provides financial assistance and health insurance to musical, theatrical, visual, and literary artists. Another notable Board member is the film actor Danny Glover.
Berresford has also served as a Board member for the Council on Foundations, the Hermine and Robert Popper Foundation, and the Chase Manhattan Corporation.
In recent years Berresford has personally made campaign contributions to a number of congressional candidates, most of them Democrats. Berresford has also given money to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.