Seven Questions for Henry Luce Foundation President and CEO Mariko Silver

Mariko silver

In 2019, the board of directors of the Henry Luce Foundation, which backs higher education, religion and theology, art and public policy, and Asia, named Dr. Mariko Silver the foundation’s fourth president and chief executive officer. At the time, Silver had been the president of Bennington College, where she spearheaded the development of a 10-year strategic plan, quadrupled commitments to the endowment since 2013, and guided the establishment of the largest capital campaign in the school’s history.

Silver came to Bennington from Arizona State University, where, as senior advisor to President Michael Crow, she was a key strategist in what Newsweek called “one of the most radical redesigns in higher learning since the origins of the modern university.” Silver previously served in the Obama administration as acting assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary for international policy at the Department of Homeland Security. Prior to that, she served as policy advisor for economic development, innovation and education in the administration of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano.

I recently caught up with Silver a day after the foundation published its new strategic framework, to discuss what advice she would give her 20-year-old self, key insights gleaned from her tenure so far, and her thoughts on the perilous state of higher ed. Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity and length.

You spent your career in the government and nonprofit sectors. Was that always the plan?

It was. I had a brief dalliance with the for-profit sector, but there was never an intention to stay, although I find it interesting and enormously important. I’m interested in working across sectors — government, higher ed, working adjacent to, if not in, the for-profit sector, and having an understanding of the corporate sector so that I can build my own capabilities to work across the systems that drive change.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

If I were talking to a 20-year-old me today, I would say, “Do your job and do it well, but don’t spend so much time and energy contorting yourself into a pretzel to please authority figures. Be aware that you’re still learning and there is plenty you don’t know but share your ideas and insights without apology.”

You entered the field of philanthropy three years ago. What’s been a key lesson learned so far?

I would say there’s an awareness among the organizations that we fund and the shared sector of philanthropy that project-based funding isn’t always the most important funding. If you believe in an organization and the work that they’re doing, ideally, you should be able to have frank conversations with them about what they need operationally and support that, as well as supporting projects that align with your funding interests.

We have our theories as to why funders are reluctant to provide unrestricted support. What are your thoughts?

Well first, I still think project-based funding has its place, at least for a foundation like Luce. But in terms of reluctance, some organizations are very transparent about where all the money goes, and some of them are not, and the more awareness a funder has about how the organization works, to the extent that is possible within the power dynamic, the more likely the funder will see its way to general operating support.

One of my favorite questions to ask grantees and prospective grantees is, “What’s the thing that’s the hardest to fundraise for because it’s not something that people will find sexy or appealing, but you absolutely need to do it?” It’s super-helpful to know what that is, and if there is a window for us to find that, then 8 times out of 10, we will.

What concerns you about the state of higher ed?

The last three years have been like three generations worth of change, and those are three years that I’ve been outside of higher ed. So I hope readers take it with a grain of salt because I am very keenly aware of the difference between being in the operational seat and being in the funder seat. 

That having been said, I think that the use of higher education as a political and partisan punching bag diminishes its capacity to deliver an effective education to a wide range of people. We have funded work by PEN America, looking at the book bans. We’re very interested in supporting the kind of academic freedom that enables faculty to teach what they want. It’s an issue that wasn’t really present, say, three or five years ago. 

Equally fundamentally, the funding model for higher education needs to be rethought, whether we’re talking about student debt or the amount of Pell funding that’s available. We’re seeing an acceleration into an even more starkly tiered system than we’ve had before, and that’s not good for society. It’s not good even for the people who end up at the quote-unquote top.

What’s the last great book you read?

I mostly like to read fiction and books about human relationships. Picking a favorite novel would be too hard, so I’m going to pick two books about human relationships, with the caveat that I think fiction is often the most engaging and insightful way to think about human relationships. 

The first one is by a grantee, the Design Studio for Social Intervention, called “Ideas Arrangements Effects.” The second is “The Family Crucible.” I read it many years ago at the recommendation of someone whom I admire, and it is one of the most accessible descriptions of group dynamics, even if you’re not thinking about family, per se. It’s a great guide to the different ways in which humans set themselves up into habits and patterns that may not serve either the group or the individuals.

You worked in higher ed before transitioning to the funder side of the equation, so you had a foot in both worlds. What advice would you give fundraisers?

I think in general, it’s always really helpful for a funder to understand your near-term need and how it relates to your long-term goal. On some level, that’s pretty basic. On another level, in talking with prospective grantees, we have to sometimes dig for that, whereas a crisp articulation would be super-helpful.

I have been in the fundraising seat, and I will also say that it feels not just tempting, but imperative to tell the story that the funder wants to hear. But if you want to build a long-term relationship as opposed to getting a quick hit of funds, which sometimes is absolutely what’s needed, it’s important to be upfront about what you can and can’t do. If there’s a misalignment, it’s going to come out sooner or later, and if it comes out later because there hasn’t been clearly articulated intent from the beginning, then that might be a much more jarring misalignment than a misalignment that comes from just simply a mismatch.

I know it’s hard. You’re fundraising and want to make your story work for everybody who has money. Sometimes that’s the job. But part of the job of the funder is to just recognize that, and that it’s not a moral failing. It’s just part of the dynamic.