Ford’s Darren Walker Urges Philanthropy to Do More to Fight Injustices
In his new book Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth, Darren Walkerpresident of the Ford Foundation urges foundations to move beyond charity and seek to make the world more equitable.
Charity, according Walker, is a “fundamental impulse,” that has motivated philanthropists since the days of Andrew Carnegie, who laid out his approach to giving in the Gospel of Wealth.
In his update to Carnegie’s famous essay, Walker urges philanthropy to place more focus on changing policies and practices that produce inequality.
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In his new book Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, urges grant makers and wealthy donors to use more of their charitable giving to make the world more equitable.
Walker says it’s time to update the principles that have guided philanthropy since Andrew Carnegie laid out his approach to giving in the landmark “Gospel of Wealth” essay. In it, the steel baron said his rich peers had a duty to give philanthropically to benefit the broader population, rather than handing down their fortunes to their heirs. Walker’s take on philanthropic responsibility was first published in 2019. Following the pandemic, Walker decided to re-release an updated version designed to reach a broader audience.
“Philanthropies have fed the hungry, cured diseases, built institutions, and saved lives,” he writes. “Yet for all our efforts, the combined wealth of all the world’s foundations, donors, and philanthropists hasn’t done enough to change the underlying systems that make our work necessary.”
The book drives home many of the themes Walker has pressed during his time leading Ford. To make bigger changes, Walker suggests foundations listen more closely to grantees and the people in the places they serve, lessen the burdens to apply for grants, and give more money to grantees without restricting how they use it.
At Ford, Walker has attempted to put his theory into action by placing the foundation’s entire emphasis on reducing inequality. And he has put more money into the foundation’s Building Institutions and Networks program, known as Build, which provides five-year, general operating support grants to social-justice organizations.
The book features written conversations between Walker and various members of his philanthropic constellation, including Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation; philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs; Kenneth Frazier, chair of Merck Corporation; and Ai-jen Poo, president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
While Walker insists that foundations loosen the grip they have over grantees, he does not promote a particular style of giving. Rather than press foundations to spend money more quickly or funnel large sums into specific projects, as many critics of contemporary philanthropy have, Walker advocates for a variety of grant-making approaches that can be tailored to different situations.
Walker became president of Ford in 2013 after serving as a vice president of the philanthropy for three years. Before coming to Ford, Walker served in a series of leadership roles at the Rockefeller Foundation over the course of nearly a decade. He was the chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, a Harlem nonprofit, before that.
Walker spoke with the Chronicle about his book. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
(The Ford Foundation is a financial supporter of the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s transition to a nonprofit.)
Who do you hope will read the book?
Walker: The book is written primarily for philanthropists. It’s written for leaders, CEOs, boards of institutional philanthropy, family offices, new donors, new entrepreneurs who have had liquidity events and opportunities to really, for the first time in their lives, make a difference through philanthropy.
It is a modest and humble offering to hopefully contribute to conversations about how philanthropy needs to evolve to remain relevant and impactful and resilient in the face of critiques and skepticism about why we exist and what we aim to do with the resources that we’ve been allocated
If the tenets that you lay out in the book aren’t followed, what will the result be? What is your biggest fear?
Walker: By no means do I suggest that I have the answers to the future of philanthropy and that if the principles outlined in this book aren’t followed, some calamity is going to happen. What concerns me is that not all of us in philanthropy as a sector recognize just how fundamentally we need to change. And the book simply offers up some ideas like increasing the amount of general operating support and unrestricted giving.
The power dynamic that has historically put grantees and applicants at such a disadvantage is just a fundamental issue of power and control held by donors. It is one of those critical issues that has to be interrogated. Grantees need to have authentic conversations and dialogue with funders. Because without that, it’s very hard to really engage in the honest, authentic discourse that we need.
What percentage of Ford’s grant making will follow the Build model going forward? And what is the rationale for the dollars that are going out the door that don’t follow that model?
Walker: As a baseline, when I became president, we were about 20 percent general operating support and 80 percent project support. We’re now the inverse, so we’re now over 80 percent general operating support and the remainder project-based funding.
Now Build is one subcategory of the larger category of unrestricted giving. Eight years ago our board approved the first Build grants, which totaled $4 billion. And two years ago, they approved another five years at $1 billion. So, clearly, this is going to be a major way of operating for the foundation.
Whenever the time comes for me to leave, I would hope that the trustees, regardless of who the next president might be, see the value in giving unrestricted gifts.
Some of the other kinds of funding helped organize an effort to increase the amount of overhead that foundations cover. So it’s not that project-based support is bad. The problem is that funders don’t want to pay the actual costs to administer their grants. And so they want to do a $300,000 grant with 5 percent overhead. You know, it costs more than $15,000 to administer that grant.
Since you mentioned your successor, are you planning to leave Ford in the next year?
Walker: Absolutely not. I love my job, and fortunately, the trustees were very generous to me in my annual review recently, so I have no intention of leaving in the next year.
You are very forceful in talking about general operating support but less prescriptive in suggesting whether foundations should exist in perpetuity or make huge bets — moonshot philanthropy — on a limited number of projects.
Walker: I believe in philanthropic pluralism. I am not dogmatic or ideological about the form of philanthropy, whether that be moonshot or a spend-down.
