By Onome Amawhe
Ford Foundation, the $ 11.2 billion philanthropic giant has been long term supporters of funding to charitable organizations around the world. The institution’s strength is being felt, more than ever, in many of the world’s governments and aid bodies as the biggest donors to the non- profit sector. Simultaneously growing in confidence and ambition as it stretches it legs even further, in creating many opportunities in countries in need of intervention, making it one of the world’s most important sources of funds for NGOs and new partnerships. Founded in 1936, with an inceptive gift of $25,000 from Edsel Ford; son of Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, the foundation commenced operations in Michigan, United States under the guidance of Ford family members.
In its founding charter, the Foundation stated that funds should be used “for scientific, educational and charitable purposes”. To this day, the funding institution continues to function in that spirit. With efficient operational presence in more than 50 countries around the world, Ford Foundation delivers three major programs in “World Peace and the establishment of law and justice”, “Freedom and democracy” and “Advancing the economic well-being for people everywhere”.
As President of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker’s names resonate in the entire philanthropy world where he has devoted his career to improving the human condition. Since 2013, when he was made President of the foundation, he has driven major developments. With many hats worn over the course of his career, Walker is the rare executive who’s spent time in private practice, worked at the New York headquartered international law firm, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) where he spent seven years as a capital markets executive. Through his leadership role, Walker has added more discipline, flexibility and holistic thinking to the organization’s work, drawing on his experience in the private sector, to address social justice and inequality around the globe.
In recent times, there have been talks that global philanthropy is in a paradigm shift — a profound, irreversible, structural and strategic change in the way it works and relates to the world. What does that mean?
A little over a century ago, the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie wrote an essay we now refer to as “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which he argued that the wealthy had a moral obligation to offset the extreme inequalities created by capitalism. That philosophy of generosity has served as the underpinnings for American philanthropy—and by extension, global philanthropy—ever since.
Over the last century, the work of philanthropy has, indisputably, done tremendous good in the world. Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and life-threatening conditions. By and large our societies are more equal and more just. At the same time, we live in a different era—one where we are recognizing that, while there are billions of dollars of private wealth going towards charity, there are trillions of dollars’ worth of need.To counter this, some leaders in philanthropy have started practicing a New Gospel of Wealth, one in which we seek justice over generosity.
Since inception, what has changed in terms of how Ford Foundation works, how it’s organized and structured to carry out its mission?
Over the last 80 years, the mission of the foundation has been consistent: to reduce poverty and injustice, strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. But what has changed over time is the overarching framework we use to think about our work, especially as we support our grantee partners around the world and respond to the changing world around us.
We’ve come to understand that inequality in all of its forms—in wealth, ability, access, opportunity, and so many others—is the greatest threat to justice. And that’s why we have oriented everything we do towards attacking inequality at its roots. That also means looking at old paradigms in new ways. Consider how we invest our endowment. In the past, we invested our entire endowment broadly in the market in order to generate returns that we use to fund our grant making. But recently, we have decided to invest up to $1 billion of our endowment in something called mission-related investments (MRIs). These MRIs are investments that we expect will generate the positive returns that are vital towards funding all of our work, while also generating positive social impact aligned with our mission—by, for example, offering financial services to people with low-incomes here in Africa.
To what extent do you view the foundation’s initiative as being successful in creating a more sharing and productive culture?
At the Ford Foundation, we use a holistic grant making approach that supports both government and the institutions that hold government accountable. We believe this approach creates avenues for dialogue, opportunities for partnership, and an environment for learning and growth in the region. For example, we funded the Electoral Commission and Consumer Protection Council based off of input from the public, and with the hope that these government agencies could work on behalf of the people and foster a dialogue between them and their government.
Similarly, when we convene our grantees together, it can serve as a platform for stakeholders to meet, discuss, and share ideas. To that end, towards the latter part of this year we are planning a multi-stakeholder policy dialogue for key government officials, civil society leaders, and private sector partners to discuss ways we can implement substantive education reform.In addition, we promote creativity and freedom of expression in West Africa by consistently supporting alternative voices that have not always been historically heard. Through the Africa #NoFilter campaign, we are exploring more nuanced narratives about Africa—which is part of our larger effort to change the negative perception of the continent in the global media.
What do you see as the greatest successes in each of the Foundation’s focus areas?
I am proud of all the work our grantees do across the globe to counter the pernicious and pervasive drivers of inequality, and because of them, we have seen successes big and small, each and every day. Beyond any one program area, I think one of our great successes has been maintaining a sense of optimism despite setbacks and tumultuous times.
In the face of global threats to undermine the work of the organizations we support, we continue to be resilient to protect and promote the dignity of all people, especially those who’ve been historically marginalized. It’s during moments like these that I remember and am inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” One reason for hope—and instances of this bending towards justice—is the way that technology has helped accelerate and optimize the social justice work of our grantees. The internet is going to be the battleground for social justice in the 21st century and we need to be prepared.
How do you assess the foundation’s work in Africa?
The work the Ford Foundation is currently doing in Nigeria—and West Africa more broadly builds on our long history of support and partnership in this region. Our involvement began in 1958, with a grant to train government workers in Nigeria. Nigeria, at the time on the eve of its independence, embraced the Foundation’s support to help build and strengthen its public institutions and form functioning government systems. We went on to fund microfinance and agricultural programs, as well as help foster key human rights and women’s rights movements in West Africa. In 1967, our agricultural program supported the establishment of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
Located in Ibadan, Southwest Nigeria, the institute is still one of the world’s leading research institutions for finding solutions to hunger, malnutrition, and poverty—and in addressing the broader development needs of tropical countries across the continent and around the world.During the civil unrest in the 1990s, and the military takeover of the government, we continued to support human rights by funding emerging civil society organizations and a number of diverse media voices that carved out space for public conversation.
We also funded efforts, largely through initiatives on education, to fight the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in West Africa. When Nigeria began to return to democratic rule, we focused our funding efforts on building partnerships between government and civil society to promote the kind of effective governance required to sustain peace and to significantly reduce poverty and social exclusion throughout the country.
How has your experience as a lawyer and investment banker helped you helm the affairs at Ford Foundation?
To be a successful lawyer or investment banker, you have to be able to thrive under tight deadlines and intense pressure. Of course, the work we do in philanthropy is just as—if not more—urgent, but the time we wait to see meaningful results in philanthropy is often much longer than at a law firm or bank. I am grateful that we can be suppliers of patient capital in these movements for change, but also know that over the course of decades of fighting for social progress, the urgency can wane at times.
Thanks in part to my time spent in those fields, I’ve been able to bring that same sense of urgency to my work at the Ford Foundation. Similarly, I learned in my time in the legal and banking sectors how important building relationships is to getting things done, especially within these powerful systems. You can have the best idea, and the evidence to back it up, but without the right people to support and implement your idea, you won’t succeed. It’s why at the Ford Foundation we’ve been so focused not just on great ideas, but also the individuals and institutions that will bring those ideas to life.