March 4, 2013

Collaboration, Due Diligence, and Measurement: Three Lessons on Philanthropy from Darren Walker

Working to create social change has been deeply meaningful for David Walker and has provided him with numerous lessons in philanthropy. Here are three.

By: The Bridgespan Group
Darren-Walker-198x135.jpgDarren Walker, Vice President of the Ford Foundation, 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." 

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 Rockefeller Foundation 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."

Darren Walker's Key Messages for Philanthropists

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