Newsmakers: Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

In September, Darren Walker became the tenth president of the Ford Foundation. Before coming to Ford, where he was vice president of the foundation’s Education, Creativity and Freedom of Expression program, Walker served as vice president for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation and as chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, where he guided the organization’s efforts to develop housing for low- and moderate-income families in Harlem.

Recently, Michael Seltzer spoke with Walker about the current social change environment, the influence of the foundation’s activities on his life, and his hopes for the foundation going forward. Seltzer is a past president of Philanthropy New York, a trustee of EMpower-The Emerging Markets Foundation and a distinguished lecturer at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs and affiliated faculty member of its Center for Nonprofit Strategy & Management.

This interview originally appeared on PhilanTopic, the Philanthropy News Digest blog, on December 18, 2013 and is reprinted with permission.

Philanthropy News Digest: What is it like to be president of the Ford Foundation?

Darren Walker: Although I’ve been at the foundation for more than three years, in many ways I still have a lot to learn. I certainly didn’t arrive here with any idea I would end up as president. When I walked through the doors of this institution for the first time, it was a transformational experience, because the Ford Foundation represents the ways in which my own life has been changed by philanthropy.

I’m a graduate of public schools. I attended public school in a small town in Texas, and I am also a graduate of the first Head Start cohort, a program that was developed out of Ford Foundation-supported research on early child development at Yale University. After high school, I attended a large land grant university — thanks to Pell grants, another Ford Foundation-supported intervention — so I know all about Ford’s commitment to public education in this country.

After college, I worked on Wall Street and one day found myself at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which was hosting a representative of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a creation of — you guessed it — the Ford Foundation. LISC had awarded a grant to the Abyssinian Development Corporation for capacity-building initiatives that would allow it to realize the aspirations of the organization’s founders, who had a dream in the mid-’80s that Harlem could be a community that could regenerate itself from within. And the Ford Foundation, through LISC, believed in that dream and invested in it. And that capacity-building grant made it possible for ADC to hire me. So my journey, like the journeys of so many others, has been deeply influenced by the Ford Foundation.

I was thrilled to receive a call from the foundation’s board chair, Irene Hirano-Inouye, and have her tell me that the board had voted to appoint me president. Actually, I wasn’t sure how to respond, beyond saying, “Yes!” because I know that with this job comes huge responsibility, and that I stand on the shoulders of some extraordinary people.

PND: The Ford Foundation has been a long-distance runner when it comes to addressing social issues like poverty. Today, we face some of the most serious social challenges we’ve seen since the 1960s — both in terms of holding the line on the progress we’ve made and in putting forward new solutions designed to help low-income individuals and communities build assets and resilience. Are you discouraged by the magnitude of the challenges we face?

DW: It’s easy to be dismayed by the current state of social justice in our country and around the world. But it is important to remember the remarkable progress we have made. There was a time, not too long ago, when every indicator of social mobility for low-income and marginalized communities was improving — employment among urban black males in the 1990s saw tremendous gains, we saw significant reductions in the level of homelessness and more African-Americans and Latinos were matriculating to institutions of higher education. Although it wasn’t always even, for almost forty years, from the early 1960s through the 1990s, we saw progress. We’ve fallen back some, so it’s particularly important we remember that history and not be discouraged. A certain set of circumstances contributed to the conditions which prevail today. That said, we have faced these problems before and made huge progress in addressing them, and we can do so again.

I am actually hopeful and quite excited about what the Ford Foundation can do to address some of these challenges. There are thousands of new foundations out there, and together we have an opportunity and the potential to make a tremendous difference in the lives of poor and vulnerable people. That is very exciting. So, no, I am not discouraged. I am energized. We have work to do, but as Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The journey toward justice is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back affair. That process will always be with us.

PND: Do today’s circumstances require different strategies and theories of change?

DW: There are some lessons we can learn from the past. Over its history, Ford has developed four approaches that are somewhat particular to us — building institutions, building human capital, seeding social innovation, and crafting partnerships by using our standing to convene and build collaborative efforts. Our job now is to ask what kinds of institutions do we need, and how they should be structured. The future requires nimble and networked organizations. And, of course, social media gives us both an incredible set of new tools and opportunities as well.

Long-term investments in fields and individuals will continue to be a core part of our portfolio. At the same time, we have to be open to fresh ideas, new organizations and opportunities which we might not have anticipated. That’s one of the ways that innovation happens. We also need to embed a “searchlight” function in our work. Every institution like ours that is engaged in what I’ll call R&D needs to do a certain amount of grantmaking informed by serendipity — that is, things you could never have anticipated, projected, thought about or conceived in your own head. And that literally comes from meeting somebody or reading a paper and saying, “I’ve got to meet the author,” or “I’ve got to visit this organization.”

PND: You’re the first Southerner to be named president of the Ford Foundation. How much do your Southern roots inform who you are today?

