He May Be Popular Now, But Darren Walker Has a Tough Message for the Nonprofit World

Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, has had a good run lately. In early June, after a lengthy strategic planning process, he won wide acclaim for his announcement that the foundation would give more general operating support and focus squarely on inequality.

In his letter on changes at Ford, Walker said that he had clearly heard that nonprofits wanted more general support, and said the foundation had set aside $1 billion over five years in such support to build up key institutions.

The plaudits rolled in from across the social sector, and Twitter crackled with enthusiasm for Walker. “This is the ‘moment’ in philanthropy many in nonprofits have wanted, thank you for your vision/voice,” wrote one leader. Another called Walker’s letter “brave, “honest,” and “terrific.” A third wrote: “We need more of this from the foundation world. Kudos to Darren Walker.”

Now, needless to say, any number of nonprofit leaders have good reasons to say nice things about the president of the Ford Foundation, which gives out over a half billion dollars in grants annually. There's an old cliche that says you become smarter and funnier the moment you become a grantmaker, but in this case, the applause was genuine: Walker’s call for general support channeled views widely held in the nonprofit worldbut largely rejected by foundations, with just 21 percent of grants taking the form of general support in 2012, according to a study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

Ford has ranked among the worst offenders in this respect. And by pledging to change the foundation’s ways, and so publicly siding with nonprofits in an age-old fight over funding, Walker has been seen as something of a hero.

He'd better enjoy those good vibes while they last. Because here’s the thing: If you look at the broader message Darren Walker is putting forthparticularly in a new essay published this weekit’s actually pretty tough, and it’s tough on nonprofits and funders alike. When this message fully sinks in, it’s a fair bet that Walker will come to be viewed with far more mixed feelings.

Walker’s letter in June hinted at the possible downsides of his vision for many Ford grantees. He wrote:

These changes are not without implications. Almost certainly, providing deeper, more intensive support will result in fewer grants, and, most likely, fewer grant recipients.

Now, in his just published essay on civil society organizations (CSOs), Walker offers a more expansive and candid set of comments.

He makes clear that he doesn’t just think that Ford should be supporting fewer nonprofits; he also thinks there are too many nonprofits overall, and that the sector needs consolidation. As for the funding community, Walker suggests that it has too much power and controlyet, ironically, also exercises too little discipline in what it funds.

On the subject of nonprofit fragmentation, Walker writes:

We certainly have seen a lack of coordination between organisations working in the same space, which results in unnecessary inefficiencies, and even redundancies. Despite having the best intentions, there are times when ego and defence of territory come into play, and organisations that are meant to improve the world act like the world revolves around them.

Here, Walker is saying openly what is often said privately about the nonprofit worldthat is it filled with too many outfits competing for resources, with a keen eye on their own self-preservation. But it's not every day you hear foundation presidents speaking that truth. And it's even less often you hear them tracing the fragmentation problem upstream, to the funding world, as Walker does.  

As funders, we have contributed to this phenomenon, and added to the asymmetry between the number of CSOs and the increasingly scarce available resources. The result is a marketplace where we are unable to prioritise effectively.

Simply put, we keep cutting the pie into smaller slices, and more organisations, often with overlapping interests, are left underfunded.

No doubt, for the sake of efficiency and efficacy, there are times when fewer, stronger institutions can make a more powerful impact. But from a foundation perspective, we are not yet comfortable saying to CSOs, “You should focus on a different part of the solution,” or, candidly, “This space is too crowded.”

In turn, we fund a group at a minimal amount because we do not want to tell the truth. Instead of doing no harm, or even being able to help, this means that we allow organisations to die undignified deaths, chasing project grants and grasping to whatever life support they can eke out.  

Walker also writes candidly about another problem that funders have: Their thirst for control, creating what Walker calls the “Tyranny of Donors.”

Not only are we unwilling to take responsibility for this ecosysteman ecosystem we helped create and degradebut, more often than not, we also demand control. We want credit. We want to micromanage. Often, we seem not to trust the very organisations we support… civil society leaders too rarely have a voice in setting their own priorities, or even articulating the problem they aspire to solve. Little wonder that funders too often view themselves as patrons rather than partners.  

Walker closes his essay by writing that everyone in the nonprofit world needs to change their behavior, with funders leading the first wave of that change. Among other things, he says, funders need to “stop treating grantees and partners as contract workers and project managers.” In turn, nonprofits must collaborate better and look at ways to consolidate.

Amen to all that. But make no mistake: The changes that Darren Walker is arguing for threaten the positions and power of lots of people. If foundations really did focus far more general support on fewer organizations, they would need fewer staff and could be smaller institutions. And so Walker’s vision threatens the livelihoods of a great many philanthropoids who now lead busy and important lives making program grants to myriad nonprofits.

His vision is even more threatening to the leaders of nonprofits, who could lose their jobs if foundations ever really do get serious about grantmaking strategies that would work to consolidate the sector.  

I’m not talking in abstractions, either. Over the next few months, Walker will be announcing more changes at Ford that concretize the shift in how the foundation makes grants. Some winners will emerge in that processthe anchor organizations that will be divvying up that $1 billion over the next five years. But there will likely be way more losers as this process unfolds.

We’ll see how popular Darren Walker and the Ford Foundation will be as those changes are made. Of course, real leaders are rarely popular with everyone, are they? 

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