News and analysis
September 02, 2014

New Leader Steers Ford Foundation Back Toward Familiar Ground

Joshua Bright/The New York Times

CEO Darren Walker is putting a more human face on what many have considered to be a stuffy institution, and he’s making it a happier place to work.

Pointing the way forward for a sprawling, venerable philanthropic institution like the Ford Foundation is a dizzying experience, says Darren Walker, the man who is setting its course. There is no clear, simple formula to determine how a philanthropy giant with billions in assets and offices across the globe should make its bets, says Mr. Walker.

"The world is topsy-turvy, and you really can’t tell if you’re standing on quicksand or on concrete" he says.

Mr. Walker, who became president of the foundation a year ago, plans to present his priorities to the foundation’s directors in October. He says he will restart grants to peace and global-security efforts, and increase the amount of money the foundation contributes to programs that deal with urban issues, both in the United States and internationally.

For more secure footing, Mr. Walker looked to the foundation’s history as a guide. To prep the board for his proposal, he brought them to the Rockefeller Archives in Westchester County, N.Y., where the foundation’s records are stored. He walked them through photos and documents that reflected the foundation’s long-term support of the civil-rights movements, including grants to anti-apartheid groups in South Africa beginning in the early 1950s, and the arts, including tens of millions of dollars to create Lincoln Center.

The point of Mr. Walker’s tour was to demonstrate that his blueprint will not veer from the Ford Foundation’s long-term dedication to social justice through pro-democracy efforts, the arts and culture, education, and universal economic opportunity. And increasingly, the foundation will invest in projects that involve a network of partners, rather than focusing on building stand-alone institutions from the ground up.

Strategy Shift

Mr. Walker released a letter Tuesday looking back on his first year leading the foundation which cited "tough choices” ahead as the organization confronts a wide array of global needs.

Although he won’t go into detail about what programs will get downsized, Mr. Walker envisions a shift in the foundation’s support of racial equality in the United States. Support for groups that take civil-rights grievances to the courts has paid limited dividends in recent years. Instead, the foundation is likely to push for racial justice in other ways, including through education policy changes and public advocacy.

The decision, he says, came through talking about what worked and what didn’t with grantees and program managers at the foundation, rather than through rigorous quantitative analysis.

While he emphasizes that there are cases in which the scientific measurement of grant performance is appropriate, the limitations of so-called strategic philanthropy are especially clear when it comes to building social-justice movements.

He often refers to the foundation’s early support of the anti-apartheid movement as evidence that the organization is committed to movements over the long haul, rather than the "short-termism" that infects philanthropy when leaders obsess over annual program measurement.

Mr. Walker has logged more than 125,000 miles during the past year visiting program officers and grantees all over the world to help inform his judgment on which Ford programs hew to the organization’s social-justice mission.

"I have a radar for what’s really authentic and excellent," he says. "Not everything I saw fit that criteria and description."

Still, coming up with a comprehensive plan is challenging, Mr. Walker says, because there isn’t a step-by-step recipe for building a movement. During a talk with art grantees in July, he said the process is a mind-bender and compared it to "walking in a crazy funhouse."

"It is indeed a struggle because there is not one single right answer," he says. "It is not through a process of randomized, controlled trials that we will actually get to what we will ultimately focus on."

Getting to Yes

Ford’s $125-million commitment last year to the "grand bargain" among philanthropists, city officials, pensioners, and creditors in Detroit to resolve the city’s bankruptcy was both a nod to the foundation’s history and a signal of what Mr. Walker plans to do next.

Ford’s contribution was the largest of a consortium of 15 foundations that chipped in $366-million to allow the city to keep its extensive art collection and pay city retirees, albeit at a lower level than was previously bargained. The deal is pending final approval.

Foundation leaders involved in the plan, including Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation, said Mr. Walker galvanized their interest.

In a phone conversation shortly after the philanthropy chiefs first discussed getting involved, Mr. Walker told Mr. Rapson that it would be "philanthropic malpractice" if the two organizations didn’t at least consider large donations to help Detroit.

Alberto Ibargüen, president of the Knight Foundation, agreed that Mr. Walker is a leader in bringing grant makers together on projects, especially the Detroit talks.

"I’m proud of my role, and I’m proud of Rip’s role," Mr. Ibargüen says. "But the guy who put it all together was Darren Walker. Some people really had to stretch. Darren very gently orchestrated us getting to yes."

