Samantha Gilbert - “Organizations Are Only Effective with Highly Talented and Engaged People - at All Levels”





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Oct 04, 2017
by Mirva Villa
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Samantha Gilbert - “Organizations Are Only Effective with Highly Talented and Engaged People - at All Levels”

Ford Foundation’s VP for talent and human resources discusses the importance of talent management for the philanthropy sector Salzburg Global Seminar/Sandra Birklbauer

With hundreds of staff in dozens of offices around the world, managing all their staff and ensuring they hire the most enthusiastic, engaged and efficient employees is important to the Ford Foundation. At the conclusion of the recent Salzburg Global Seminar session, Driving the Change: Global Talent Management for Effective Philanthropy, Samantha Gilbert, vice president for talent and human resources at the Ford Foundation, answered questions from Salzburg Global Seminar’s communications intern, Mirva Villa. 

Salzburg Global Seminar’s Mirva Villa: What drew you personally to work in philanthropy? 

Samantha Gilbert: I started my career fresh out of university as a social worker and over time moved into human resources management and leadership roles, the first ten years or so working in the government and not-for-profit sectors. I then worked for a decade in a global leadership role in a for-profit international knowledge-based business – a professional services arts business – which taught me a great deal and fulfilled my desire to work internationally and in a dynamic environment. Over time I realized that I needed to be doing my work back in a mission-driven environment – that’s where my values come through strongly, as I experienced earlier in my career. I was eager to take all the rich learning I gained from the private sector and contribute my experience and skills in an environment that was aiming to make a positive impact in the world. Philanthropy allowed me to continue to work internationally, fulfilling my interests in diverse cultures and experiences, and matching my deep-rooted values about work that enables the well-being of people.

With your work in talent and human resources at the Ford Foundation, you clearly believe in the importance of the staff development. Why do you believe this is so important?

I truly believe that organizations are only effective with highly talented and engaged people. At all levels. And I believe all individuals carry unique talents, and when nurtured in the workplace, great outcomes occur. At all levels. Organizational development is all about people development – creating a work environment where people feel inspired to do their best work. This is why I believe human resources functions have a critical role in organizational development – to understand the unique aspects of the organization’s culture, nurture the best of it, and put into place the support, systems, policies and practices that enable employees to give their best. That’s a “win” for the organization and a “win” for employees because they learn, grow and develop a sense of pride, purpose and confidence in the contributions they make.

What are the biggest challenges the philanthropy sector faces in acquiring talent? 

The world offers a rich diversity of people and abilities and it will take all of them to solve the problems of today’s complex world. Sometimes I think we do not look broadly enough for talented people to work within our organizations. We are often too risk-averse to consider someone from another sector. We are often not strong enough in our onboarding practices to enable diverse talent to effectively acclimate in our world of philanthropy. We are strong on knowledge-mentorship as manager but not as strong on career coach as manager. These are some good skills we could learn from the private sector.

What did you hope to gain by attending this session? What will you go back with? 

I created this session in many ways over four years ago at a first of its kind forum at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center for learning. This is the second follow-up, but with a larger number of philanthropic organizations joining this time, and with broader co-sponsorship. I hoped that we would have a rich discussion about the landscape of our field of mission-driven work, and what it means for our talent needs and practices. I hoped to build a network of global leaders who think about our work through the lens of people, and therefore share and exchange ideas about how to make our sector stronger and more impactful. I believe we have all walked away with some new insights and understanding, and a commitment and bond with each other, and I can say I have also walked away with some new tangible ideas.

How was this session different to the one held in Bellaggio 2013?

It was not different in spirit and goals, but this time it was larger in size (an additional ten organizations) and therefore more diverse, which brought an even greater richness and opportunity for learning. It also benefited significantly from the programming and facilitation support from Salzburg Global Seminar. Thanks to Salzburg Global we moved a few notches up in content design and delivery. Other than that….it rained on Lake Como when we were there in 2013, and it rained in Salzburg this week, and both lakes and the rain offered a special quiet for reflection and learning.

What were the reasons for the Ford Foundation for joining in partnership with Salzburg Global to create this session? What are the benefits of events like this? 

The Ford Foundation’s President, Darren Walker, my boss, believes deeply in continuous learning and the value of collaboration and network building to achieving impact. He leads in a people-focused way and Ford has a long history in supporting institutions, individuals and ideas. Our co-sponsors – Carnegie Corporation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the ZeShan Foundation – share these values. So together we knew that Salzburg Global would be the perfect partner to carry forward this seminar given their similar ideals and rich history of supporting these dialogues and developments.

What change do you wish to see in the field of philanthropy? 

I hope we will continue to be brave and innovative.

Samantha Gilbert was a participant of the session, Driving the Change: Global Talent Management for Effective Philanthropy. You can read more about the session on the website: