Darren Walker and Monica Aleman: we thread the needle as far as we can


Charles Keidan


Charles Keidan catches up with Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation and Monica Aleman, its International Program Director, Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice at Canada House shortly before a panel appearance at The Philanthropy Workshop summit in London. They talk about power, perpetuity, the challenge of reconciling capitalism with the pursuit of justice – and about how you can get it right and sometimes, how you can get it wrong.

CK: You’ve recently been awarded an OBE – an Order of the British Empire. Some UK philanthropy leaders have also received this honour, and they’re now campaigning to remove the word ’empire’ and have it called ‘Order of British Excellence’. What’s your view?

DW: I’m honoured by the recognition because it’s recognition of the Ford Foundation’s work and my leadership of Ford towards greater social justice in the world. I am always a supporter of excellence, whether it is in government, in titles, as goals in life, the idea of excellence is laudatory and is highly commendable.

CK: So you support that suggestion to change the name from Empire to excellence…

DW: Well, I would certainly support any idea that elevates excellence, elevates excellence in the name, elevates excellence in the idea behind the award because I do think the people who receive these honours are committed to excellence. And so it makes a lot of sense.

Talking more generally about the monarchy, do you think philanthropy should be challenging structures of hereditary power that are embodied in monarchies, when philanthropy has a role in social justice work?

DW: Philanthropy has a role to ensure more inclusion in the world and part of inclusion is looking at the historical structures and systems that have excluded people. What I’m in favour of is not to destroy, but to build – building longer tables and longer bridges, not walls. I believe that there’s a role for heritage to play in society and culture but it has to be aligned with our democratic principles and our aspirations for a more inclusive society.

MA: We at Ford are very much believers in the right to self-determination, so the country and the population of that country have to be the ones that determine what is right. At the same time, we recognise the history that that country has gone through and the kinds of evolutions that you have to go through to get to where you want to.

Monica, we worked together when you guest-edited a very powerful Alliance special feature on indigenous philanthropy. At the time, you wrote that philanthropy is missing the full potential of indigenous contributions, particularly indigenous women, to wider humanity. Do you think things have improved in the three to four years since then?

MA: Definitely. There has been a greater recognition that supporting organisations that are working on the frontlines is critical if you want change. And in philanthropy, many of those who are in charge of resources have understood the important role of indigenous organisations, so there is increased interest, if not yet increased resources or money, and that is a step in the right direction. The other thing that has happened is that the indigenous movement is getting stronger and stronger. They are building their institutions and Ford is investing in that, and what that means is that when those with the resources are ready, they will have the kinds of institutions to receive them. Two things have to happen: education on the side of the donors, but also indigenous organisations and indigenous movement need to build the right mechanisms to receive the money.

How important is it to have an ally like Darren as a president of one of the world’s most significant foundations championing this issue?

MA: The fact that he is a leader who is able to make space, is able to elevate the voice, and to elevate the issues that indigenous people put at the centre of the agenda is so important, and for someone like me, to be able to be sitting just here next to him in this room, I cannot tell you the amount of pride and joy that I feel.

An important thing to the indigenous women’s rights movement and to women of colour in general is that we have individuals and institutions that will stand behind our leadership and put us out there so that we carry that voice.

At a recent conference of pan-African and feminist philanthropy in Kenya, one of the frustrations expressed was that the decisions about them and their needs are still being made from the global North. While the rhetoric has changed, do you think foundations like yours have got further to go to allow funding decisions to be controlled outside your New York HQ?

DW: While we are far from perfect, we have significantly moved decision-making to our African offices. New York isn’t making decisions about grants. The Black Feminist Fund wasn’t generated from New York, that came out of conversations with African feminists. So while we have work to do, having decisions made closest to those communities, is pretty much our operating modality. I can’t speak for other foundations, but we have an office in Nairobi, and I go and see the team there.

You’ve also got the BUILD programme which is really trying to change the way the funding is given as well.

DW: Yes. When I joined the foundation, we were over 80 per cent project support, now we’re over 80 per cent general operating unrestricted support. That’s a sea change in terms of the mentality that we can trust our grantees to know best how to deploy unrestricted capital based on local context. That’s an operating principle of the Ford Foundation today.

You’ve become well-known for your investment policy’s innovative approach of using debt in order to spend more. How did you engage your board to take that approach?

DW: The board conversation was less than an hour. The four trustees were unanimous in their support for a very radical idea, which made it possible for us to double our grant-making over two years. We have trustees like Bryan Stevenson, Laurene Powell Jobs, Cecile Richards who themselves are in philanthropy, who are working on difficult issues of justice. It was not a heavy lift.

There are calls in some quarters for US foundation payouts to be increased and for them to be extended to Donor Advised Funds. Where do you stand on that issue?

