Current Events and Philanthropy / Philanthropy and Inequality

Ford Tackles Inequality?

Editors’ Note: Against the backdrop of Ford Foundation President Darren Walker’s announced efforts to address inequalities on the global stage, HistPhil hosted a conversation this past August on the ability of philanthropy to address societal-wide inequities. At the Ford Foundation offices in NYC earlier this month, Walker discussed further his vision for the organization with Stanford political scientist Rob Reich (The event also was live streamed, which we very much appreciated and watched). One of the contributors to HistPhil’s philanthropy & inequality forum, Erica Kohl-Arenas, attended the event and provides us with her reflections. 

On January 7th I attended a public talk at The Ford Foundation. The event was billed as an opportunity to learn about how Ford and other foundations are evolving to address inequality and advance social justice. Co-sponsored by the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS), the event featured a conversation between Ford president Darren Walker and PACS Co-director Rob Reich.

While bold statements were made, I left the event wondering exactly how Ford and other foundations are evolving to address inequality. In Ford’s first announcement about the turn towards inequality last June, op-eds in the New York Times, and last week’s event Walker eloquently recounts the claims of philanthropy’s most fierce critics: foundations are created through the excesses of capitalism; capitalist markets create inequality; foundations represent the paradox of attempting to address inequality through institutions created from the very systems they claim to change. But how are foundations, and Ford specifically, addressing these problems and contradictions? Unfortunately, the critique is most commonly followed by the age-old individualistic opportunity story, once again distracting us from the very contradiction that funders like Walker now publicly acknowledge. Perhaps Darren Walker is either not interested in or is politically constrained from achieving a bolder agenda.

At the January 7th event Rob Reich asked the hard questions. After opening with a biographical story from Walker about the childhood aspirations that propelled him onto the “mobility escalator” up and out of small town Texas, also told in the recent New Yorker article, Reich asked, “How do you deal with the philanthrocapitalism contradiction?” How does a foundation president make sense of the fact that while you may aim to address entrenched inequality your institution is made possible by unequal systems of wealth production? Often on the backs of the very people you aim to assist.

Prompting empathic laughter from the relatively diverse audience, Walker suggested that one way to make sense of this contradiction is to imagine the late Henry Ford’s reaction if he were to discover that a black gay man now sits at the helm of the Ford Foundation. To imagine Andrew Carnegie’s surprise to discover that an Armenian immigrant (Vartan Gregorian) now runs his ship, or John D. Rockefeller’s surprise upon discovering that a Jewish woman (Judith Rodin) is now the President of the Rockefeller Foundation. Combined, Walker’s biographical mobility story and the historic philanthropic tycoons’ likely imagined displeasure with the current state of their foundations suggests that, through individual initiative and risk taking, today’s philanthropic professionals are empowered to support change beyond the limited visions of their institutions’ founders.

With a welcomed diversification of leadership, how are foundations ‘evolving’ to address inequality and advance social justice? What specific structural and substantive changes are taking place within foundations and across the sector? What are some of the constraints Walker struggles with as he attempts to focus on inequality while gaining approval from his board of trustees? This is less clear. Ultimately, Walker explained, the market place creates winners and losers and this dynamic is, “counter to the principles we hold dear as social justice funders.” Yet created by the market, Walker continued, foundations sit at a “precarious intersection” where people of privilege are often let off the hook. Funders are allowed to feel good about themselves without a deeper interrogation about their own privilege and role in maintaining systems of inequality. This is a clear assessment. But at last week’s event we did not learn about what kinds of risks Ford is willing to take at this precarious intersection. Will Ford and other foundations address the growing critiques about lack of transparency, elite led decision making, and profit oriented grant making that seeks to create new markets while avoiding conflict with powerful economic interests? Will funders find new ways to act more like allies, and less like patrons with strings attached and limits set, to the social movements of our times?

Walker’s response to Reich’s question about the widely discussed Zuckerberg-Chan pledge hints at an answer to some of these questions. Embedded in Reich’s question was a critique of the trend among new philanthropists to pay their way into politics and policy reform, such as in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s experiment with the Newark, NJ, school system. Without hesitation Walker congratulated Zuckerberg and Chan, stating that it is their money and their choice to decide how to leverage their privilege for change. Reich did not end there, “I too have a lot of ideas about what I’d like to see change but I can’t afford to fund super PACS. Is this not a political plutocracy?” Despite the applause from the audience, Walker, unwavering, responded, “Yes, we have a system of wealth production that produces inequality. But we also have a system that says that people who make this money can determine how to use it for good.” Walker responded to another question about greater foundation accountability by sharing that Ford will hire professional evaluators, with no mention of grantee or community advisory boards or democratizing decision making within the foundation or across the sector.

Much of the talk focused on the importance of debunking prejudicial cultural narratives and removing barriers to individual mobility (both clearly important), but not on how to fundamentally change our political and economic systems. Walker is not afraid of discussing how structures of capital production reproduce inequality; affirmed by comments about how people of African descent still suffer from the legacy of slavery and about how injustices to low income renters are perpetuated when wealthy developers receive housing subsidies for million dollar apartments in New York City. While emboldened to discuss systemic inequalities in general terms, Walker does not seem prepared to directly address how Ford will take them on. And perhaps we should not expect him to. As Walker reflected in Towards a new gospel of wealth, foundations face certain limits as they are, “established by a market system and endowed by the money of the past century’s 1 percent,” further enabled by returns on capital.

Though I was not called upon during the Q&A at last Thursday’s event, I wanted to ask Walker, “What would you like to change but believe you cannot because you work within a capitalist institution? What are the specific hard and fast limits? What risks are you willing to take and how far do you think you can go in addressing structural inequality? What would a real philanthropic shake up look like?”

-Erica Kohl-Arenas

Erica Kohl-Arenas is an Assistant Professor at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School. Kohl-Arenas’ book, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (University of California Press, 2016), analyzes the history of philanthropic investments in addressing farmworker and immigrant poverty across California’s Central Valley. Prior to her graduate studies, Kohl-Arenas worked as a popular educator and community development practitioner in a variety of settings including public schools, with immigrant nonprofit organizations, and in coal mining and crofting towns in Appalachia and Scotland. 

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