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
- Collaboration, coordination and partnerships are key to success in philanthropy. Watch: Darren Walker says philanthropy is about standing together, Darren Walker and the National Low Income Housing Coalition, and 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. Watch: The philanthropic advantage: Darren Walker prizes flexibility.
- Deeply engage with your grantee—focus on their needs, challenges, and future “with humility.” Watch: Darren Walker coaches new philanthropists to balance rigor and humility.
- Understand the local community/context in which your grantee works. Watch: Darren Walker urges donors to be rigorous—but reasonable.