Ford Foundation President Darren Walker has had yet another star turn, this time in an adoring profile on 60 Minutes.
As much about his life story as his theory of philanthropy, it reminded us that Walker has, indeed, led an amazing life, rising up from rural poverty in Texas, where he literally lived in a shack. That has, surprisingly, not led him to embrace America as a haven of opportunity but rather to question its capacity to play that role. Still, even for those of us who differ with him on his criticisms of philanthropy and its alleged links to fundamental economic injustice, there is reason to applaud some of Walker’s work–in particular his lead role in helping Detroit work through municipal bankruptcy.
But the specific approach to philanthropy for which Walker was lauded on 60 Minutes deserves greater scrutiny. In the teeth of the COVID pandemic, Walker led the Ford Foundation to borrow, via bonds, against its $13 billion endowment–to make more funds available for struggling nonprofits of all kinds. An important question about this went unasked, however. Why not just increase the Foundation’s grantmaking from its available endowment? The answer is important. Spending at a higher rate, over time, leads that endowment–long detached from the philanthropic vision of Henry Ford II–toward slow decline and even toward closing its doors.
Borrowing, at a time of record-low interest rates, helps Ford spend more at the same time it preserves both its principal–and its perpetuity. Thus is preserved a major American institution accountable only to its self-perpetuating board of directors (which includes Walker himself).
Unasked, as well, was a question as to which specific grants Walker believes will reduce economic injustice in the U.S.–and how that would actually come to pass. Indeed, were it to have adopted its traditional skepticism, 60 Minutes might have inquired whether Walker’s own $1 million salary (which was duly noted) can be justified in the context of inequality, or whether Ford might make many more millions available for that project by selling its midtown Manhattan headquarters building–and renting space in a disadvantaged neighborhood.
Darren Walker is, in many ways, a great American story. He exudes a sunny optimism even as he laments our current state. But it does him no favor not to ask him hard questions.