Q&A: Ford Foundation’s leader straddles contrasting worlds

Haleluya Hadero
Associated Press

Darren Walker has experienced two sides of life – one of poverty, one of wealth.

He has often mentioned that growing up in poverty as a gay Black man in rural Texas has given him a unique perspective on his work as president of the Ford Foundation.

Since assuming the leadership of America’s second-largest private foundation in 2013, Walker has steered the organization to tackle inequality – in all its forms. On Wednesday, the foundation is announcing that it will spend $420 million over the next five years to advance global gender equality and combat gender-based issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, including violence against women.

In this June 16, 2015 file photo, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker attends a reception at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit.

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The funding, announced at the United Nations Women’s Generation Equality Forum in Paris, will also support groups that are working to strengthen workplace equality and build feminist movements.

Separately on Wednesday, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced at the forum a similar $2.1 billion commitment for gender equality.

The Associated Press spoke recently with Walker, 61, about Ford’s initiative, MacKenzie Scott’s philanthropy and other matters. The interview was edited for clarity and length.


Q: A pillar of the Ford Foundation’s work is combating gender-based violence. How can philanthropy help?

A: Listen to the voices, perspectives, insights, and leadership of women who are closest to the very problems we’re seeking to solve. For too long, we haven’t prioritized the community-based wisdom, the lived experience and the expertise of women in these communities. What philanthropy can do is invest in local indigenous-led organizations, organizations by women of color, African women, women of the African diaspora in Latin America and indigenous women. Work with them in true partnership.


Q: You’ve been calling for wealthy philanthropists to approach giving through the lens of justice instead of generosity. Why?

A: I’m not asserting it’s the only way. But I think for too long we have focused on Band-Aids – on charity, generosity – which is all admirable and necessary but insufficient to do the transformational work that needs to be done to change culture, to change systems and structures. Philanthropy needs to be investing in the efforts to reform those systems, to change the cultural practices and norms that actually keep women from fully realizing their dreams, that keep girls married off at young ages, keeps girls from being educated and knowledgeable. Every girl, every woman should have a right to dream, a right to live with dignity, a right to hope and optimism. If we invest through the lens of justice, we can advance that reality.


Q: Philanthropists are facing more scrutiny about how they made their money. Mackenzie Scott, for example, has donated about $8 billion, largely from amazon, which critics say has maintained poor working conditions. Do you believe the source of Scott’s wealth clouds her philanthropy?

A: MacKenzie Scott is probably the boldest, most courageous and visionary philanthropist living today. She has invested in racial justice, gender justice, historically Black colleges and universities and racial equity in philanthropy, which very few living donors are engaged and committed to. My focus as a philanthropist is to hope that more philanthropists will emerge using the lens of justice, equity, and addressing historic norms that have marginalized far too many people.

I believe MacKenzie Scott is indeed engaging in the kind of uncomfortable work that philanthropists have to do, being reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s admonition that philanthropy is commendable, but it should not allow the philanthropist to overlook the economic injustice that makes philanthropy necessary. MacKenzie Scott understands there is injustice, and that philanthropy in some ways is a product of inequality. The way she is giving, to whom she is giving and where she is giving indicates that she understands that.


Q: Critics argue that large foundations, like Ford, that are set up to exist in perpetuity become more bureaucratic as they age and that money that could be spent on programs is instead used to maintain a large staff. Is that’s a fair criticism?

A: We in philanthropy should always be open to criticism, to listening and hearing those who have alternative perspectives on our work. At the Ford Foundation, we believe in directly funding organizations that often are left out and providing those organizations with technical assistance. Because we work in 11 regions around the world, this is done not only by making large grants to European and American nonprofits but directly to Africans, to Brazilians, to Indians. There is higher overhead in doing that kind of philanthropy.

But I’m less interested in criticizing one form of philanthropy over another as much as I am interested in impact. And I believe that we are having an impact, that we are making a difference. We hear that from the organizations that we fund. We’re always interested in the criticism. But I don’t believe it’s founded in the evidence, which indicates that we’re making a difference, that we’re providing meaningful support.


Q: A bill in the U.S. Senate would incentivize foundations to pay out more than the 5% annual minimum and adopt other reforms. The Ford Foundation has backed similar proposals. Why did you get involved in this push?

A: It’s important that we in philanthropy always be open to understanding how we can be more effective. One of the concerns many have had is around the issue of donor-advised funds, where the donor can immediately receive the tax benefit of a gift but do not have to actually expend any of those dollars. The charitable benefit comes when the transfer of the dollars goes from the donor to the donor-advised fund – regardless of whether the donor-advised fund actually gives the money away to charities. It’s important that there be a policy to addresses that specific issue.


The Associated Press receives support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits.