Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation: Pushing for Change in Social Justice and Human Equality Around the Globe

by Jasmine Brown

As his new book, From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth, suggests, Darren Walker is not shy to push those at the top. He’s challenging the elite to help achieve economic, social and political justice through philanthropy in innovative ways.

He’s been supporting this type of forward-thinking for ten years now, as the 10th leader of the Ford Foundation, making sure each grant is utilized to fight inequality. As president, Walker is responsible for giving over $500 million in grants each year to organizations and initiatives around the world working toward social change.

Walker defined the difference between generosity and justice on 60 Minutes in 2021: “Generosity actually is more about the donor, right? So when you give money to help a homeless person, you feel good. Justice is a deeper engagement where you are actually asking, ‘What are the systemic reasons that put people out onto the streets?’ Generosity makes the donor feel good. Justice implicates the donor.”

NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 29: Singer/songwriter Usher (L) and Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation attend the 2016 “Tina Brown Live Media’s American Justice Summit” at Gerald W. Lynch Theatre on January 29, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)


The Ford Foundation

Walker was named president of the Ford Foundation in 2013. Carrying the prominent Ford name, this independent organization works to address issues such as inequality, while building justice around the world. Founded 85 years ago by Edsel Ford, Henry Ford’s son, in Detroit, Michigan the Ford Foundation was once part of the creation of public broadcasting, Sesame Street, Human Rights Watch and Head Start, a publicly funded preschool program for lower-income children. After rethinking its mission, the organization shifted focus to international philanthropy. Now, the foundation is located in New York with 16 board of trustee members from four continents, holds an endowment of $16 billion and operates in 10 regional offices across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Initiatives the Ford Foundation supports focus on civic engagement and government, creativity and free expression, disability inclusion, the future of work(ers), gender, racial and ethnic justices, international cooperation and global governance, mission investments, natural resources and climate change, and technology and society.

“I believe inequality is among the greatest threats to our democracy, “Walker said during a discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics Forum in February 2023. “Inequality asphyxiates hope, and hope is the oxygen of democracy.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND – NOVEMBER 02: (From second left) Joan Carling, Indigenous Peoples Major Group (IPMG), Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, Carlos Andres Alvarado Quesda, President of Costa Rica, Patrick Saidi Hemedi, La Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones (DPGA) and Tuntiak Katan, General Coordinator of the Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) and the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities (GATC) seated onstage during an Action on Forests and Land Use event on day three of COP26 on November 02, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. 2021 sees the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference. The conference will run from 31 October for two weeks, finishing on 12 November. It was meant to take place in 2020 but was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Walker’s perspective

Though Walker is now at the top and doing well in society, he started in the bottom 1%. He and his younger sister were raised by a single mother in Ames, Texas. He was one of the first children to attend Head Start. And as a Black gay man, he sees the world from many different viewpoints, is able to relate to outsiders and brings those tough conversations to insiders.

“The reality is that most philanthropy in this country goes to wealthy institutions that often serve the wealthy and the privileged,” Walker said on PBS News Hour in March 2023.“… when you look at the percentage of philanthropy that goes to wealthy colleges and universities, to hospitals, to independent private schools, these institutions primarily serve the wealthy or certainly people who have more privilege… how do we direct our philanthropy to those who are most excluded?

“… get a little uncomfortable when you look at organizations working on the frontlines in homelessness, in building affordable housing, working on disability issues. These are areas that are heavily under-resourced in philanthropy.”

Under Walker’s leadership

The Ford Foundation is leading by example with Walker’s beliefs. Serving as the vice president of Education, Creativity, and Free Expression at the foundation before filling the shoes as president, Walker was in charge of over 30 percent of the organization’s grants. This included JustFilms, part of the foundation’s Creativity and Free Expression program. JustFilms supports artists telling social justice stories through documentaries and emerging media projects.

“Storytelling is a unique and powerful way of helping us understand our past, explore our present and build our future,” said Walker in a 2011 Ford Foundation press release announcing JustFilms.“We see these stories as vital ingredients to social change, translating how people engage with the world and the issues that define our time.”

In 2022 alone, the Ford Foundation invested $4 million for 68 new and continued film projects produced around the world. Awarded artists and films aim to engage in dialogue and conversation around national and global issues.

Walker is open and transparent, contributing to the Ford Foundation’s news and stories section of the website. He pens countless articles about history and social injustices, as well as pointing out flaws that the foundation is looking to address. One flaw was when he realized the foundation had excluded people ​with disabilities in FordFoward, the foundation’s “blueprint for changes in our culture, our programs, and our assets. “Admittedly being called out by respected colleagues, Walker writes:

“… by recognizing my individual privilege and ignorance, I began to more clearly perceive the Ford Foundation’s institutional privilege and ignorance as well.” He goes on to say, “The good news is: We can change. And we are changing… we will integrate an inclusive perspective across all of our grantmaking… This is an example of how the Ford Foundation is striving to redress an issue we didn’t get right.”

