From Generosity to Justice | Observations from the President of Ford Foundation

March 16, 2021 |
4 minute read

The theme for Commonfund Forum 2021 was “Transformation.” The objective of the agenda was to deliver timely, useful content on core subjects related to nonprofit endowment and financial management and governance. Beyond this, however, the “Transformation” agenda was designed to present attendees (all of whom were virtual) with thought-provoking insights that challenge conventional thinking and expand awareness. One such Forum session was a “fireside chat” with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker. Mr. Walker’s partner in this conversation was Dr. David A. Thomas, President of Morehouse College, and a Commonfund Trustee.

In the conversation, Mr. Walker shared his bold vision for the future of philanthropy. Since his arrival in 2013, he has transformed the venerable Ford Foundation, refocusing its considerable resources and influence on moving philanthropy from generosity—helping others in need—to justice, or solving the problems that created the need. This task requires humility, moral courage and an unwavering commitment to democratic values and institutions. Here, in Mr. Walker’s own words, are highlights from the conversation.

“When I think about my own journey in philanthropy, I was inspired by the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, who in 1968 wrote that philanthropy is commendable, but it should not allow the philanthropist to overlook the economic injustice that makes philanthropy necessary. What he was saying is that charity is generosity, but the real work of philanthropy must be about dignity and justice.”

“Inequality is harmful in many ways. But most importantly, at the center of the American narrative is the idea of hope. Hope is the oxygen of democracy. Inequality asphyxiates hope, inequality smothers hope in society. It makes the citizenry more cynical, less willing and trusting of democratic institutions.”

“The current system works for universities with large endowments. Even as those institutions bemoan inequality and the challenges it represents; the system works for them because they will find wealthy alumni and billionaires to fund new scholarships for needy students. Those schools like Morehouse, Spelman and Howard aspire to be centers of excellence but don't have billionaire alumni. From the standpoint of affordability, accessibility and desirability, it becomes harder for them while rich schools don’t even have loan programs. They can offer scholarships to any admitted student. That’s the way inequality works.”

“Need goes up when the market goes down. When the economy worsens, there is a need to give away more. But the reality is that those of us who live on investment income have less to give away, even if we increase our payout beyond 5 percent. So, with the bond issuance, I was trying to solve for that reality. Fortunately, along came Fed Chair Jerome Powell with a policy that in my view made money almost free. The yield curve presented us with a first-time opportunity to issue long-term debt. That was the impetus. Given the severity of this crisis, the need was to generate new money ‘above and beyond.’ This was an opportunity for philanthropy writ large.”

“Inclusive capitalism rejects the idea that shareholders are the single and basically only real stakeholders that matter. In its place is the primacy of a larger stakeholder framework, acknowledging shareholders, of course, but also others like employees, customers, vendors, supply chain, communities where you do business and how you engage in the needs and priorities of those stakeholders.”

“Much of the country is suffering. The underlying challenge here, going back to the root cause, is that we're going to have to move from talking about giving back to talking about giving up. And that is a much harder conversation for the privileged and incumbents because it doesn’t feel like fairness and equity. It feels like oppression.”

“I count African-Americans among those who believe in this country and what it stands for. In fact, I don't believe there is a more patriotic population of Americans than African-Americans because we have believed in this country for over 400 years...even when this country did not believe in our full participation in the bounty of democracy and capitalism. The leaders whose shoulders we stand on knew in their lifetimes that they would never see justice. Fannie Lou Hamer, Langston Hughes, Dr. King and others knew this. While they believed in America, the last year has brought into sharp relief the reality of what we have now, which is that racism in this country is not some atomized, anecdotal experience. It is systemic and structural and that is painful.”

“When we talk about African-American communities, we talk about vulnerable communities. We don't talk about targeted communities. But that is the reality. They have been targeted for predatory lending. They have been redlined so that home ownership and real estate values are lower. They have been targeted by environmental degradation. Philanthropy has to engage in that reality by stop talking about vulnerable communities and start talking about how people are targeted and how to engage in mitigating this problem.”

“Dr. King started out talking about civil rights but he later evolved into talking about economics and inequality. I believe he could not have imagined the level of economic inequality that we see today. And that inequality makes it harder to focus on poor people because the middle class is feeling marginalized. At the Ford Foundation we focus on the ramifications of inequality because democracy, if it works, is the greatest threat to racism. It means that racism is being defeated. It means we're seeing more equity, more equality, more fairness, more justice.”

“The institutions represented at Commonfund Forum are foundational to a healthy, vibrant, high-performing democracy. They are essential because they train and teach, they give voice and represent, they work to heal. We need these institutions to be strong and we need their voice to be heard. They need to remind us that while there are many identities in this country at the end of the day the most important identity that any of us has is that of an American. There is a uniqueness to that identity that we must be vigilant to sustain. Because in a democracy the ideas of fairness, justice and equality will always be contested. We need to do the work of ensuring that democracy prevails.”

Watch the full fireside chat:




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