Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

We first met Darren Walker about 15 years ago while planning an issue on faith-based development. Darren was the chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, the storied community development arm of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. We asked Darren to write an article that was not simply a cheerleader’s promotion of church-based CDCs, but a realistic assessment of the benefits and challenges to an institution embarking on that path.

Darren was optimistic and enthusiastic about the work he was doing at Abyssinian creating hundreds of units of affordable housing in Harlem. But he was pragmatic and realistic also. His article encouraged organizations to temper the enthusiasm necessary to even consider this work with a realistic analysis of an organization’s capacities and a clear-eyed examination of their assumptions about the rewards of creating a CDC.

Darren approached his work enthusiastically, I think, because he had visceral understanding of the challenges low-income folks had and the opportunities that were available to them with the right help. The kind of help that the stability of an affordable home could provide. His understanding came from personal experience that would inform his work wherever it took him, from law school to international finance, from a storefront afterschool program and Abyssinian to the Rockefeller and Ford foundations.

When we sat down with Darren on March 18 to conduct this interview, we were glad to see that enthusiasm, optimism, and pragmatism were as strong as ever as he starts his leadership of one of the world’s largest foundations.

Miriam Axel-Lute: So why did you move from capital markets to volunteering at a nonprofit?

Darren Walker: Because at the end of the day, I wanted a career that was fulfilling and gratifying and that allowed me to have some modest impact on the world, and people and places I care about. I was given that opportunity because my work at the Children’s Storefront School in Harlem introduced me to the community around 129th Street because I was there so often. And so I came to know people and came to really understand at a granular level what it was like to be uptown in 1995, and I decided I wanted to commit my life to doing that kind of work.

I was lucky because while I was working at the Children’s Storefront School, I met Calvin Butts at the Abyssinian Church [which ran the Abyssinian Baptist CDC], and he said, “Come and work for me,” which I gladly did. And so that’s how I came to community development. I didn’t know what a CDC was. I’d never heard of LISC. And all of a sudden I’m working at this newish CDC with a big grant from LISC, which had gotten a big grant from the Ford Foundation. So, it came full circle.

Miriam Axel-Lute: How was the transition from the private sector into the nonprofit sector, and then from the nonprofit sector to philanthropy?

Darren Walker: Well, actually, the transition from the for-profit sector to the nonprofit sector was easier than the transition from the nonprofit sector to philanthropy. And that’s because in both the for-profit and the nonprofit sector, there are market mechanisms for accountability that demand a set of deliverables from you that are pretty quantifiable. And so, when I was at a bank or a law firm, you had to bill hours, or you had a P&L. And when I was at Abyssinian [CDC] every day, I would open the door of the building, and there’d be people in line waiting, who were part of a program that we had to move people from shelter situations to permanent housing, and people waiting because they wanted to enroll their child in Head Start.

So, you knew on a daily basis how you were doing, because people [said] “When is this project going to open?” and “Why hasn’t it opened?” and “You promised that my kid could be in the Head Start,” and, “Why are these drug dealers still on this block after you’ve been working with us on our block association?” So, every day you had a sense of urgency and a demand on you to deliver in tangible ways quickly.

I think the transition to Rockefeller was challenging because I went to a development foundation that was international in its scope and its focus, and had been on this long trajectory of working to eradicate poverty and hunger in places like India and sub-Saharan Africa. And the urgency was there, but it was a different kind of urgency. It wasn’t the urgency because every day someone was at your door, or someone was saying, “Your numbers are down this month and you’ve got to get them back up or you’re going to be out of a job,” which is the way the private sector works. The pace of things weren’t as urgent as it felt at Abyssinian or at UBS.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Did your experience at Abyssinian about how poverty works and how the field works on the ground affect your work in philanthropy?

Darren Walker: Yes, definitely. From my own lived experience and the experience of working uptown, I understand the totality, the complexity of challenges that confront low-income families and communities, and I certainly brought that experience with me. The barriers to advancement for low-income people in communities are multilayered and multifaceted, and there is no quick fix or silver bullet to solving those issues.

