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Ford Foundation President Darren Walker believes in you

October 9, 2020, 11:05 PM UTC

The Ford Foundation president is literally doubling down on their mission to support essential justice and arts organizations, through a creative and unprecedented financial tool. But, says Walker, the rest of the work is ours to do.

But first, here’s your Hamilton-and-presidential-meltdown inspired week in review in Haiku.

It must be nice, to
have Washington on your side:
No masks, no problem!

It must be nice, to
have Washington on your side:
New justice? That’s fine!

It must be nice, to
have Washington on your side:
Steroids? Sign him up!

It must be nice, to
have Washington on your side:
POTUS, on line two!

It must be nice, to
have Washington on your side:
Let’s try it and see

Wishing you a healthy, musical, and uplifting weekend.

Ellen McGirt

In brief

Ford Foundation president Darren Walker believes in you.

He makes his feelings plain in this beautiful and necessary essay he posted on the Ford Foundation blog earlier this week. He begins by sharing the way he is thinking about the pain endured by so many people at this terrible, terrible time.

“A couple of weeks ago, clicking through the channels late at night, I landed on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. The producers had opened the phone lines and invited Americans to share how the pandemic had affected them. Some people had lost their jobs, but not received the unemployment checks promised to them. Others were staring down an eviction or a foreclosure. Thea, from South Carolina, openly wept as she described her situation—her desperation and anxiety about merely caring for herself.

As she spoke, I found myself weeping with her. Her story was a gut punch—a visceral reminder of how much people are hurting.”

Where Walker lands—which is a direct extension of his work sitting atop a charitable foundation with a $13.7 billion endowment and a very big mission—is on the role we all have to play in pushing back against injustice while making deeper commitments to the many stakeholders we may never meet, but who deserve our unalloyed attention.

“I do believe, however, that in every theater of our lives, we need more people focused on the bigger, broader objective beyond the next earnings call or election: a long-term vision for a more just society,” he says. Courage needs to come in a new form. “[B]usiness leaders who serve the interests of all their stakeholders, not only their shareholders; more elected officials who serve a common good, not only the donors and partisans who comprise their base of support.”

I spent a half hour on the phone with Walker this week, to ask him more about his extraordinary idea to increase the amount of money they were able to grant this year with a deft maneuver worthy of the Wall Street trader he once was: A billion dollar bond for social justice.

From my story:

The Ford Foundation announced $180 million in new grant funding for U.S. racial justice and civil rights groups, the organizations large and small who are doing essential work to address systemic racism and support full democratic inclusion. This latest funding doubles the Foundation’s existing commitments in the civil justice arena to $330 million.

This latest allocation has been made possible by a deft use of capital markets—unprecedented in philanthropic history. In June, the Foundation announced its plan to borrow $1 billion in social bonds to increase its grant-giving capacity at a time when mission-critical organizations large and small are losing revenue due to the coronavirus.

“What was creative was figuring out a way to increase our giving while not diminishing the current value of our endowment,” Ford Foundation president Darren Walker tells Fortune.

Walker, with his capital market bona fides—and who also sits on three corporate boards—has his finely tuned antennae as much on the business case for diversity as he does on the business leader's responsibility for social transformation.

Which is how we landed on you. Yes, Walker believes in you.

It's up to all of us to take the investment the rest of the way, he says. Consume art, yes, especially from makers different than you. But don't stop there. Find a smaller justice organization near you and share your strengths. "Find ways to offer the expertise that lies within corporations to help organizations be more resilient," he says. "And by that I mean join their board. Support their fundraising efforts. Be their advocate. Introduce them to your network. Make your in-house talent in marketing or financial services available to strengthen the infrastructure of these organizations."

The piece of the puzzle he’s looking for is courage, but at scale.

“I think what it will take is for us to incent courage. I mean, we really don't have a system that incents courage.” CEOs are forced to focus short-term, skewing the system away from transformation.

The first step to get there, he believes, will be mastering the art of active listening. “As I spend time circles of leaders, particularly at the senior level….there are few active listeners.” You can’t mentor someone or change a system without understanding the perspectives of people who are different from you, he says. “This is my case for the arts and empathy. They show us how to see the dignity in every human being.”



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