Darren Walker presides over the Ford Foundation, one of the world’s most influential social justice philanthropies and one of the largest private foundations in the United States. As president, Mr. Walker oversees the foundation’s $13 billion endowment and guides the organization’s $600 million in annual grant making.
As he recently described, the foundation is in the business of hope. “Our hopes for our grantees, our communities, and our world inform the work we do each and every day.”
Mr. Walker has long been in the business of brokering hope. He spent ten years in a promising career start in international law and capital markets. But his soul sought more, and in 1995 he left the corporate world to volunteer at an elementary school in Harlem. That career reset moved Mr. Walker into the nonprofit and philanthropy sectors, where he has risen to the pinnacle of influence, with the opportunity to share his vision and shape grant-making priorities for one of the world’s most engaged and effective foundations.
Mr. Walker’s first position in the nonprofit world foretold his successes to come. As chief operating officer at Abyssinian Development Corporation, a community development organization in Harlem, he advanced the revitalization of this once-thriving hub of African American culture, including building over 1,000 units of affordable housing, spearheading efforts to open the first supermarket in the neighborhood in 25 years, and leading the development of the first public school to be built in New York City by a community organization.
In 2002, Mr. Walker moved to the philanthropic side of the nonprofit funding equation, joining the Rockefeller Foundation as working communities program director. There he managed a grant-making portfolio in excess of $25 million per year focused on anti-poverty strategies in the United States through education, employment, sustainable community development, and democracy building. Promoted to vice president for foundation initiatives in 2006, for four years he oversaw a wide range of Rockefeller Foundation programs in the United States and overseas, including leading the foundation’s Rebuild New Orleans initiative following Hurricane Katrina.
In 2010, Mr. Walker joined the Ford Foundation as vice president for education, creativity and free expression, supervising more than 30 percent of the Ford Foundation’s grants and overseeing regional programming in Africa and the Middle East. In 2013 he was named the Ford Foundation’s president, the tenth in the foundation’s 77-year history. The fact that the exhaustive executive search ended within the foundation’s own ranks was no surprise to many in the field.
Widely respected as a forward-thinking leader, Darren Walker is unafraid to call out the shortcomings in our social systems that sustain inequality, including in the philanthropic enterprise. He is known for making bold, long-term investments in people and projects that address critical social concerns, and for partnering closely with people on the ground to bring diverse viewpoints and ways of approaching issues to the decision-making table. His work as a grantee has given him a perspective on the real struggles that nonprofits can experience, engendering an empathy with and trust in the people doing the work that his colleagues on both sides of the grant-making relationship praise him for.
Darren Walker’s personal journey deeply informs his commitment to philanthropy as a powerful force for social progress, a force that expanded opportunity around the globe in the 20th century. The child of a single mother growing up in small-town Texas in the early 1960s, Mr. Walker was a direct beneficiary of those opportunities. A preschool student in the first Head Start class of 1965, Mr. Walker later gained entrance as a Pell-grant recipient to the University of Texas at Austin, where he graduated in 1982 with a bachelor of arts in government and a bachelor of science in speech communication. He graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1986.
Mr. Walker’s volunteer commitments underscore the depth of his civic involvement. He is a fellow of the Institute for Urban Design and serves on the boards of the Arcus Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Friends of the High Line, and the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies. He is vice-chair of the board of directors at the New York City Ballet and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2018 Mr. Walker joined the board of directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He has been included on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, Rolling Stone’s 25 People Shaping the Future, Fast Company’s 50 Most Innovative People, and OUT Magazine’s Power 50, among others.
For nearly 25 years Darren Walker has invested in and empowered the cooperative work of engaged citizens to advance the public good. Communities and projects across America and around the world bear the imprints of his vision, his skillful coalition building, and his ability to both lead and listen as an active partner in advancing a hopeful future for all.