Ford Foundation President Darren Walker on Philanthropy

In “From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth”, Darren Walker articulates a bold vision for philanthropy in the 21st century, joined by an array of thinkers, activists, and leaders from every field, sector, and walk of life. Walker sits down with Walter Isaacson to discuss his personal journey and how philanthropy can be a tool for achieving economic, social, and political justice.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Darren Walker is the president of the Ford Foundation. In his new book, “From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth,” he lays out a bold new vision for philanthropy in the 21st century. And our Walter Isaacson sat down with him to discuss his route from humble beginnings to influential philanthropist.


WALTER ISAACSON: So, you grow up poor, black, gay, fatherless, in I think Rayne, Louisiana, and then Liberty, Texas. How grateful are you for that?

DARREN WALKER, PRESIDENT, FORD FOUNDATION: I am enormously grateful and very mindful of the fact that I grew up in a country that believed in me, that cheered me on, and that ensured that I would be a success in life. And so every day I wake up, I feel gratitude to this nation and for the opportunity to live in a country that made possible my dreams.

ISAACSON: You learned, you said at one point, from being a busboy that it really helped for me your idea of social justice. Tell me about that experience.

WALKER: I think being a busboy was the job that prepared me to be president of the Ford Foundation today, because, as a 13-year-old black kid in a Southern town working in a restaurant, I was the lowest person on the pole. I was the lowest person in the organization.


ISAACSON: You and the dishwasher.

WALKER: Me and the dishwasher. But I was also invisible. As I walked around the periphery of that room cleaning up after the guests, the customers, my job was to be invisible. And people didn’t look at me, didn’t acknowledge me, other than to give me the things they no longer wanted. And that invisibility gave me insight on what it feels like to be marginalized and what it feels like to be invisible. Today, the work that we do at the Ford Foundation is about lifting up those people who often feel invisible, left out and left by society, and ensuring that their voices are heard, their perspectives are felt, and that their participation in our democracy is assured.

ISAACSON: When you took over the Ford Foundation, you did just that, which is, let’s focus like a laser on the problems of inequality. Was that changing the nature of the Ford Foundation? And why did you do that?

WALKER: It didn’t change the nature. It brought more discipline to what had become a quite far-flung set of programmatic activities. And what we did through the process of determining inequality as a great threat was to really excavate our mission, going back to Henry Ford’s imperative of improving and strengthening democracy as one of the reasons why he created the Ford Foundation. So we believe that the greatest threat to democracy is hopelessness, because hopelessness as a function of growing inequality plays a deep role in how optimistic we are, how much we believe that the American dream is still possible. Indeed, hope is the oxygen for the American dream. And when hope is asphyxiated, the American dream is asphyxiate. So we have work to do in this country to build a sense of hope and a sense of optimism, and to rebuild in people a belief that that mobility escalator that I got on and rode as far as it could take me, as far as my ambition and my hard work would let it, that that’s still possible.

ISAACSON: Your tale is very much one of a land of opportunity, coming from the small towns that you did, Wall Street, and now head of the Ford Foundation. Do you think that ladder of opportunity has gotten a little bit harder these days? And, if so, why?

WALKER: Absolutely the ladder has gotten harder. And I think the rungs are farther apart than they were when I was young. To get on the mobility escalator, there are things that help you get on and determine how fast you will ride it. So, education, I was fortunate. I went to public schools. I’m proud to say I have never attended a day of private schooling in my life. All the way through law school, I had access to very high-quality public schools. I had the Pell Grant and private philanthropy that financed my education. I had access to after-school and Head Start programs and summer jobs programs, often funded by the government. And so it is true that today it is much harder to finance that on-ramp, because education costs are higher, college, of course. Today, there is more debt from student loans than from mortgages. So, we have an entire generation of young people who, rather than thinking about buying a home or starting a business, are burdened with $100,000 of student loan debt. And so the mobility escalator is both harder to get on and, because of the way the economy today is structured, it is slowing down or, for some, it has stopped.

ISAACSON: And so, at the Ford Foundation, you have made this a focus. What can we do? If we were to regain that optimism we had when you were young and I was young, what could we do to help that mobility escalator?

WALKER: First, we have to make public investments in public education, particularly higher education, which is the key, I think, facilitator and on-ramp to that mobility escalator. So, today, higher education is unaffordable for far too many people. So, if you think about education, we have to consider the way in which the economy is structured and why today are the highest-income people reaping the greatest benefits at a much higher rate than middle-income and lower-income people? And that’s about tax policy. That’s about challenges that we capitalists don’t like talking about, like regulation and redistribution, because we haven’t…

ISAACSON: Is that an inherent problem in capitalism, in your mind, that the rich will get richer?

WALKER: It is a challenge in capitalism, but it’s not inherit. We have designed a system, a capitalist system, today that distorts capitalism, and does not generate the kind of shared prosperity that you and I knew growing up.

ISAACSON: Well, one of the things that happened is, corporations shifted their focus from thinking they had multiple stakeholders to thinking that they only had to focus on a return to the shareholder. Do you think we have to move away — or move back to a form of corporate and business that looks after its workers and its communities?

WALKER: I think you’re absolutely right. Your diagnosis that they moved from a — what I would call a stakeholder paradigm to a shareholder paradigm — and, of course, Milton Friedman’s article and essays on this made Friedman famous, but also created, I think, and contributed to the kind of single-mindedness of the investor community that diminished the needs and priorities of the other stakeholders, employees, customers. And the communities where corporations do business were left behind in pursuit of return on investment for the shareholder. And that’s a problem. That contributed to corporations doing away with their pension programs, doing away with the profit-sharing programs.

