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The Bridgespan Group
03/04/2013 | 3.5 mins
Collaboration, Due Diligence, and Measurement: Three Lessons on Philanthropy from Darren Walker
The Bridgespan Group
03/04/2013 | 3.5 mins
Darren Walker, Vice President of the
, whose grantmaking focuses on education, civil rights, and arts, among other areas, knows the power of education to transform the life of poor and minority children. Indeed, the course of Walker's life changed when, as a young boy growing up in a "shotgun shack" in Texas, he was enrolled in what became Head Start. So began a journey that would take him to a law firm on Wall Street, the Union Bank of Switzerland and, eventually, to the front lines of philanthropy. Working to create social change has been deeply meaningful for Walker and has provided him with numerous lessons in philanthropy. Here are three.
Focus on collaboration.
Walker says that success in philanthropy will not be found through your ability to stand alone and distinguish yourself; instead, it lies in your ability to co-create effective strategies. "It requires you to think about ownership of something not as being simply yours but as a public good and that what you’re trying to do is bring more investors into this public good." He points to the
Edna McConnell Clark Foundation
, which was a major funder of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Family in Harlem. Walker says that the foundation focused on building an investment community around what became the
Harlem Children’s Zone
, and put the spotlight on the vision of Geoffrey Canada, who oversaw the organization, and the work being done to improve the community. "I think that kind of well-centered ego, humble, determined, ambitious drive is an example of truly exemplary philanthropy."
Don't skimp on due diligence.
"I think some of the most disappointing grants that I’ve been involved with have been those where we didn’t spend the time to really understand the organization and the problem we were trying to solve," says Walker. He points out that since every dollar in philanthropy matters, taking a thoughtful, patient approach to conducting due diligence on a potential grantee is key. One important aspect of due diligence is paying close attention to the leadership of an organization. For example, it is important to look beyond the vision and passion of the leader—a leader may be charismatic but may not have the leadership and organizational support needed to effect change. "That’s in no way meant to dissuade any individual, because at the end of the day we do need to be motivated by people who capture our imagination and who can help make us believe that change is possible," he says. "We need those people in our lives as philanthropists, and we’ve got to support them, but we’ve got to support them smartly."
More From the Blog
Recognize that measuring progress can be difficult.
"Coming to philanthropy over these years and working in the nonprofit sector has been a challenge for those of us who were trained and whose professional development was centered around a very hard concrete set of metrics," says Walker. "In a world of addressing injustice—how do we measure success?" Walker says that there simply is not a comparable set of standard, dependable, reliable, universally understood set of metrics. For example, he points to one grant the
made to develop a soil-resistant seed, which could be measured with clear metrics. On the other hand, an investment in a long-term program to improve race relations and racial justice in society is not so easy to measure. Walker says that recognizing the diversity of the problems that philanthropy tackles is key. It's not always "possible to develop [the] sort of transferable metrics that can be used in one domain and then another and then another and from which we can aggregate up and know whether...our institution is making real change."
Brooke Astor does Harlem: Darren Walker engages a great philanthropist to upgrade “Astor Row”
For a complete archive of Darren Walker videos, see here.
Darren Walker's Key Messages for Philanthropists
Collaboration, coordination and partnerships are key to success in philanthropy.
Darren Walker says philanthropy is about standing together,
Darren Walker and the National Low Income Housing Coalition
Darren Walker shares how philanthropy forged a post-Katrina consensus
The role of philanthropy is to be flexible, long-term, and take risks because it is not bound by the political constraints of government.
The philanthropic advantage: Darren Walker prizes flexibility
Deeply engage with your grantee—focus on their needs, challenges, and future “with humility.”
Darren Walker coaches new philanthropists to balance rigor and humility
Understand the local community/context in which your grantee works.
Darren Walker urges donors to be rigorous—but reasonable
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