DW: I am inextricably linked to my past. My friendliness, my willingness to talk to strangers, my love of people, my insatiable curiosity about the world — a lot of that is the result of my Southern upbringing. I was born in a small town in Louisiana, in a small hospital where blacks and poor whites received care. My parents never married, and I was raised by my mother. In other ways, I am who I am today because I had a pretty remarkable imagination. I dreamed a lot. And I had lots of ideas based on books I read in school. My grandmother worked as a domestic for a family, and she would bring home magazines and clothes in paper bags. I loved that, because often what was in those paper bags would spark a lot of creativity and feed my imagination. Eventually, my mother moved my sister and me to Texas, where she had an opportunity for a better job and a better life for her family.

PND: How has being gay influenced you?

DW: I am very proud of who I am, and I’m honored to serve as a trustee of the Arcus Foundation, which works to support the rights of LGBT people around the world. While living in a city like New York might make it a little easier to think everything is okay, we certainly have issues, and I am constantly reminded about the harsh conditions faced by gays and lesbians in other countries, including some of the countries where the Ford Foundation operates.

PND: You clearly have a deep knowledge of and appreciation for the Ford Foundation’s history. How do you see that history informing what you hope to accomplish during your tenure as president?

DW: Often, unfortunately, many leaders feel that when they take over an organization, history begins upon their arrival and they shouldn’t look back. What I’ve discovered at the Ford Foundation is that when you do look back, there are many lessons that can inform your work moving forward.

This institution has been able to spot, sustain and nurture talent internally and hire people who themselves were good talent scouts. It also has done an excellent job of identifying people outside of this institution to invest in and support and nurture and champion.

Building institutions is also something this foundation does extraordinarily well. I’m often reminded of that fact because literally every day I sit down with someone who says, “The Ford Foundation gave us our first grant.”

The other thing this organization has done particularly well is to innovate. It’s a part of Ford’s DNA. And it is partly the result of talent, partly the institution and partly the kind of intuition that comes from experience within the institution.

This institution has acted boldly and courageously on many occasions when leadership was needed. There are so many regions and domains across the globe where Ford has been called on to put our own reputation, our own legal status on the line for the fight, to speak truth to power, to engage in a way that puts us at risk.

PND: You’re saying something important, I think, about the role of leaders today.

DW: Recently, I had a really interesting meeting with the president of a well-known university. I was making the argument for why I think it’s important for foundations to speak out about the sort of grinding inequality we’re seeing in the world and in the U.S. And I said, “It would be great for university presidents to speak out. Isn’t this an important role for university presidents to play?” And she said, “Well, you’re right. But today I’ve got a capital campaign to run. And I really can’t afford to stand up and call out what’s going on in terms of inequality in this country because I’ve got to go to some of those same people who have benefited from the trends of the last thirty years and get my naming opportunities.”

That exchange underscored for me how important it is for the Ford Foundation to maintain its reputation for boldness and speaking truth to power. There are so few institutions in our society today that are willing or able to do so. And I am deeply, deeply committed — and our trustees are deeply committed — to doing that.

PND: What do you see as the two or three greatest challenges confronting us? And what can an institution like Ford do in response?

DW: That’s an important question, and I’ve reflected on it a lot. Times, as we all know, change, and all organizations need to evolve to be current. I look forward to reviewing our strategies and programs in light of both today’s challenges and opportunities. But as I indicated, I begin by looking at our history and learning from our past.

The first observation I would offer, because I often find myself in situations where someone says, “Well, in the fifties or sixties, Ford did this,” is that the world has fundamentally changed and the process of effecting social change has been transformed. When Ford was one of a handful of large foundations in the country, we had a singular capacity to exert our influence and authority. The ability of a set of elite institutions and actors to influence and change history in those days was unprecedented.

The challenge for the Ford Foundation today is different.

We know that change doesn’t work that way anymore. It’s true that we have resources and talent and a sterling reputation, but it’s simply not possible to think that a single institution — and Bill and Melinda Gates were the first to say this — can assert and successfully promulgate its own particular point of view.

So we have to think about philanthropy in a different way, in a way that is more collaborative, and to focus on co-creation. I have to think about how the institution aligns itself with its partners and works with more humility to effect the change we want.

PND: Do you have any plans to capitalize on the foundation’s extensive network of offices around the globe?

DW: We have arrived at an interesting place in which we really defer to the local voice in our grantmaking — meaning local leadership, minimizing New York-initiated programs or grants in a region without consultation. That’s an important paradigm shift for us. I also think we can shift the way we work to learn in a more South-North fashion and lift up South-South exchanges. There is so much learning when we bring our colleagues and grantees from the Global South together to problem-solve on the issues they face. I’ve emphasized this a great deal in my first few weeks as president. As a result, we’re encouraging more South-South work and convenings.

PND: Change at a well-established institution like Ford must come from within. How can you create an environment that nurtures risk-taking and change?

DW: The most important thing I’m focusing on at the moment is culture and the climate within the foundation. Foundation leaders devote a lot of effort to discussing and figuring out the best mix of strategies to effect social change. That said, culture eats strategy every day for breakfast — and a focus on culture and execution often comes at the expense of the platform that strategy is built on.

So my job as president of the Ford Foundation is to ensure that we are a learning organization and that we embrace a climate of transparency, a climate where staff can speak truth to power, including the president. That’s really hard. I have been on two foundation boards and have worked for three foundation presidents. People don’t talk truth to power or the president. As president, that’s something I’ll have to work hard to make happen.

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