DW: I’ve signed on to campaigns to require DAFs to accelerate payouts. In the case of Ford, we are always well above five per cent in our payout. We’re closer to six per cent and, on 16 billion dollars, the difference between five and six per cent is a significant amount of money. We have of course to be mindful of our fiduciary responsibility, but I believe we also have a moral responsibility, within the operating constraints of a private foundation, to do as much as we can to get as much money out of the door as quickly as you can.

How far you should go?

DW: We have to have regard to the fact that we were founded in perpetuity, so we need to be mindful of what we’re spending today because there will be a tomorrow and there will be problems tomorrow. You thread the needle as far as you can.

The Ford Foundation is committed to important principles of equality and social justice philanthropy, but at the same time, you’re committed to a form of capitalism – something you discuss in your book. How do you reconcile the tension?

DW: How we do it is to bring together the conversations about investments, grant-making, strategy and long-term vision. There is an interdependency between our investments and our grantmaking. That’s why, for example, we’ve created the first billion-dollar impact investing fund and why we have defossilised our investment portfolio, and why we seek to have an investment portfolio that can advance equality in the world, and advance opportunity. That means, for example, investing in companies that have employee ownership. That’s a strategy to reduce inequality. It’s a strategy for asset building, and often it’s a strategy to bridge the asset wealth gap in America, between black households, brown households and white households. It takes a comprehensive 360 vision that incorporates a vision for more justice in the world, that says that the kind of capitalism we now have is not sustainable and we need an inclusive version. I’ve colleagues who are doing grantmaking around this idea of inclusive capitalism because for capitalism to sustain itself, it has to change in order to produce more shared prosperity, not more inequality.

MA: I think that it is important to also recognise that the toolbox that the Ford Foundation has goes beyond our endowment, our grantmaking and our investment. We use everything. That includes our name, our building, our capacity to be here today and lend our voice and our support to initiatives like the Equality Fund. We don’t depend on working on this by ourselves. Taking the example of the Equality Fund, we provided 17 million dollars to build an institution, and that allowed the Canadian government to then put 300 million and that is going to allow other governments to also invest in that mechanism.

Alliance is covering The Philanthropy Workshop conference taking place here in London today. You’re about to join them for a panel discussion. What will your message to the TPW community be?

DW: The message today is twofold. One is that all philanthropists should strive to reduce inequality and bring about more justice. That may feel a little contradictory because the reality of philanthropy is that inequality makes it possible for many of us to exist – we have to interrogate our own complicity. The second part of the message is around power. We cannot have more justice in the world without focusing on the injustice for women and girls and the gender inequality that exists.’

Something that came out of the African conference I mentioned earlier was that there needs to be a more consciously political dimension to funding women and girls. It’s not an issue that can be de-politicised. How do you feel about that? 

DW: It’s about power. Let’s be really clear. Part of the reason it becomes political is because the notion of the empowerment of women and girls disrupts power structures, which include the political economy. It’s not that we are inherently seeking to be political, but we are seeking to shift power structures, to have more shared power, and to have the voices and perspectives of women and girls closest to the challenges to have the resources to change these issues in their own communities. So, we’re not looking to be political, but we are very much about disrupting the norms that exclude women. If that’s feminism, count me in.

A more personal question: before my Alliance days, I ran the Pears Foundation. We worked in Israel-Palestine and I spent many years – right up to the end of 2012 – trying to engage my community to see Palestinian realities until the point where it was no longer possible. Around the same time, the Ford Foundation was trying to promote democracy and social justice. We’re now seeing in Israel what looks like a seismic shift to the far right. Do you have any regrets about Ford’s decision – taken by one of your predecessors – to pull out of Israel-Palestine?

DW: I regret the mistakes we made in not supporting our grantees in a way that would bring about better outcomes. We as a foundation failed in this regard. It was – it is – a terrible shame. The reality is we have a most unfortunate history on the issue of anti-Semitism because of our donor, and that is a backdrop that we have to be mindful of and we need to act responsibly. I regret that we left because it didn’t have to happen. But we have no one to blame but ourselves.

A recent Alliance feature looked at learning from failure, and my editorial reflected on failures of my work on Israel-Palestine. When you talk about your regrets on Israel, it resonates…

DW: …No, no Charles, it’s so important to own that. We do this process every called ‘Our Worst Grants’, where you have to be comfortable with being vulnerable. I have a big one, where a leader I supported through the president’s office fund turned out to have done some really terrible things that have landed him in jail. I learned a lot and we learned a lot. We took a risk because he was the only African-American man in his field and of course we want to support those who have been historically excluded. But we also can’t let that blind us to other realities in our desire to support groups and individuals like that.

Charles Keidan is executive editor of Alliance

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