Archives and Knowledge Management

Ford’s Darren Walker on How Philanthropy Can Mine its Own Past

Editors’ Note: The following is an edited transcript of an interview between HistPhil co-editor Benjamin Soskis and Ford Foundation president Darren Walker. In 2011, the Ford Foundation moved its archives, which had previously been housed in its New York headquarters, to the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC). Two years later, Walker became president of the Foundation. Since that time, the foundation has developed a number of innovative programs with the RAC, in which archivists and researchers help foundation staff understand how the foundation’s past might inform its contemporary practice. Walker elaborated on those programs and the motivations behind them in the interview.

HistPhil: Under your leadership, Ford has made a deliberate effort to think more carefully and clearly about its relationship to its own past and in the process, it’s developed a fascinating relationship between its staff and its archives. Can you talk about the motivation for that effort?

Walker: Absolutely. The motivation came about because I have worked in two legacy foundations and I am also on the board of a start-up foundation. And one of the things that I experienced at both Rockefeller and Ford is how often new leadership comes in and doesn’t fully appreciate, or seem to fully understand, the history of the institution. The history of the institution is an asset, and if we are smart, we can leverage that asset. But often what happens is that leaders like to feel that when they arrive, it’s a new day at the foundation. And if you work for a legacy foundation, it’s not a new day. You are kidding yourself. You are part of a long trajectory of people who have been fortunate enough to lead this institution. And you have a responsibility and an obligation to understand its history, to understand what it did well, the mistakes that it made, and to have that inform future strategies and priorities.

The Ford Foundation’s history is what makes it possible for us today to have legitimacy and authority on any of these issues, from racial justice, women’s right, to economic development in urban and rural communities. Because we have done work and we have had impact. And we have done some impressive work and we have done some poor quality work. And we need to own and mine those experiences and use that knowledge to help inform and shape current and future priorities.

HistPhil: You mentioned a number of important program areas there. Can you speak to a specific example in which Ford’s archives and its past has informed your thinking about contemporary programming?

Walker: Sure. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Ford Foundation was on the forefront of helping to build a new field called public interest law. If you were in law school in the 1950s and early ‘60s, and you wanted to work to help the poor, or to work in the public interest, although that wasn’t really a term then, there really was not a glide path for you at law school. So what the Ford Foundation started was a number of pilots at law schools, creating law school clinics, creating fellowships that would make it possible for young law school graduates to work in what were public interest organizations that the Ford Foundation helped to create, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, or MALDEF [the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund], or NOW, the National Organization for Women. And so the Foundation helped to build this new field. And so there’s a rich history about what the interventions were, how we worked with law schools to create law school clinics, how we worked with the government to support new programs within government to represent the poor.

I mention all that to say that today, as we landscape areas for new work where social justice is going to be contested, the internet is such a place. The internet is going to be a battleground for opportunity in this century. And yet there is no public interest technology field. If you are at a computer science program or if you are an engineer, and you want to work for the ACLU or for the Sierra Club, there is no glide path that easily facilitates that. Because there is no field. If you are a young engineer, your goal is to go to work for Google, just as in the 1960s, it was to go work for a big Wall Street law firm. So what we are doing today is working with government, with computer science schools, working with a new cadre of organizations that are forming this new field, an ecosystem of public interest technology—public interest technologists, coders, engineers, computer scientists, who see as their career track, using those skills and capacities that they might be using for the private interest at Google or Facebook, and using them for the public interest, at one of these public interest organizations.

So that’s an example of how much we have modeled a new strategy on an old strategy. The Internet Freedom program team requested research on the history of the public interest law origins and inquired what lessons were learned during its creation. That research has been extremely useful in identifying the parallels and charting the best way to get an ambitious program such as this off the ground and to have impact.

HistPhil: Now that you’ve gained some experience mining Ford’s archives, has it given you any thought about what is important for you and the rest of the staff to preserve of the records and knowledge you are now creating? One way of thinking about this would be to imagine historians, 50 years in the future, studying the early 21th century Ford Foundation. What sort of materials do you think are important to preserve now so that they could best understand the foundation’s programs and priorities?

