In the summer of 1965, a government worker walked up a dirt road and onto the yard of a shotgun house in rural East Texas and told a young Darren Walker’s mother about a new early childhood education program called Head Start intended to break the cycle of poverty. When he was deemed eligible for the inaugural class, his mom was simply thrilled at the prospect of him getting out of the house for half a day. These days Darren occupies one of the most privileged places in American philanthropy as the president of the Ford Foundation—one of the institutions responsible for funding the research that created Head Start.
Ahead of the release of his new book, From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth, Darren stopped by our Palo Alto offices to share his thoughts on the evolving role of philanthropy in strengthening democracy and digital rights, and values-aligned investment. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
My book is informed by a disjuncture that manifested in 1968 in a speech that Martin Luther King gave to philanthropists in which said that philanthropy is commendable, but it should not allow the philanthropist to overlook the very injustice which makes philanthropy necessary.
Dr. King’s view was that the engagement of justice-based philanthropy makes the donor uncomfortable, and that discomfort comes because you’re asking yourselves about the drivers that creates this, and how can my philanthropy address that, and how am I implicated in this.
When I became president in 2010, the board and I agreed that we needed to put a full stop on everything, which at a legacy foundation is very hard. In a place like Ford, we build institutions, invest in individuals, and invest in ideas. When you have 80 years of doing that, you have 80 years of constituencies and stakeholders. There are literally thousands of organizations around the world that the Ford Foundation either started or gave them their first grant, going all the way back to the 1940s.
We had to exit some very, very longstanding programs that on the face of it, given our focus around reducing inequality in the world, made no sense. How can you say you work on inequality in the world and end your K-12 education work? The question for us was not is K-12 education reform critical for economic mobility and reducing inequality. The question is: can the Ford Foundation have impact and what is the lost opportunity for investing in an area where you are having limited impact. What could you be taking those dollars and doing? We concluded that our $20 million a year gift in a trillion-dollar system was not the best and highest philanthropic use of our philanthropic dollars.
Funding digital rights
We were able to move into new exciting areas where there’s very little philanthropy like the space around technology and what we call digital rights. At the Zuckerberg hearings you saw the intersection of democracy and capitalism, and democracy lost. What was on display there was that the institution who should be working in the public interest, which is our congress, had no capacity to respond.
When you think about the public interest in this new digital era, it’s being defined by a group of private actors who will tell us what they’re going to feed to us. I’m a capitalist, and I know that Mark has an obligation. He doesn’t represent the public interest. He represents the private interests, and that’s what he should be doing.
We’ve made some hard choices about areas we’re moving out of and where we’re moving into. In a space like digital rights and technology in society, which is our new major program, there are very clear metrics that we have in place that five years from now for new institutions, new policies, new capacities. If we can go from zero to 100 Masters and PhDs working on the hill with Computer Science degrees or technologists, that will have a transformational effect on those congressional committees. There are ways in which at a very micro level and at a macro level we can look at our programs and see where there’s progress.
I think it’s complete indefensible that we as a foundation say okay, we’ve got $13 billion and our goal with that is to maximize returns. I think our goal must be how do we invest with funds and investors who share our values, who understand our desire to have a double bottom line return on our investment. How do we think about impact investing, social investing, blended finance?
The Ford Foundation—the biggest funder of criminal justice reform—one of our portfolio companies was making money off prisons. We should really be like excavating how that happened and what’s in play so that it doesn’t happen again. Other foundations that have invested in public health in Africa and find themselves investing in polluters of the rivers in the very places where they’re trying to help people improve their outcomes.
It’s been a journey and I’ve gotten my board to agree to an initial allocation of a billion dollars and we’re testing the idea of building a portfolio over 5-7 years, looking at returns, doing real rigorous data around the performance of that portfolio and its resilience over time as we then think about scaling and additional investments around this strategy.
I do think the fundamental question of how our democracy works at a micro level, whether it’s your county, or city government, or national government, ought to be in inquiry now. This question of how democracy is strengthened, and how Henry Ford thought about it, he was thinking about Africa and stemming off communism and the Cold War.
It’s no surprise that our first international office was in India—it was because they’d just gotten their freedom from the British and we were afraid that they were going to be influenced by Russia and the Soviet Union. It was also because we believed that if democracy could be strengthened there, Indians would be better served. Today we have to ask that about our own country and that’s really scary.
Let’s say a foundation works on vaccines, where you can easily see everything accrete. When you’re doing the work of justice philanthropy, it doesn’t accrete. You don’t have the certainty that you will always be building on progress. I just approved a round of grants for voter suppression work in the American South, three states: Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Fifty-five years ago, the Ford Foundation made a set of grants around voter suppression in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Here we are 55 years later, and we’re right back at it.
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