Field Notes: Darren Walker on Philanthropy

In an interview with Shelterforce Weekly, the Ford Foundation’s new president discusses his take on giving.

Drawing on his experience at Abyssinian Development Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, Walker talked about the tension of urgency versus long-term build in philanthropy, a holistic approach to local and regional economies, and the way he sees the intersection of “people and place and policy.”

Darren Walker: The opportunity for philanthropy is the opportunity to reflect, to listen, to learn, to craft responses and solutions that are based and rooted in the ideas of people who live and work in the communities that you want to empower and help; the opportunity to be bold and to take risk and not be constrained by some of those limitations of the public and the private sector.

Miriam Axel-Lute: How do you bring that opportunity down to the grantees? Because it feels a little bit like it can be in tension with some of the focus on outcomes measurement, and needing results after a one-year grant or a two-year grant, and yet we are trying to have these long-term goals, experiment, focus on people. Is there a way that some of that philosophy can come down to the grantees who are doing the implementation?

Darren Walker: One might get the impression from the literature that grantees don’t prioritize outcomes. Grantees care about outcomes. When I worked at Abyssinian, outcomes are what got me up every day. Making an impact is why I went to work every day. So to imply otherwise, which one might conclude from some of the things you read . . . would be unfortunate.

I think, though, the results need to be defined with the grantees and need to be constructed in a way that embraces their reality. Of course you want discipline. You want rigor. But, we can’t put them in a set of boxes with arrows and expect that that actually authentically represents the experience of social change on the ground, because it’s complex. It’s emergent. It’s unpredictable. And that ambiguity we in philanthropy need to embrace smartly, with our eyes wide open, and with some degree of realism about what can be done in a one-year or two-year grant cycle and why, therefore, the need to invest for the long haul is often what’s needed.

Harold Simon: It’s not the way many foundations approach their grant-making.

Darren Walker: I know. Sorry about that.

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