ISAACSON: You have this fascinating book out that’s going to be the great manifesto for our era when it comes to philanthropy. It’s is called “From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth.” Let me start with the subtitle, because the original gospel of wealth was Andrew Carnegie,. somebody who was both a rapacious corporate businessman, but also believed in things like higher education, institutions, things that he had to build. Tell me about Carnegie’s gospel of wealth.

WALKER: In 1889, Andrew Carnegie wrote “The Gospel of Wealth.” As you say, he was a rapacious capitalist. He was a reviled capitalist. But he also knew that there was something that he could do to make a difference in the lives of people who weren’t as advantaged. And out of this new gospel came a set of ideas that led to the creation of the Carnegie free libraries across the country, because he believed that literacy was an important intervention in the lives of people, and that illiteracy was a root cause of the poverty that we saw at that time. He believed that generosity was important and that operating out of his religious beliefs, it was critical that he be generous and charitable. Fast-forward to 2020. It’s not enough to be generous and charitable. We know too much today. We are a more inclusive democratic society. We have made social advances that Carnegie could never have imagined, the progress of women, people of color, LGBT. Today, the imperative is not charity and generosity. The imperative is justice and dignity. And the question for philanthropists of this digital era, I believe, is, what are you doing to contribute to more justice in society?

ISAACSON: With Carnegie, he breaks the Homestead Strike, in other words, workers who — he cuts the wages of his workers. People are killed by his guards protecting his steel mills, and that he makes some money and gives it away to great institutions. In some way, your book is saying that model is not something we need in 2020.

WALKER: That model is not enough. Now, again, Carnegie and Rockefeller were just remarkably reviled. I don’t know what — there is no other word. They were…

ISAACSON: Malefactors of great wealth, I think was Teddy Roosevelt’s line.

WALKER: Indeed. He indeed said that. And, in fact, Rockefeller filed a charter in 1908 to establish the Rockefeller Foundation. And it took him five years to convince Congress to give him a charter to give his fortune away, because Congress felt that there was nothing good that could come of Rockefeller’s wealth. So these were men who lived in a time when the idea that you do bad things, and then you amass wealth, and you give back, and that’s your penance. I don’t think, today, that’s enough. I think, today, the scrutiny that I think goes into asking questions, how are you making your money? Are you making your money ethically? Are you making your money because you’re investing in prisons and ammunition? I think wealthy people, entrepreneurs, captains of industry are under a kind of scrutiny that they were not during Carnegie and Rockefeller’s day. And I think that’s a good thing.

ISAACSON: You deal with a lot of philanthropists. And, in some ways, they get comforted by their charity. They feel they have been philanthropic, and so it’s made up for some of the things they do. Do you feel sometimes you have to discomfort them, to say, let me play a little bit more on your guilt and say, there are deep social issues you have to face, not just giving away money in a charitable way?

WALKER: In the book, I talk about getting uncomfortable, that this new gospel, if you believe in it, you actually embrace the discomfort. Charity and generosity actually make the donor feel good. So when you put the money in the bucket at the Salvation Army in front of Bloomingdale’s during the holidays, you feel good about yourself. Giving, through this new gospel, doesn’t always make you feel good, because, rather than giving money for a homeless shelter, we have to ask ourselves, why is there homelessness in the richest nation in the world? In a city like New York, which has a housing crisis, why do we have $25 million condominiums for sale, and the real estate developers received a tax abatement in order to be able to build these? So how is it that we live in a society where wealthy developers and wealthy purchasers are benefiting from an abatement in their taxes on their real estate holdings, when homeless people are literally on the streets in front of those $50 million apartments? We have to ask ourselves, what kind of nation do we live in that allows that, and how have I contributed to this outcome? And so, for the donor, it does require holding up the mirror. And that’s a very hard thing, because most Americans who are successful today believe in the idea of meritocracy. How else did they become successful? Because we have so many people who are successful who did start from very humble beginnings. And, therefore, it’s hard for those people to believe that there’s something inherently unjust about America. They believe that America actually works. And, for them, America has worked. But, unfortunately, for far too many, America is not working anymore. And that’s what we have got to change.

ISAACSON: You also have been working with the Chan Zuckerberg foundation on a variety of projects. Tell me about some of those.

WALKER: Well, CZI is doing some remarkable work using technology and technologists for good. So whether it’s work on the environment, or in the biosciences, or even in criminal justice reform most recently, they are developing technology and using innovative approaches to accelerate discovery in the sciences, to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated. These are really remarkable initiatives that are happening in partnership with organizations like the Ford Foundation and others. So, I’m actually really encouraged by this new generation of philanthropists that CZI represent.

ISAACSON: But isn’t that another example in some ways of people making money in ways that may not have benefited society, like Facebook and what it’s done to our politics, and then trying to use that to give back? I mean, do you have to sort of question where the money came from in terms of Facebook, and whether Facebook has been good for our society?

WALKER: Well, I think the question of whether Facebook has been good for our society and any number of the new technology companies is a very fair one, that we support organizations who are pressing those questions around privacy, around money in politics, which manifests, of course, on technologies like Facebook. But, at the end of the day, we have got to ensure that every philanthropic dollar is put to the best and highest use.

ISAACSON: Darren, thank you very much.

WALKER: Thank you.

ISAACSON: It’s very moving to talk to you.

WALKER: Always great to be with you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Michael Bloomberg’s campaign manager Kevin Sheeley discusses why the billionaire has jumped into the race. Actor Richard Gere and his brother, activist David Gere, discuss their recent work. Julia Neuberger, senior rabbi and member of the UK House of Lords, discusses antisemitism in the UK. Ford Foundation president Darren Walker talks how philanthropy can be a tool for achieving justice.