Ford's Darren Walker is 'reinventing' philanthropy

Ford's Darren Walker is 'reinventing' philanthropy

Through innovative strategies such as issuing the first-ever long-term "social bond," Ford Foundation president Darren Walker is helping to "reinvent" philanthropy, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Earlier this year, with the nonprofit sector reeling from the economic impacts of COVID-19 and struggling to respond in a meaningful way to the country's legacy of racial injustice — a reckoning sparked by the police killing of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that followed — Walker convened, via videoconference, three additional meetings of the foundation's board — meetings at which a bold idea for generating extra grantmaking dollars was incubated: why not put the foundation's $13.7 billion endowment to work by taking advantage of historically low interest rates and issuing debt, using the net proceeds of the offering to fund a range of urgent needs. Walker, a former equity salesman at UBS who has led the foundation since 2013, then convinced leaders of other legacy foundations to join the effort, and in early June, Ford, along with the Doris Duke CharitableW.K. KelloggJohn D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, and Andrew W. Mellon, foundations, pledged to increase their collective grantmaking by $1.725 billion over two years. As part of its commitment, Ford issued $1 billion in thirty- and fifty-year bonds — offerings that were oversubscribed nearly six times over within an hour — effectively doubling the foundation's annual grantmaking budget for 2020 and 2021.

"It's an extraordinarily innovative way to push philanthropy to respond to the needs of  inequality and injustice," said Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, a Ford Foundation trustee, pointing to the convergence of the pandemic's economic impacts and the nationwide racial justice protests. "[Darren] is not afraid to take risks or to take positions that are not popular."

"Our history is both a source of pride and a barrier to innovation," Walker told the Journal. "[L]egacy institutions over time become too concerned about preservation, not innovation."

Walker, who left UBS to volunteer at the Children's Storefront, a tuition-free private school in Harlem, then went on to serve as COO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation and as director of U.S. programs and vice president of foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation, has long been interested in the potential of "the other 95 percent" — leveraging the foundation's assets beyond the 5 percent distribution requirement mandated by the federal tax code to support organizations working to promote social justice and fight inequities of all kinds. In 2017, for instance, he convinced the foundation's trustees to approve the earmarking of up to $1 billion of the endowment over the next decade for mission-related investments. 

At the same time, he is well aware of the harm often done in the name of philanthropy. "There is absolutely a power dynamic that can distort the behavior of nonprofits and actually can do harm. One of them is the arrogance of wealthy philanthropists who think they know the answer to a community's needs," said Walker, who has steered the foundation in the direction of providing more long-term support to nonprofits. In 2015, he and executive vice president of programs Hilary Pennington launched BUILD, a $1 billion program that awards multiyear general operating support instead of project-based awards to grantees. "I know what it feels like to have philanthropists say, Here's what you need...as opposed to saying, What do you think?"

"I am a proud capitalist," added Walker, "but the kind of capitalism that we have today has not delivered on its potential and is why inequality has surged these past two decades. We must transform our economy and our economic system....People like me have to give [something] up. We have to think about the ways in which our policies support our privilege."

Elisa Lipsky-Karasz. "How Darren Walker and the Ford Foundation reinvented philanthropy for the pandemic." Wall Street Journal 11/17/2020.