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Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, spoke in early November at an LSE event hosted by the International Inequalities Institute.  Barrow Cadbury Trust’s Living Wage intern, Sian Williams, went along to hear his thoughts on how he sees the future of modern philanthropy

Are you sitting comfortably? If so, then your foundation might need to rethink its approach to philanthropy. This was the message from President of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker, as he addressed the audience at LSE’s evening event ‘Investing in Equality: the role of capital and justice in addressing inequality’. The Ford Foundation is one of the largest and most influential foundations in the US, and has been committed to advancing human welfare and reducing inequality for more than 80 years.

Uncomfortable Truths: The New Gospel of Wealth

Walker explained that modern philanthropy has largely been motivated by generosity. He referred to American industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 essay ‘The Gospel of Wealth’, which has had a considerable influence on modern philanthropy. Carnegie felt that it was the moral duty of the wealthy to redistribute their surplus wealth in a responsible and generous manner.

However, Walker argued that generosity is not enough, and today’s philanthropy must instead be driven by the quest for justice. Generosity, he argued, allows those who are privileged to remain comfortable in their giving, and insulated from some of the uncomfortable truths in society. Justice-driven philanthropy on the other hand requires the privileged to become a little uncomfortable. It involves tackling structural inequality and bringing about systemic change. This is what Walker calls ‘The New Gospel of Wealth’. This approach was in part inspired by Martin Luther King Junior’s comment that“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

Changing the Narrative

Walker also stressed the importance of looking critically at the culture, structures and practices within our own institutions. Foundations excel at the rhetoric of change and progress but are often less good at putting this into practice in their own organisations. For example, when it comes to hiring practices, there are significant hurdles to overcome around diversity and the inclusion of individuals with ‘authentic knowledge’ that comes from having lived experience. He believes it is important to acknowledge our own privilege and biases, and reflect on where our institutions fall short.

Despite highlighting the many injustices which make philanthropy necessary, Walker remains positive about the future. He warned against promoting a narrative of hopelessness which renders people vulnerable and insecure. Instead he proposed challenging prevailing narratives, empowering communities and giving voice to the disadvantaged. To do this foundations must continue to invest in the three I’s: individuals, institutions and ideas. Crucially, we should not shy away from the uncomfortable truths in society, at the same time as addressing the underlying causes of inequality.