At the age of 50, in the midst of a successful career in the nonprofit world, Hilary Pennington decided to go to divinity school.
What she learned there has deeply influenced how she approaches her work, first at the Gates Foundation and now as the executive vice president for program at the Ford Foundation.
“You don’t change things that are unequal without working on power dynamics and people’s hearts and minds. I use a lot of what I thought about and learned in divinity school every day in my work,” said Pennington, who earned a master’s degree in theological studies from the Episcopal Divinity School, which is now part of Union Theological Seminary.
Pennington oversees all programs, in the U.S. and globally, for the Ford Foundation, a social justice philanthropy with a $13 billion endowment and annual grant making of $600 million.
Before joining Ford in 2013, she served as director of education, postsecondary success and special initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Earlier, she served for more than two decades as president and CEO of Jobs for the Future, which she co-founded.
Pennington spoke to Faith & Leadership about how her faith influences her work and how the Ford Foundation has shifted its mission to focus on inequality. She was at Duke to speak to the Foundation Impact Research Group seminar. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Why did you go to divinity school?
I went to the Episcopal Divinity School more because I’m a seeker than [because I’m] a believer. I’ve always had a deep belief in God and a hunger to understand my own spirituality better, but so many things about the formal teachings of the church bothered me.
I had founded a nonprofit organization which I led for 20 years, and when I decided to leave it, I decided that I would go to a divinity school and have the chance to really dive into these questions that had bothered me and occupied me for so much of my life. So that was one reason.
The second reason was I had spent my life working on a particular set of issues -- education reform and poverty, economic change -- a lot of the things that are roiling the country now.
And what I saw was a miss between the people working on technical solutions, like I had been, and where the public was.
People working on technical solutions believed that if you had evidence, the public would follow the evidence and spending would follow the evidence, when in fact there were a lot of things about what people believed in their hearts and minds that never were engaged in the change conversation.
The Episcopal Divinity School attracted me because it did a lot of work on liberation theology and social justice movement change. I felt that the kinds of changes I felt our society needed to make lay more in that than in what I had been doing. It was a chance to read and learn theory and history that I had not had. And it has 100 percent influenced what I do now.
Q: So you did it for personal reasons, but also because you felt there was something missing from your work in education reform and postsecondary attainment?
We weren’t being successful enough. Because I was at a time of my own life thinking, “What am I going to do next? How do I take what I know and have done but aim it to have more impact in the world?” I thought, “I’m just going to take two years. It’s kind of risky. Who knows how it’s going to turn out?”
Some of the things that I took away from my time there have deeply influenced me -- [for example] understanding any tradition as interpretive, not fundamental.
So many of our fights in the country right now have to do with how you understand change and how you think about what it takes to build a good society.
The Gates Foundation is completely about analytics, and so that was a hard place to apply these kinds of insights, but the Ford Foundation really is trying to figure it out, because we work on inequality.
How do you change things that are unequal? It is different from reducing poverty. You don’t change things that are unequal without working on power dynamics and people’s hearts and minds. I use a lot of what I thought about and learned in divinity school every day in my work.
Religion is about eternal truths, but it’s also about human beings growing to come more fully into who they’re meant to be. And so that’s all about change.
Q: Did you grow up in the church?
I grew up as an Episcopalian. I left the church in disgust and anger at its hypocrisy in my college years. Then found myself going to Quaker meetings, going to a Unitarian church -- always drawn back.
I grew up in the Midwest, and my family has gone every summer to a place in Door County, Wisconsin, which is the peninsula north of Green Bay. It has a tiny Episcopal church, and some very, very wise people endowed that church with enough money for a cottage for clergy and some money to pay for different preachers to come for two-week [stays] every summer. So they get extraordinary ministers and preachers there.
It’s a little one-room church -- didn’t used to have electricity -- and every summer I would go back there. I always went back into the Episcopal rhythm and a place where I felt held. So I stayed.
I still go to church now, but I saw when I was at the Divinity School how hard it is to have that calling to go into formal church leadership. And EDS was a particularly interesting place, because very few people were like me, you know, just there because they wanted to learn something.
Most of the people were there to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. EDS at that time was seen as a contested space in the Episcopal Church, I would say. So you took a lot of risk if you went there, if your path was to become an ordained minister.
And the other group of people that were there were people who had been kicked out of the church -- largely, they were LGBTQ people who had no space and who were deeply religious and felt called to serve God and to create church. And EDS was the kind of place that was open to them.
And so it was a very, very moving place to be, because you could see a lot of what is happening to the church more broadly in society.
Q: In another interview I read, you said that part of healing is reminding people of our common story. What do you see as the common story?