Walker: [After becoming president], one of the first things I did was to organize a board meeting at the Rockefeller Archive Center. So we curated a program with the archivists, a very multi-media program where we had materials like letters and correspondence between members of the Gaither Committee and trustees, grant request from Martin Luther King, a letter from Gloria Steinem, material from Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh. Drawings of the UN building, some of which the Ford Foundation funded. These sort of hard objects. So we had all those things. And then to see films on organizations we supported. It was very powerful.

And so if I were to think forward, in 50 years, what would I want trustees to see, I believe the use of video and social media is transforming everything. And I think we have to move from an analog world of program memos to a digital world where the challenge will be so much information, understanding what should be preserved and how to do that, what the taxonomies are, and how we standardize in this digital world. That will be the challenge. And this is the thing that when I talk to Nicky Lodico [the director of Information management at Ford] who runs our program at the Rockefeller Archive Center, this is what they are trying to figure out. One thing that we have to do on our side is to ensure that we are documenting our strategies, that we are preserving correspondence about why we’re making the positions we are taking, and why we are prioritizing them and why we are stopping to do certain things that we have done.

I don’t have all the answers. I’m not a knowledge management expert; that’s why I think it’s important that we have very high quality people doing that. But the conversation that I am in with the leadership team and the folks at the Archive Center is making sure that we leave no stone unturned in terms of figuring out the smartest, most efficient and effective way to preserve our history.

HistPhil: It does sound as if the process of thinking about preservation is actually leading to more deliberate reflection on contemporary practice. There’s an interesting dynamic there.

Walker: Absolutely. In fairness, the Ford Foundation has always had this sort of reflective memo process. And I think today the challenge is finding time for reflection. So in the old days, people would simply close their office door, turn off the phone, and just write for two or three weeks. People would do that, and particularly at the end of your time at the foundation. There are people who wrote 100-page exit memos. Today the challenge is that program officers feel that they don’t have sufficient time to reflect. This is a challenge for knowledge management generally. That regardless of where you are—at a foundation, at a corporation, at an NGO—technology, social media, the sense of urgency that comes with the work today, makes it very difficult to carve out unfettered stretches of time for reflection.

HistPhil: You’ve spoken about Ford as a legacy foundation and there’s a particular orientation and disposition that makes legacy foundation especially well-adapted to access their own history and archives. But how can Ford’s experience speak to new foundations, new funders, both in terms of how they think about their archives and how they think about what it means to have a philanthropic past?

Walker: I think that’s why I raised that I am on the board of a new foundation, the Arcus Foundation, and that is to help new philanthropists understand that they are creating their own history every day, and that they need to approach their work with intentionality to capture that, and with a purpose to preserve and hopefully to start to create a narrative that others can use to understand philanthropic practice. And so I think it is an awareness that often is missing, and it’s missing because people are modest, or think, “We’re not going to be around forever.” Even if you’re not going to be a foundation in perpetuity, there is much that a new foundation or a time-bound, sunset foundation can do to capture its knowledge, to capture its history, so that it can inform the work of other philanthropists.


Darren Walker is President of the Ford Foundation, the nation’s second largest philanthropy, and for two decades has been a leader in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. He led the philanthropy committee that helped bring a resolution to the city of Detroit’s historic bankruptcy and chairs the U.S. Impact Investing Alliance. Prior to joining Ford, he was Vice President at the Rockefeller Foundation where he managed the rebuild New Orleans initiative after Hurricane Katrina. In the 1990s, as COO of Harlem’s largest community development organization, the Abyssinian Development Corporation, Darren oversaw a comprehensive revitalization program resulting in over 1,000 new units of housing, Harlem’s first commercial development in twenty years and New York’s first public school built and managed by a community organization. He had a decade-long career in international law and finance at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and UBS. He serves as a trustee of Carnegie Hall, New York City Ballet, the High Line, the Arcus Foundation and PepsiCo. Educated exclusively in public schools, Darren received the “Distinguished Alumnus Award,” the highest honor given by his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. In 2016, TIME magazine named him to its annual list of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the recipient of ten honorary degrees.

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