Veteran of Billion-Dollar Campaigns Takes His Expertise Down the Road

Susan Merrell, UCSF

John B. Ford
October 08, 2012

That John B. Ford has become the vice chancellor for university development and alumni relations at the University of California at San Francisco may strike colleagues as odd.

After all, didn't the renowned fund raiser retire when he left Stanford University in 2008?

Not really, says Mr. Ford, who had been Stanford's vice president for university resources: "I loved my job," but leaving was a case of "getting out of the way at the right time." Stanford was one year into a major campaign—one of three exceeding $1-billion that he led—"but I thought it was right for Stanford to get a fresh leader, with a fresh perspective." Martin Shell, whom Mr. Ford praises as one of higher education's great fund raisers, stepped in.

And Mr. Ford was relatively young—he is now only 62—and wondered what else he might do. So he went to work at ClimateWorks, an international policy group, and then the World Wildlife Fund. He also served as chair of the board of Marts & Lundy, a New Jersey consulting firm that advises nonprofit organizations on raising money.

With all that, Mr. Ford knows what difficulties fund raisers at public institutions face. But overcoming those will be essential, he says, for UCSF, a leading health-sciences university and medical center in a state system where legislative allocations have been pinched, to put it mildly.

"John is arriving at a fiscally challenging and exciting time in the history of UCSF," said Susan Desmond-Hellman, its chancellor, in a written statement welcoming him.

That it's "challenging," is not in doubt. "Exciting" also seems about right, to Mr. Ford. He says the position appealed to him even before it even became available, when he had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Desmond-Hellmann about the university's plans. Introducing them was a longtime friend of Mr. Ford's, William E. Oberndorf, who chairs the board of the UCSF Foundation. Mr. Ford says he was "captivated" by what the chancellor was trying to do with development. That sold him—that and the fact that "you can't be at Stanford, 30 miles down the road, and not know what a terrific institution UCSF is."

Over a decade, the university's state allocations have dropped from 16 percent to 5 percent of its budget of about $3.9-billion. Private donations are also at 5 percent. If a ballot initiative to raise taxes fails in November, state allocations will plummet even more.

Such is the challenge, says Mr. Ford. He confronts it with a 154-person team and a $30-million annual budget. He is also vice president of the UCSF Foundation, whose $650-million endowment is governed by 44 Bay Area movers and shakers.

Heartening for him, Mr. Ford says, is the university's success in attracting gifts. In recent years, for example, it has raised $400-million for the Bay Area's first new medical center in decades, scheduled for completion by 2015. It has also taken steps to improve its health-sciences education and top-notch neuroscience programs. Individual grants have included several in the high millions. Last month, the billionaire businessman Charles Feeney topped up the $270-million he had already contributed with $20-million for the university's global-health program.

Successful fund raising requires good organization and responsiveness to potential donors. Personal flair and building contacts count. But in all those efforts, what most wins support is to convey the university's accomplishments, says Mr. Ford. "I'm looking forward to telling many absolutely magnificent stories about the faculty here," he says. And that includes reminding alumni about what the institution gave them. "I'm delighted," he says, "that there are people here who are more expert than I am who are already engaged in that task."

Will he, and they, be able to make up for losses in state support? "That depends on the scale of what we've got here," he says. He intends, at least, to stick around to see: "I signed on with Sue, this chancellor, and I intend to really roll up my sleeves and work as hard as I can with her and the UCSF Foundation board."