We’re all human. We’re so fragile; we’re so imperfect. We want so much to have lives of meaning. I feel like the common story is every person is seeking to do that. We should have so much tolerance for each other, because it’s really hard to be us.
It is a challenging time in the world, with climate change and war, displacement of people. I don’t think that anyone who sees that can totally turn away.
I’m very influenced because I was born in South Africa and I spent a lot of time there, and I also grew up in St. Louis, which was a very racially segregated city in the 1950s. I’m white.
And what I came to understand as a child is that when there is deep inequality and prejudice, everyone suffers from that. Everyone is a captive. You know, you’d go to South Africa and rich people lived in cages behind walls.
It really takes people with courage, moral courage, to try to change that.
Q: One thing that has happened at the Ford Foundation since you’ve been there is it made a big shift in its mission between 2013 and 2015. Talk about that.
Through our recent history, we focused on a lot of very concrete things that help make people’s lives better: education, housing, assets, financial services, jobs. What we saw was that when you look at how the 1 percent has pulled away from the rest in the last 20 years, all of the powerful models in any of those spheres weren’t changing that.
What was pulling us apart was really concentration of power and money.
So we decided we had to work more on that, and we were partly able to do that because a lot of the people who made all that money -- like the Gateses -- were coming into philanthropy and setting up foundations. And they are very drawn to working on models and interventions in the fields of education and solving concrete problems.
So we didn’t have to do that as much, because others were doing more of it. Our work today focuses more on power, on racism, sexism, violence against women and girls, criminal justice -- things that are harder for new entrants into philanthropy to work on. That feels right, because we’re a part of an ecosystem. We don’t need to do what everyone does.
It’s super hard. It’s especially hard for a foundation, because every time you make a shift, there are scores of organizations that depend on you that are hurt by that shift. I find foundation work spiritually exhausting, because most of what you do is say no to people’s deepest need and desire.
Q: You mentioned exhaustion. I think this affects people at every size of organization. How do you deal with that?
I feel a lot of despair right now. It’s a really dark time, and it’s really hard to be at a place like Ford, because all the issues that we work on are in retrenchment, not only here but everywhere.
We at least have the benefit of being able to support the people that are trying to change their societies for the better. And so that’s an energizing thing.
For me personally, I try to stay really focused on the small things in my personal life. Who can I actually be kind to? My children, my family, the people that I work with, my community. I try to exercise. I read. I listen to music. I go to church. But it’s hard.
I have a morning practice, which helps me a lot to ground myself every day. I get up; I light a candle; I read the Bible and some spiritual readings; I pray.
Then I read my email and I choose my hardest problem I’m going to face that day and I go for a run. It takes me a lot of time to get ready in the morning, because it takes a long time to do all those things. So I’m always sleep-deprived, but I’ve found that that helps ground me.
Q: How do you articulate the mission of the foundation to the many people who work there?
That’s a spiritual issue in many ways. I believe you have to attend to the spirit or the soul of an organization. They have them; Ford definitely has one.
People are there because they have a deeply held personal commitment to reducing injustice in the world. Very often, that’s because they themselves have experienced -- or people close to them have experienced -- some form of injustice. They feel a strong sense of calling to the work. That’s a huge asset for us. It’s not an intellectual endeavor.
I have come to believe that a lot of what we need to do as leaders there, as in any professional or knowledge organization, is to create the kind of space for people to align around deeply shared values, with conversations about how they think change happens in the world.
We don’t need to be top-down with lots of plans if we have spent the time to have those kinds of deep conversations, and continue to have them.
The interesting thing in philanthropy is you try things. And you try them through supporting the work of others. And some of those things work; some of them don’t work. That’s okay; that’s your job. But how do you learn from what didn’t work so that you can do better the next time?
It’s not religious, but it has very much to do with discernment.
When we were making the decision to focus on inequality, for example, every office of the foundation spent time in deep conversation about how inequality manifested itself in their regions. Then we pulled up from that to say, “Here are the things that we think most drive inequality that we can all work on together.” And we built the program from that.
We have an extraordinary president [Darren Walker], and he has spent a lot of time in thinking about the board and the board’s role, which I think would be relevant for many church leaders. It starts with the board and the values that the board espouses, and it all comes down from there.
Our board of 14 people is half women, half men and very, very, very diverse. And that changes everything. They’re all incredibly competent, very accomplished leaders -- and a number of them are very important moral leaders.
We spend a lot of time as an institution trying to understand whether we live up to our own values, especially around equity and inclusion and diversity. Because we’re global -- we have work in the U.S. and in 10 offices around the world -- it’s just an insane number of cultural contexts, but it’s the same set of questions.