Yes, We Do Want Foundation Leaders on the Boards of Corporations

Pepsico, Inc., is a giant multinational corporation with offices around the world, $63 billion in revenue last year, and a philanthropic footprint larger than that of many major foundations. It employs over a quarter-million people in the U.S. and abroad.

Pepsico is also the maker of a range of unhealthy food products that are literally killing people, just as surely as tobacco kills. What's more, the company has engaged in both charitable and political giving to block regulation of those products—in ways that keep profits flowing and people dying.

Would you like to have a say over how Pepsico behaves in the world? I certainly would. Unfortunately, Pepsico hasn’t invited me to sit on its board, where I’d be in a position to push the company to do better.

But I’m happy to see that Ford Foundation Darren Walker has taken on that job.

I get why people would raise questions about Walker sitting on the board of a corporation that’s been part of the problem, not the solution, when it comes to public health. There’s a long history of corporations trying to co-opt their critics and boost their brands through alliances with nonprofits. The thought that Walker would offer cover to a bad corporate actor isn’t a happy one. 

But there’s also a long history of corporations changing their behavior after letting outside critics through the door. Even if those outsiders are originally brought in as fig leaves, their influence can be substantial over time. In areas like diversity, sustainability and ethical supply chains, many corporations have gone from hiring a few consultants or token board members to pay lip service to social responsibility concerns, to actually changing their behavior.

It’s the corporations that can end up coopted, in some cases. They end up on a slippery slope toward having a stronger conscience – first, by allowing new voices to be heard internally; second by embracing nobler goals, if only for show; and third, by feeling compelled over time to operationalize those goals.

Of course, corporations are most likely to initiate change and then live to up their rhetoric if they are being pounded from the outside by activists, regulators, and the media.  But the shift toward corporate responsibility is likely to happen faster if there’s both external and internal pressure. 

The idea that foundation leaders like Walker should only work the outside game doesn’t make any sense to me. A number of foundations – most notably Robert Wood Johnson and Bloomberg Philanthropies – already are bankrolling outside critics taking on Big Food. (Bloomberg has also been making big political contributions to target sugary beverages.) This funding is critical, and we could use more of it. But if you believe the above theory of corporate change, we also want more questioning voices inside companies – and ideally in board rooms. Studies show, for example, that corporations with more diversity and women on their board are more socially responsible.

Foundation leaders are well positioned to play this board role, since they can have a bird’s eye view of the different ways that change happens. As critically, the top ones – like Darren Walker – may have enough prestige to get through the door in the first place at a giant like Pepsico. Good for him.