We are so fortunate in this country to have a system of philanthropy that makes room for a multiplicity of approaches. My only concern is if there is an imbalance. For example, if all we do are moonshots, someone’s got to invest in long-term institution building. Someone has to invest in human-capital development, which can take decades to have an impact. I hope we can have a balance so that large, wealthy universities can be funded but that small, grassroots organizations that don’t have access and networks can also be sufficiently funded.
To what extent is your view on these philanthropic models based on your current position at Ford? In other words if you were given the opportunity to lead a brand new foundation, would you choose an organization that lasted in perpetuity?
Walker: Much of it has to do with the donor and with the origins of the capital. I recently joined the board of Laurene Powell Jobs’s Waverly Street Foundation, which is a spend-down. Laurene has allocated about $3.5 billion over 10 years on climate-justice issues. And I think it’s a brilliant strategy, and it’s appropriate because Laurene rightly sees the existential threat of climate and doesn’t want to create a foundation in perpetuity because she sees the urgency of now. And so I’m agnostic, but I’m not agnostic about the need to have a balance. And sometimes I worry that we don’t have a balance.
You include in the book examples of the philanthropy of Alice Walton, an heiress of the fortune built by Walmart, and Kenneth Frazier, chairman of Merck. Critics would say big pharma and big-box retailing have made it more difficult for patients and workers. Is including positive aspects of their philanthropy providing an incomplete view of what they do?
Walker: The Ford Foundation during my tenure has brought a greater focus to capitalism and calling out the kind of capitalism that we have now, which does not generate sufficient prosperity, shared prosperity, and generates too much inequality. No one would be surprised that we are capitalists at the Ford Foundation, but we need capitalism to evolve to be more inclusive if it is to survive.
I do call out people like Alice because regardless of what one might think about the origins of her capital, she is using it to address issues of inequality. I mean, Crystal Bridges [Museum of American Art, which she founded] is the only arts organization nationally committed to bringing the arts to rural and low-income communities. It brings great art to small towns across America. So I do understand why some people would disagree with having some of the profiles in the book. But at the end of the day, I stand behind the examples I give, which are absolutely laudable for their efforts.
The book suggests that philanthropy move away from providing ameliorative grants and instead work to change the root causes of social problems. Critics say this necessarily involves politics. Does systems change put philanthropy in the center of political debates that could alienate some donors?
I don’t believe that we should be political, but I do understand that these issues are often about power — who has it and who doesn’t. And philanthropy should play a role in providing support for those whose voices have historically not been heeded. And there is an imperative that we get a little uncomfortable. Our privilege often buys us the right to not look in the mirror and ask hard questions. And sometimes we need to ask ourselves not just what are we willing to give back but what might we need to give up to ensure that more people have justice and fairness and opportunity.
In working to address root causes, to what extent should foundation leaders stake out a more public role?
Walker: I’m very fortunate because the Ford Foundation existed as a high-profile platform well before I came to the presidency. It inherently offers a leader a chance to make his or her case internally and externally and hopefully have some impact — to hopefully break through the noise.
I’ve been very lucky because my profile is somewhat different from others — my background, my sexual identity, the fact that I have never attended a day of private school in my life, that I grew up in the rural South. I had a career in banking and law and running an NGO [nongovernmental organization] in Harlem. That profile is somewhat unique and has generated interest in me personally and my leadership.
I don’t think all foundation leaders should be writing editorials and going on 60 Minutes. But we should do more. And we often take a low profile to stay out of controversy or the line of fire. If you are committed to issues of justice, I don’t believe that you can sit on the sidelines or think that business as usual will be sufficient.
Why are people closest to a particular challenge best positioned to provide a solution, and how does shifting power to grantees transform the role of program officers at Ford?
Walker: When I came to the Rockefeller Foundation 23 years ago, it was a very expert-driven foundation. The predominant thinking was that the knowledge to solve many of the problems that we were working on rests in the Rockefeller Foundation or at the World Bank.
The legacy of that kind of thinking is why there are rural roads and slums across Africa and the global South littered with the carcasses of development projects that were conceived by experts in places like New York and Washington and London without sufficient consultation with the very people who those projects were supposed to impact. It is not a matter of either or — that you either are listening to the credentialed experts or you listen to the person with the lived experience.
Again, this is about balance. There has been an imbalance. So it does not diminish the role or diminish the importance of the smart master’s-degree-credentialed Harvard Kennedy School development expert. But it does require people like program officers at the Ford Foundation to listen and consult with the people closest to the problems in designing the interventions. That will increase the likelihood of the desired impact because it will be owned by the very people who are responsible for sustaining the work.
We’ve all gotten very good now at the rhetoric of listening to those closest to the problem. But we have not all internalized the rhetoric. And we in philanthropy have perfected the rhetoric of inclusion. But we have not all been able to or willing to internalize that in our own policies, procedures, and programs and behaviors to actually demonstrate that.
How are some of the ways that this could be internalized? Does that mean things like reporting requirements for grantees should be done away with?
I don’t believe that we should move to a kind of grant making where there are no reports. I do believe, though, that there are ways we can streamline, economize, make less cumbersome the kinds of information we need as funders.
Unfortunately, we get in this dialectic of “Just give the grantees the money with no strings and leave them alone” or “Let’s overwhelm them with Excel spreadsheet requests for information.” The right place to land is somewhere on that continuum in terms of monitoring and information that funders need.