Some Genuine Questions for the Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker

Editor’s note: We learned today that Darren Walker was named the WSJ Magazine’s Philanthropy Innovator of the year. With that in mind, we think these questions are even more timely.

As I dive deeper into the world of philanthropy thanks to my role at The Philanthropy Roundtable, I’m intensely curious about the largest foundations named after some true legends of American free enterprise: Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie. Today’s iterations of those foundations seem to be so different than what their founders envisioned for America. As a result, I try to listen and engage with their content as much as possible.

Recently, I’ve been following a lot of what Darren Walker, the CEO of the Ford Foundation, has been saying. His new book, From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth, is next on my reading list. I recently came across an interview he did in 2019 at Amherst College, intended to be a preview of his book. I have to say, I found myself a little confused. 

Here’s why: I applauded some of what Walker had to say. For example, he talked about how his grandmother helped him imagine a world outside his own challenging one—and that this was instrumental to him in thinking bigger. He talked about making a career change from Wall Street to working at a smaller firm in Harlem where he could apply his law and finance skills to projects he was personally passionate about.  

He mentioned the need to question the systems in which we operate if we feel they lead to injustice. He talked about how the United States used to lead in social and economic mobility. He mentioned that private philanthropy is better in the United States than anywhere else in the world, that we have a healthy nonprofit sector doing good work. Finally, he shared an example of how the culture of female genital mutilation was only able to change when the village elders in the places where it took place decided they weren’t going to do this to their girls anymore. These, and other examples, are things I can applaud. 

But I also found myself alienated by other comments Walker made, and I came away genuinely confused about his logic. Here are some examples:   

  • Walker was the beneficiary of several charitable programs and scholarships, which helped him reach Wall Street. Yet he denigrates that support as being from people who are, on some level, guilty of systematizing their privilege. If he is an example of philanthropic action leading to success, why is he so critical of the people who generously and voluntarily helped him? He is dismissive of wealthy people in various ways in this interview. Might he be willing to consider reciprocating some of that generosity with his own when he speaks about today’s philanthropists? 

  • One of his points is that the “privileged,” of which he counts himself, need to question the systems that that create problems in our society. Given that philanthropy pours billions of dollars into causes across the ideological spectrum to do just that, it’s unclear why he offers this criticism—unless it’s that the people giving away the money don’t look like the people receiving it. I thought that might be what he was getting at, but then he was just as critical about wealthy black donors. Maybe Walker just doesn’t like the causes they give to—but isn’t that different than saying philanthropists aren’t questioning the system? 

  • If success leads to privilege, which Walker argues, then why is he devoting his career to philanthropy and pursuing what he calls a “justice agenda”? Wouldn’t that mean that anyone who benefits from and becomes more successful as a result of his foundation’s work would then join the guilty and need to reject that success?  

  • Walker provides an example of successful black college alumni sending their kids to Ivy League schools through legacy giving. He says that he would rather a poor kid get into Harvard than a rich one. It’s not the child’s fault that he or she was born into a wealthy family, just as it’s no fault of a poor child to be born into less fortunate circumstances. How does it serve justice to punish one young person over the other? Why do we assume all kids should aim to go to Harvard, anyway? Shouldn’t it just be the students who are the best fit for Harvard and whom Harvard wants to teach? 

  • Walker describes some philanthropy, especially newer philanthropy, as being problematic because it’s undertaking the public interest, trying to solve problems the government should solve. But the Ford Foundation is committed to driving justice around the world. Presumably this means addressing policy, education, and societal issues—all of which organizations such as Ford believe the government should solve. Is the criticism of “some philanthropy” fair here?  

  • He also referred to private philanthropy as being unable to solve anything long-term without creating some public infrastructure. So even if philanthropy leads to innovation, those breakthroughs cannot be scaled by philanthropy—only by government. Are we ignoring the private sector when we think about these roles? The private sector is really at the heart of innovation, including building and scaling. 

At the end of the day, what I found confounding about Walker’s position is that it amounts to something like: Support people who need philanthropy to achieve a better life, but if they achieve it, they will then have to give it up. (He actually said that “giving back” is not enough; one must “give it up.”) This is such a demotivating message to any young person living in a challenging environment, as Walker once did. Why bother if when you reach those goals, rather than contribute to the overall success of your community, you’re supposed to surrender? 

If Darren Walker really puts that philosophy into practice, he’d be back living at his mother’s house. Instead he’s heading up one of the biggest foundations in the country. We, and he, should be celebrating that accomplishment and all the people who helped him get there. 

My next step is to read his book and see if I can find the answers there. And maybe someday I’ll have an opportunity to ask a philanthropy powerhouse like Darren Walker some questions—if he’s open to speaking to a wider audience.

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