Ford Foundation President's Seat on PepsiCo Board Raises Questions

The announcement in August that Ford Foundation president Darren Walker had agreed to join the board of directors of PepsiCo is raising questions in some quarters, the New York Times reports.

Walker, who was vice president of Ford's Education, Creativity, and Freedom of Expression program before becoming the foundation's president in 2014 and who previously served as vice president for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation, is widely known and respected for his commitment to combating inequality in its various forms — something he experienced growing up as the only child of a poor single mother in Texas and later as a young gay African-American man coming of age in the South. Given the well-established links between obesity, chronic health problems and poverty, however, Walker's decision to join the board of a company that profits from the sale of sugary drinks and fatty snacks raises a number of ethical questions. PepsiCo directors make between $275,000 and $418,000 a year.

While PepsiCo has begun introducing healthier items into its product lineup, the company has lobbied against legislation related to the obesity epidemic and has been accused of sourcing palm oil from unethical suppliers and engaging in deceptive marketing practices — practices the company says it has taken steps to remedy. "They are saying they want these problems solve, while at the same time lobbying against public health legislation that would help solve these problems," said Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. "It's exactly the same thing the tobacco companies did. It's exactly the same thing the alcohol companies are doing."

Many critics of multinationals also argue that when they put foundation presidents on their boards, it's not for reasons of altruism but simply a way to neutralize a company's detractors. "The best tactic is to bring your critics into the fold," said Michael Edwards, a former Ford Foundation executive and the editor of openDemocracy's Transformation blog. "It's a great way of managing your reputation and softening your image."

While Ford has not funded organizations working specifically to combat obesity or diabetes, Walker acknowledged the concern expressed by many of his colleagues and peers. "I know that my own credibility and the credibility of the Ford Foundation is tied to this decision," he told the Times. "Those of us in philanthropy have to be discerning about the corporate boards we join, and be discriminating to ensure that our service on a board is aligned with our values....I will bring my perspective as the leader of a social justice organization....I will bring my perspective as someone who is deeply concerned about the welfare of people in poor and vulnerable communities."

For her part, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi told the Times that at his first board meeting this month, Walker pushed her to emphasize a more nutritious product lineup rather than its sugary beverages as it looks to expand into an unnamed African country. "He's a very principled person," said Nooyi, "and my goal in having Darren on the board is that he'll make us a better company."

David Gelles. "An Activist for the Poor Joins Pepsi’s Board. Is That Ethical?." New York Times 10/28/2016.