I brought probably a greater appreciation for the importance of culture and cultural practices to Rockefeller, to a development foundation where there really wasn’t much, where our ideas about development were really rooted in a kind of development economics that spoke to basic needs around food, for example, and nutrients.

We talked a lot about nutrients and vitamin C versus vitamin B and what that does to the development of the body, [but] didn’t also say, “What does the idea of storytelling do, and what does the idea of passing on tradition do?” That was not in the conversation. And so, my job was often [to say it].

Where does cultural practice fit into this? As you think about your scientific public health interventions, what do you think about traditional healers or the people rural villagers go to, and are going to continue to go to even when you show up in your nice UN Jeep with your vaccines? These people are going to matter, so how do you think about them?

Harold Simon: It’s so easy to separate body and soul. And soul is so hard to grab hold of.

Darren Walker: Well, that’s where the complexity enters in.

Harold Simon: Yes. May I go back to what you said a moment ago about urgency and the different perception of urgency, in the foundation? Because it seems like that’s a two-edged sword. On one hand you have time to reflect. On the other hand, people are still hurting. And the more you wait, the more people hurt. How do you balance that?

Darren Walker: It is a double edge. I look at that construct as an opportunity. I don’t say that it’s a bad thing that the sense of urgency feels different. It’s only a bad thing if you squander the opportunity that it gives philanthropy.

What I’m excited about is that we do have the opportunity, the time to reflect. We don’t have the demand of being elected every other year, which sometimes can generate distortions and irrational decision-making, because you’ve just got to get this done. You’ve got to have that ribbon-cutting so the congressman can see his picture and get credit for something, so you’ve got to rush it to make it so that it fits. That kind of urgency is not good.

The opportunity [in philanthropy] is the chance to listen, to understand the complexity of the problem, to [be] in partnership with the communities where we work, to craft the appropriate long-term response so you don’t have to say, “But we’ve got to have this done by the next election cycle because the elected official has to get credit.” When you do that,  sometimes results are actually are counter-beneficial.

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 grantmaking.

Darren Walker: I know. Sorry about that.

Harold Simon: The difficulty is you’re not the only foundation. From a grantee’s perspective, you’re not going to supply all their funding. And so, you have this tension between what you want and also the demands of the rest of philanthropy. And the organizations are feeling the brunt of those conflicting demands.

Darren Walker: Yes, and I think that that’s what’s most disconcerting, is the stress and the unnecessary pain that we can sometimes cause, and that’s deeply regrettable.

Miriam Axel-Lute: We’ve been talking a lot about the complexity of the problems that we’re trying to take on. A nice house is not enough if it’s not on a safe street or doesn’t have access to good schools, and yet, that’s how a lot of the work is stratified. A lot of funding streams are separated into departments—culture as its own thing, and health, and housing. How are you thinking about integrating these at Ford and having them interact with each other, or work together?

Darren Walker: We see this intersection of people and place and policy. I think we see a connection between workforce and our education work. We see culture being a cross-cutting theme that touches on all of our work. And so, the question is how do we organize ourselves in a way so that we can benefit from the opportunity for real interdisciplinary work that we have here.

We’re in the midst now of a set of important institutional conversations about how we’re structured and how we do our programming, and we are prepared to be disruptive in our own internal structures and practice to actually work in a way that reinforces the way work actually happens on the ground.

In a building like this, [and] we’ve got offices around the world, you’ve got to have some structure. The question is how do you have structure that actually unleashes the potential of the institution rather than contain it, that unleashes the power of really smart people who want to work with grantees and partners across the different areas. How do you unleash that and validate it? That’s the challenge before me and the leadership team, and I think that’s what we’re going to be tackling these next few months.

Harold Simon: Just a little bit scary, huh?

