Darren Walker is the first openly gay president of the Ford Foundation, the second largest philanthropy organization in the country. With a background in law, banking and community development, Walker oversees more than $12 billion in assets, giving out global social justice grants totaling $500 million annually.
Windy City Times: How has your first year as president been?
Darren Walker: It's been exhilarating, exciting, challenging. It's reminded me of just how fortunate I am to be in this position, and how, for global foundations, the social justice issues we work on are so resonate around the world.
WCT: You've stated, "We in philanthropy need to reorient the way we see ourselves. We frequently assume that foundations are central protagonists in the story of social change, when, really, we are the supporting cast." How has this belief been implemented under your leadership?
Darren Walker: It's been a year where we have actually been reflecting on our historic work, beginning to refresh that work and think about new work. For me, this is as much about attitude and culture: to have a foundation that has a culture of humility, listens more, is more inclusive and less hierarchical. Culture doesn't change overnight, sometimes it takes a generation. But that's the journey that we're on together. Part of this is just naming the problem and owning our part of that problem as an institution. Ford does a lot of great, inspiring work, but I think on occasion we can come off as top-down, as though we're not listening enough.
WCT: How has the Ford Foundation supported LGBT rights?
Darren Walker: We have a broad set of work focused on movement building and supporting institutions that make up the LGBT movement. Organizations like GLSEN, Freedom to Marry … there are many organizations that, I think, represent a broad array of LGBT causes.
We have also learned how we can sustain efforts. It's important to remember this isn't about this moment; this is about the long haul. This is a not just a U.S.-focused effort, the global movement is something that we are engaged in because the reality in much of the global south is quite dire. To simply self-identify as a homosexual is a felony offense in many countries and we have to change global perceptions, norms, belief systems and biases against LGBT people around the world.
WCT: Who is the funding community looking to as emerging Black or LGBT leaders, getting away from the old guard of big personalities? Who is on your radar in terms of exciting, radical work?
Darren Walker: I think the most exciting work brings together race, sexuality and identity. As a community, we must not silo ourselves into this kind of LGBT box. We need to work in partnership with racial justice, gender, and climate organizations. … There are lots of spheres of influence where LGBTs should be. So for Ford, it's about making sure we build a broader movement that harnesses and complements the work of others.
WCT: What is that broader movement? What's your vision for the organization's future?
Darren Walker: That we will be one of the most impactful global philanthropies. To have that impact we must strengthen the institutions and the leadership that define our movement. My vision is that we will support those organizations and their people. It has got to be a vision that recognizes the opportunity for near-term but also keeps a focus on long-term commitment.
WCT: Tell us about the Ford Forum.
Darren Walker: It's a way to share important foundation information and news, as we're learning about ourselves and the world. It's very important to communicate often and consistently. As a foundation, we have to really be self-generative in this regard. Unlike non-profit organizations or corporations, we don't have an immediate market demand that we communicate in order to get our jobs done. I think that's a mistake. Also, I've concluded that I have to own my own voice in order to remain authentic. That means that sometimes I don't adhere to the traditional communications theory about what a CEO says and does.
WCT: How do you feel that being on the grantee end through your experiences in the non-profit sector has shaped how you serve as president?
Darren Walker: As a grantee, I saw the worst and best of philanthropic practice. I know what it feels like to go and sit at a foundation's office to have someone be thirty minutes late to a meeting and barely apologize; to have a foundation program officer waste my time writing a proposal, generating a lot of data and ultimately them not seriously considering our proposal. I internalize some of those patterns that I saw when I was a grantee. I have a sense of empathy for the real struggle that a non-profit experiences. I've been in situations where my organization had no endowment, very little cash reserves, crises where we barely made payroll ... I think bringing that experience to my current job will help me be a better president.
WCT: How has this differed from your time at the Rockefeller Foundation?
Darren Walker: I loved my time at the Rockefeller Foundation, but the Ford Foundation is a social-justice foundation. We are prepared to ask tough, root-cause questions about power, race, gender, class, and about historic patterns of marginalizations that seem to be repeated or renewed over time. At Ford, that's the framework with which we analyze and solve problems. Nothing is like the Ford Foundation.
WCT: You're known to be an avid reader. What are you reading right now?
Darren Walker: Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy is a masterwork. Bryan leads the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama and it's a deep, reflective look at how far we have to go in America. I also finished Charles Blow's Fire Shut Up in My Bones, where Blow comes to terms with his bisexuality and deals frontally with issues of race, class and gender. [Those are] two very good books I'd recommend.