LAFF, the Early Years
Richard Magat and the late Edward Meade, Jr., came up with an idea 25 years ago to create a way for former Ford Foundation staff to stay in touch. Thus began what now is The LAFF Society, an organization with nearly 500 members and branches in nine cities worldwide.
This article is adapted from remarks Dick made at the 25th anniversary celebration in New York. In introducing him, LAFF’s current president, Shepard Forman, paid tribute to the founders, who “had the vision to recognize that a remarkable group of people who had passed through this institution would like to have the capacity to stay in touch, to maintain contact, to develop our relationships, to rely on each other as friends and colleagues”.
Ed and I decided to fill the gap of memory….because we remembered not only our close friends but also a remarkable event that has gone down in history as the Mother’s Day Massacre, in which 20 senior staff were cut, ostensibly because, believe it or not, the Ford Foundation could face a financial crisis.
But we first thought it would be smart to get help from above, and so we wrote to the president at the time In due course we received a letter. First of all, it said, we cannot give you the mailing list because that would be an invasion of privacy. Second, because we had asked if the president might contribute something to the newsletter, he replied that would not be appropriate. And finally, he said, I would like your assurance that in your activities you give no open hint that you have anything to do with the Foundation.
Well, with that encouragement we forged ahead. Of course, the first thing, we had a lawyer draw up articles of incorporation. There are two signatures to that. One of course is me and the other is Bud Harkavy, who was a program officer, mainly in the population field.
Next thing is that Will Hertz (former secretary of the Foundation and program officer in Pakistan) came up with the name of the organization. He said the name was intended to reflect a sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps. He said working at the Foundation was an extremely enjoyable way to make a living, and he wanted something to reflect that and contrast sharply with the painful experience many of us had in leaving. The idea that we could laugh it off appealed to Will and so the name is a pun, not an acronym.
We started a newsletter, but we also needed a place to meet. The first meeting was held at the National Arts Club at Gramercy Park South.
The next place of meeting was the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. It had been made famous when the financier Stephen Schwarzman spent $7 million on his 60th birthday party there. The armory had several floors that were available for rent for dinner gatherings, such as the Civil War Roundtable.
Other places we went were Marymount Manhattan College, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Public Theater and the Institute for International Education.
Our first full-time president was Peter Geithner, and because of his experience in the international field the LAFF Society began opening branches, from Delhi to Cairo, Jakarta to Washington. The branches solidified the organization.
The next historic event was the election of Luis Ubiñas as president of the Ford Foundation. He broke ground by welcoming LAFF to the Foundation’s headquarters for the first time in its then seventeen-year history. The idea of inviting the Society to the building, remarked one member, showed a welcome indication of openness, which augured well for the future of LAFF.
As he became our latest president, Shep Forman observed of that historic event: “a magnificent day, a gathering of extraordinary people.” He said he noticed when he came in an inter-action of people: “There really was a great deal of emotion in the room.”