Since that 2016 apology, in 2021 the Ford Foundation launched the U.S. Disability Rights program, a first of its kind to focus grants toward advancing the rights of people with disabilities.

(l-r), Kenneth Frazier (President & CEO of Merck), presents the African Art Award to Darren Walker (President of the Ford Foundation), at The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s 1st annual African Art Awards Dinner in the Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building on Friday, October 28th, 2016 in Washington, DC, United States. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Between 2018 and 2020, the Ford Foundation invested $50 million to organizations and initiatives focusing on disability, and $125 million toward disability inclusion efforts headed by social justice organizations. Then there’s the latest $1 million investment with Borealis Philanthropy in February 2023 for a Disability x Tech Fund. This fund supports disability groups that work toward the vision of including and prioritizing people with disabilities as part of technology development and innovation.

In 2019, the Ford Foundation opened the Ford Foundation Gallery, an art gallery that “aims to shine a light on artwork that wrestles with difficult questions, calls out injustice and points the way toward a fair and just future. “The No Justice Without Love exhibition ran from April through June 2023 at the gallery and featured work by artists impacted by the criminal justice system, including formerly incarcerated artists, activists and allied donors.

Walker explained in a press release,“… we hope viewers will witness deeply the power of art and advocacy to create empathy, to question harmful narratives about incarceration, and to draw light to society’s biggest inequalities.”

Addressing the workforce, in May 2023, the Ford Foundation launched Listen to Lead: Raise Retention and Boost Business, a guide for C-suite leaders and management that emphasizes the importance of employee voice to build upon the framework of a competitive and attractive company. This guide is a collaborative work with a coalition of non-profits. The guide provides proven approaches to improving employee experiences and environments, leading to a more successful organization. The Ford Foundation plans to continue to convene employees, business leaders and advocates to provide more ideas and encourage action.

PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas (May 12, 2022) – The sky is the limit for 964 students who will soon walk across the stage at Prairie View A&M University’s 140th Spring Commencement Convocation this Saturday. Ford Foundation President Darren Walker will serve as the keynote speaker. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Office of Marketing and Communications/Prairie View A&M University via Getty Images)

Teaming up with the Skoll Foundation, the Ford Foundation invested in the MSquared Impact Partners Fund (MSIP), a fund started by MSquared which is a woman-owned real estate development and investment platform. This fund supports affordable housing, women- and minority-led developers to create mixed-income developments, neighborhood resources and commercial businesses that benefit the entire community.

Over the past six years, the Ford Foundation has spent nearly $400 million on its $1 billion Mission Investments program, into private-capital strategies. With a low percentage of firms owned by women and minorities, the foundation looks to increase diversity throughout the asset-management industry. In 2022, Walker reported that the “mission investments” had an average 28% annual return through 2021. In partnership with Illumen Capital, an impact investor that has a majority of women- and minority- owned fund managers the foundation raised $168 million with over 100 participants in 2023. The Ford Foundation believes it is well on its way to making profits and societal gains by backing diverse managers.

Giving social justice organizations good problems, such as more money, the ability to hire more employees and help more people, while supporting these organizations to handle such growth – that’s another thing that the Ford Foundation does under Walker’s leadership. With an allotment of $1 billion, the foundation’s Building Institutions and Networks, or Build program, helps social-justice groups overcome these good problems. Before the pandemic, the foundation granted the Center for Cultural Power $1.5 million. With the pandemic and societal issues that occurred during the summer of 2020, the organization was needed in a different way – the BIPOC and immigrant artists they support were affected greatly. As a result, the organization was able to utilize the money to provide the resources needed to provide more resources, plus hire more staff. The foundation added to Build with the Building for Growth program to help non-profits address burnout, organization culture and hire the right amount of people to fulfill the organization’s mission. In partnership with La Piana Consulting, the Ford Foundation has also launched an online tool that allows dialogue between organizations to share best practices, tips and advice.

NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 08: A general view of the Ford Foundation Building interior public atrium garden designed by architect Roche Dinkeloo on March 8, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Dario Cantatore/Getty Images)

Pushing for Change

Understanding how to give $500 million dollars globally each year – it’s a huge task. For a leader who is achieving this with his team, he sees quite a bit of social justice issues around the world. Which is why he’s challenging others.

During his 60 Minutes interview, Walker admitted, “It’s not earned. But at the end of the day, we elites need to understand human nature to give up privilege, particularly if you feel it’s hard- earned. But at the end of the day, we elites need to understand that while we may be benefiting from this inequality, ultimately, we are undoing the very fabric of America. We are going to have to give up some of our privilege if we want America to survive.”

Thinking about the mission of the Ford Foundation, if we want the world to survive.

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