Darren Walker: It’s daunting, but it’s a huge opportunity.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Yes. And similarly, you’ve seen the community development world struggle with some of these issues over the past decade or two. How do we look at things comprehensively? Where do you see the field going, and are the shifts a good thing, or fad-chasing?

Darren Walker: For me it’s interesting to have been on the journey. When I came into the CDC world, it really was a conversation about neighborhoods, and it’s really moved to conversations about neighborhoods and regions, how those neighborhoods aggregate up into regional strategies, and that interplay, the conversation between the local and the regional. I think [that] is reflected in the way economies work. There are neighborhood economies, but neighborhood economies are subsidiary ecologies of broader regional economic equality and inequality.

That has required a more holistic approach, which is why people and place and policy become so important, because formal and often informal policies are not made at the neighborhood level. Neighborhoods are dealing with broader forces around policy that wash into their community and have one impact or another. For the community development movement to align itself with those regional forces and those regional actors has been something we’ve supported here, and will continue to be an important part of our work.

That doesn’t mean that neighborhoods don’t matter anymore. Neighborhoods are the unit of analysis, ultimately, because at the end of the day, that’s the way people live their lives. And so you’ve got to have mechanisms that allow you to look across the neighborhood and across the region. Organizations like PolicyLink, the large regional equity organization, didn’t exist when I came into philanthropy.

I think it’s important that we continue to evolve. And part of our job at Ford is to support those visionaries, those innovators, like we did with Angela Blackwell when she brought the idea of PolicyLink, which in part was a response to what she had seen at Ford and at Rockefeller, which was a focus on CDCs and not recognizing that CDCs were part of a larger ecology, and that issues of equity were at the core of why CDCs weren’t having more impact.

We’re going to continue to do that innovation, but also support those CDCs and regional actors who are making a difference in a more holistic way.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Economies are regional, like you say, but the policies tend to flow from cities or states, neither of which are actually that regional environment. So it’s a challenge.

Darren Walker: It is. But for example, in transportation, a lot of the policies are regional because they’re regional transport. And increasingly, cities have a love-hate [relationship] with housing: Is it just in my city or is it a broader regional [issue]?. The regional analysis demands more of regions around housing, because as you all know, if you just say “It’s a city thing,” then . . .

Miriam Axel-Lute: That doesn’t work.

Darren Walker: Then everyone can say, “No, that’s Newark’s problem. That’s Paterson’s problem, even though I’m next door. We’ve got great housing here in Summit. We don’t have any problems at all. What’s going on over in Paterson is Paterson’s problem.”

The wonderful thing about the regional analysis is that it recalibrates how policy gets thought about and presents an opportunity to bring more equity.

Harold Simon: I understand everything you’re saying, and very often we talk about those same things. But, on the ground, how do you operationalize that, understanding that these neighborhood players tend to be understaffed, over-extended, they tend to have so many demands on them. And now we’re saying, hey, open your eyes, fellas, because there’s a big, wide world out there that you are totally embedded in.

Darren Walker: I think one way to operationalize it is playing the role of connector and connecting the local and the regional. And that’s one of the things that philanthropy, particularly a philanthropy like Ford, can do. We are positioned to do that, because we fund both. That connector/facilitator/enabler role is something we play at a global level. So, we often have, as I’m participating in in a few weeks, a human rights conference where there are, in the global South, wonderful, amazing, but frail human rights organizations that are up against enormous challenges in some of the countries they are in.

And the role that we play, in addition to funding them, is connecting them to the larger global human rights networks, the rulemaking frameworks and actors, whether they be at the UN or in Geneva or in New York or Washington, so that they can play the role of bringing authentic voice to actually what’s happening in their countries and not being spoken for by some global human rights group in Geneva. You’re bringing the actual voice of the African [for example], to the table and facilitating and creating this space to legitimize and validate their voice.

Harold Simon and Miriam Axel-Lute: Thank you.

Shelterforce is the only independent, non-academic publication covering the worlds of community development, affordable housing, and neighborhood stabilization.


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