Mr. Walker says Ford’s involvement made sense for historical reasons: The foundation, after all, has roots in the Motor City, where the Ford family created its wealth. It also signals a future priority for the foundation. "We will have a greater focus on urbanization," he says. "It is one of the great challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, which is going to be an urban century."

The need is especially acute, Mr. Walker says, as more people move with a "circularity" between their native rural homesteads and the big city. To make those migrations easier and to ensure justice and opportunity for those in transit, Ford will focus on developing urban economies and infrastructure that improve access to employment, education, and the arts.

History as a Guide

Mr. Walker also cites Ford’s history as an underlying factor in his plans to resuscitate grant making to peace and global security groups.

"It is an essential part of our history and legacy," he says. "We can’t simply decide we don’t want to do that anymore."

The foundation awarded 80 grants worth $8.9-million in 2009 to groups working to prevent conflict and the spread of nuclear arms—a small part of Ford’s overall grant making yet still enough to make it the fourth-largest donor to the cause, according to the Peace and Security Funders Group, a consortium of foundations that tracks such spending.

Ford’s contributions were important because program officers at the foundation had expertise in both scholarly research and the "beating the pavement" work of advocates spread across the globe, says Alexandra Toma, executive director of the group. She says Ford’s expertise and influence went beyond the dollars it spent.

Since 2009, the foundation has stopped giving to peace and security nonprofits.

"It was a big loss in capacity not only in terms of grant making but also in terms of the gravitas Ford brought and their ability to open doors," she says.

Fighting Stodginess

As he looks to the future, Mr. Walker says he wants to avoid a strategic approach that works as "a straightjacket that keeps a foundation from innovating."

"Institution-building is in our DNA," he says, "but in the 21st century there are going to be new configurations of people and institutions. Networks and networking will become more of a feature of our work."

Observers note that the biggest change under Mr. Walker thus far has been that he’s attempted to put a much more human face on what some consider a stodgy institution.

In some instances, that involves providing simple information. For instance, this summer, the foundation released a series of videos called "From Dollars to Change" that explain the organization’s grant-making process in plain English.

Other times, it can mean getting a little zany.

In another video, Mr. Walker, sitting in his office wearing a suit and tie, soberly accepts on behalf of the foundation an award from Ballet Hispanico, a grantee. Then Mr. Walker abruptly declares his passion for dancing and shouts, "Hit it!"

As Pharrell Williams’s popular song "Happy" pumps over the audio, Mr. Walker—with a little help from a body double—dances on tables, gyrates, leaps and spins.

Mr. Walker insists the video wasn’t put together with a lot of forethought. But he said if it conveys a changed culture at the foundation, he’s pleased.

Years of Decline

Mr. Walker’s predecessor, Luis Ubiñas, steered the foundation through several years of decline as a contracting stock market eroded the foundation’s assets. Grants under Mr. Ubiñas, a former McKinsey & Company consultant, dropped from a high of $582-million in 2008 to $450-million in 2011.

Mr. Ubiñas adopted businesslike approaches, like quarterly measures of results, and he cut the number of grant-making programs the foundation supported from 200 to 34.

Mr. Walker praised Mr. Ubiñas for guiding the foundation through a difficult reorganization at a time of financial stress.

However, Mr. Rapson, the Kresge president, says Mr. Ubiñas’s tactics hurt morale. "The process Luis put them through was strenuous," he says. "It left the organization tired."

Mr. Rapson credits Mr. Walker with refocusing the foundation outward after several years of self-scrutiny. And Mr. Walker made "superstar" hires, Mr. Rapson believes, that helped reinforce the foundation’s commitment to social change. Those hires include Hilary Pennington, formerly of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Xavier de Souza Briggs, an academic who also served as associate director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Obama.

Under Mr. Walker, the Ford Foundation "is a happier place," says Richard Mittenthal, president of the TCC group, a consulting company that has advised the foundation.

"Sometimes I think there are three of him," because he represents Ford publicly so often, Mittenthal says. "The world of philanthropy is a mystery to a lot of people. To have a CEO out and about so much is really healthy."

Mr. Walker says his biggest challenge is making sure the foundation is "more inviting, transparent, and authentic."

"Perfecting the strategy is the easy part," he says. "Building the culture to execute on that strategy is where most leaders fall down."

Send an e-mail to Alex Daniels.