Published in New York Times | July 12, 2019

The Man With the $13 Billion Checkbook

By John Leland

From a tidy glass office in Midtown Manhattan, Darren Walker gives away $650 million a year of other people’s money, and is paid nicely to do so. When he got this job in 2013, as president of the Ford Foundation, he set his sights on tackling inequality.

There were complications.

Charities like Ford, he realized, owe their existence to inequality, and they reproduce it: they extend rich people’s influence, with no accountability, and they take money from the public tax rolls to do so. If a foundation gives a million dollars to a donor’s favorite pet cause, part of that gift is whatever tax the donor or foundation would have paid on that million — and neither you nor your elected officials has any say in the matter.

Think about how power moves in New York. There are the blunt forces like Wall Street, real estate, government and the arts, each operating in its own sphere — each under scrutiny, and contested. Then there is another channel of power, where philanthropies operate, moving billions of dollars around the city, functioning as connectors. Foundations connect billionaires on Wall Street with food banks in East New York, Hollywood celebrities with inner-city literacy programs, starving artists in Jackson Heights with the Whitney Museum.

Darren Walker, a gay black man from Texas in a realm created by old-money elites, is the connector of connectors. In a new Gilded Age, he believes that wealth can be made to do more good.

The Ford Foundation

The Ford Foundation is an independent organization working to address inequality and build a future grounded in justice. For more than 85 years, it has supported visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide, guided by its mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. Today, with an endowment of $16 billion, the foundation has headquarters in New York and 10 regional offices across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

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