Darren Walker has been shaking up the world of philanthropy. Since becoming president of the Ford Foundation, one of this country’s largest and most storied philanthropies, he’s called for donors to become doers. He has reoriented the foundation’s more than half a billion dollars in annual grant-making around a single goal — fighting inequality, which he calls “the greatest harm to our democracy.” Lesley Stahl profiles Walker — a gay, Black man who grew up poor and now moves easily in the wealthiest circles of America on a mission to push philanthropy to get at the root causes of inequality and injustice. Walker’s story will be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday April 4 at 7 p.m., ET/PT on CBS.
There’s a difference between generosity and justice, says Walker. “Generosity actually is more about the donor, right? So when you give money to help a homeless person, you feel good,” he tells Stahl. “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…You’re the person who won’t let a homeless shelter come into your neighborhood.”
Walker has put the Ford Foundation’s money where his mouth is. He has shifted a billion dollars of its endowment into what are called “mission-related investments,” such as companies building affordable housing. He has reduced the foundation’s grants to already well-funded cultural institutions — decreasing funding to New York’s Lincoln Center, for example, while increasing grants to the Apollo Theater and Studio Museum in Harlem. He’s even changed the look of the organization, selling off the foundation’s old art collection – all by White artists — and replacing it with more contemporary works by diverse artists. A painting by President Obama’s portraitist Kehinde Wiley of a Black woman from Brooklyn depicted as royalty now graces the building’s entrance.
Walker argues that the growing gap between the staggering wealth of a few, and stagnation for far too many, is tearing society apart. “It’s unthinkable to me that it has been normalized in American culture that you can work full-time and still be poor. That is antithetical to our idea of this country,” says Walker.
And he tells Stahl he doesn’t mean just Black and Latinx people. “We have for the first time in America a generation of downwardly mobile White people…That has huge implications for our politics.”
Though he grew up poor in a single-parent home in East Texas, Walker says he lived the American Dream — got a great education on scholarship, then came to New York to pursue law and later banking. He drew on that banking experience last spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the racial justice movement spurred by the death of George Floyd, created unprecedented need among the arts and social justice organizations the Ford Foundation supports. Walker launched a plan to raise a billion dollars in cash by issuing bonds, enabling the foundation to double its grant-making this year and next to keep arts and racial justice programs afloat. The bonds were rated Triple A and won awards for innovation.
Walker earns a hefty salary and acknowledges he has moved from the bottom 1% to the top. He tells Stahl, “I am a capitalist. I believe there is no better way to organize an economy than capitalism.” But being among the rich at black-tie galas — “in the room,” as he discusses with Stahl — also affords him the opportunity to push for change. “One of the things that I do in the room is to talk about uncomfortable truths.” One truth he considers paramount: privileged people, “are going to have to give up some of our privilege if we want America to survive.”