2022 Spirit of Service Award

Darren Walker

A philanthropic leader and innovator working to build a more equitable and just world.

As president of the Ford Foundation since 2013, Darren Walker has made it his mission to provide support for transformative ideas, institutions and individuals dedicated to furthering social, economic and political justice.

At the same time, Walker is a highly respected thought leader, innovator and organizer who not only has marshaled the resources of the Ford Foundation to improve society, but also has encouraged the broader philanthropic community to collectively support organizations and communities during times of crisis such as the ongoing pandemic.

Walker also has been a strong advocate for responsive and effective government, and among other issues he envisions a world where the best technology talent embraces the opportunity to solve big public issues and where our government has leaders who welcome and engage this talent.

“Darren Walker is one of the most transformative leaders in philanthropy,” said Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and president of the Emerson Collective. “Under his innovative and courageous leadership, the Ford Foundation is helping address some of our nation’s most entrenched crises. And he is challenging us all to think more deeply about the role of philanthropy in our society and how we can advance our shared vision of a more equal and just world.”

In his 2019 book, “From Generosity to Justice,” Walker maintained that foundations have an obligation to address the systemic issues that perpetuate inequality, not just their symptoms.

While Walker has acknowledged that it is beyond the capacity of philanthropy to fix the nation’s economic and political systems, he maintains that “as beneficiaries of the biases and flaws of these systems, holders of wealth and influence today … share an urgent obligation to try.” 

“Darren is an innovative leader and extraordinary human who has advanced philanthropy and consistently demonstrated an unyielding commitment to lifting up underrepresented communities,” said Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo and a member of the Partnership’s board of directors.

Walker is a firm believer that effective government is a critical factor needed to scale the impact of philanthropies and to address complex social issues.

“No matter how independent we think our efforts are, our resources pale in comparison to public resources and the impact they have on daily life and the course of human dignity. I believe good works require good government,” Walker has said. “To this end, there is much more we can be doing to support the health of representative government and its institutions.”

“Now, more than ever, we see the necessity of a robust, capable, and coordinated federal government and thoughtful, inclusive, and trustworthy leadership,” Walker said in a March 2020 commentary reflecting on the impact of the pandemic.

Walker oversees a $16 billion endowment that makes more than $600 million in grants each year to nonprofit organizations in the United States and around the world.

During his tenure, the foundation has provided funding to a wide variety of grassroots, policy and advocacy organizations dedicated to protecting an independent press, voting rights, the census, free speech and an open internet. He also has funded efforts to support and protect immigrants, people with disabilities, youth, rural populations, and the LGBTQ+ community as well organizations working to build the public case for reform of the education and criminal justice systems.

“Darren’s leadership has led to creative and courageous responses that have amplified the Ford Foundation’s long-standing social justice commitments,” said Joel Fleishman, a member of the Partnership’s board of directors and professor of law and director of the Heyman Center for Ethics, Public Policy and the Professions at Duke University. “Moreover, his practice and encouragement of other foundations to increase flexibility and the availability of general operating funds has made him a veritable hero among nonprofit leaders.” 

Under Walker’s direction, the Ford Foundation, in cooperation with other philanthropies, recently issued $1 billion in social bonds that provided desperately needed financial assistance to strengthen and stabilize nonprofit organizations adversely affected by the pandemic. Walker also worked with other foundations some years ago to help rescue Detroit from bankruptcy. 

Before joining the Ford Foundation, Walker was vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation, overseeing global and domestic programs. In the 1990s, he was the chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, Harlem’s largest community development organization.