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Darren Walker on Shaking up the Roots of the Ford Foundation

Wednesday, September 28, 2016
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Darren Walker’s office is covered in paper. Bookshelves line the perimeter. They’re full. A long table sits in the middle. Piles of books hide the surface. Evicted by Matthew Desmond sits on top. It’s a call for the United States to fix the housing system. The office has two walls of windows. One set looks into the atrium of the Ford Foundation building, which has been designated a New York City landmark. The others look down onto the street below.


The trip to Walker’s office involves a front desk check-in, a wait in a first-floor room, an offer of water, an elevator ride to the 10th floor and a few moments of sitting just outside an administrator’s office. Then, Walker opens his door. He exudes warmth. His greeting disarms the formality of the setup.


“Darren has unmatched energy, and he uses it very wisely,” says Jo Carole Lauder, who has known Walker for 10 years. She is the chairman of the Foundation for Art & Preservation in Embassies (FAPE). He is the vice president. “He connects with everyone he meets, and he follows through. He responds to people in a more positive way than I’ve ever seen before, and he just walks into a room and makes it better.”


As the president of the Ford Foundation, Walker has received numerous accolades. None of them have left him jaded. He was named on Time magazine’s annual 100 Most Influential People in the World list in 2016; has received 10 honorary degrees and was awarded the Distinguished Alumnus Award by his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin—the school’s highest honor.


On a Tuesday in late August, our interview was his chief focus. Walker never broke eye contact. It’s hard to imagine him ever being sidetracked.


At the Ford Foundation, Walker’s mission is to create a more fair global society. “Among the greatest injustices today is the criminal justice system in this country, which is inherently biased by design,” he says. Fighting that bias is one of the chief projects that Walker has taken on.


The Ford Foundation is the nation’s second-largest philanthropy, awarding grants to institutions, projects and individuals. Established in 1936 with an initial gift of $25,000 from Edsel Ford, son of automotive giant Henry Ford, the Ford Foundation is now the steward of a $12 billion endowment, making $500 million in grants around the world each year. Throughout its history, the foundation has helped fund the ideas of such visionaries as Margaret Mead, James Baldwin, Muhammad Yunus, Gloria Steinem and Condoleezza Rice.


Walker is a traditional philanthropist shaking up what traditional philanthropy means.


“He’s very correct in a funny, old-fashioned way, which is something we need desperately right now,” says Lauder. “He knows right from wrong, and he lives his life that way. He really tries to help people.”


In a blog posted on the Ford Foundation’s website last November, Walker announced his evolving strategy for the organization, called “FordForward.” Fighting inequality remains of paramount importance, but the new focus is on helping organizations achieve long-term success with a “more coherent and interconnected grant-making program—one that seeks to do fewer things better, rather than more at less than our best.” Earlier that year, Walker also shifted the priorities of the Ford Foundation to be on six key program areas—civic engagement and government; creativity and free expression; gender, ethnic and racial justice; inclusive economics; internet freedom; and youth opportunity and learning. The initiative has led to more comprehensive assistance for some programs, but it also means fewer grants are offered overall. With more than 100,000 applications per year, the Ford Foundation is able to fulfill roughly 2 percent of said requests, and Walker favors those that can have the greatest impact on the greatest number of people.


If he could only award grants to organizations based on their answer to one question, Walker sees the response to “What change do you seek in the world and what do you propose to do to contribute to that change?” as the most important.


Currently, the change that Walker would like to impact is the inequality in the criminal justice system. On a personal level within the Ford Foundation, Walker hires formerly incarcerated men and women into a company internship program. Outside the confines of the Midtown East office, he and the Ford Foundation are also working on a program called “Ban the Box,” whereby employers wouldn’t be able to ask about a person’s criminal past until later in the hiring process. “We don’t want to ban asking the question,” clarifies Walker. “But to not have the fact that someone has been convicted of a crime automatically disqualify them from consideration.”


The private sector has a positive influence on the public good. “Every business in this city contributes to social impact by employing people,” says Walker. But beyond that, he adds, “I think businesses need to think about ways in which they can modify their practices to insure that they are more inclusive in who they employ.


“I believe that it’s possible to harness some of that creativity, ingenuity and innovation [in the private sector] for social good,” continues Walker. “One way is through impact investing, which is what we think of a triple-bottom-line investing—investing in a way that generates a financial return, a social return and an environmental return.” Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America are at the forefront of this movement, notes Walker. “More recently, we’ve seen the amount of private capital being invested in impact investing grow, and I think we’re going to see it grow at an accelerated pace in the future,” he says, citing Larry Fink at BlackRock as a leader in this sphere.


A potential danger to the future of doing good, however, is technology. “The risk of activism on social media is that it can give a false sense of engagement, because engagement in social change requires more than clicking a mouse on your computer,” he says. The phenomenon of hitting “like” or retweeting a cause is often referred to as “slacktivism,” whereby people feel like they’re helping a charitable initiative, but in reality do little to further its mission.


But Walker remains a self-described “hopeless hope-aholic” in combating the injustices in society. Much of his hopefulness vests in New York City, where he is constantly inspired by the breadth and depth of creative philanthropy, particularly by heavy hitters like Michael Bloomberg, Peter and Jennifer Buffett, and Agnes Gund.


His hope also stems from his own background and experiences. Born in a charity hospital in Louisiana, raised by a single mother in East Texas and educated in the public school system, Walker went on to graduate from the University of Texas at Austin for both undergrad and law school before embarking on his corporate career. “My story from that little shotgun house in Ames, Texas, to this magnificent Ford Foundation building could only have happened in America,” says Walker. “For me, what I think about every day is, how do I contribute to making America a country where stories like mine continue to be generated?” He credits his support system, and particularly his mother, for keeping him focused, grounded and ambitious throughout his childhood. “In every step of life, you have to build a cheering section,” says Walker of the key to his success.


Walker began his career at the law firm of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton before transitioning to finance at UBS. Almost a decade later, Walker took time off from corporate America to become the COO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, Harlem’s largest community development organization. From there, he transitioned to roles in philanthropic organizations, first as vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation and then at the Ford Foundation. He is also a trustee of Carnegie Hall, the New York City Ballet, the High Line, the Arcus Foundation and PepsiCo.


“He’s the real American dream,” says Lauder. “He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way. And he appreciates everything. He’s very grateful, and he sees the positive side in things.”


After our interview, Walker sends a thank-you note before I can even get back to my desk.


Photographs by Ben Fink Shapiro


Groomed by Michael Moreno




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