Reflections on Darren Walker’s lecture on inequality

by Nageeb Sumar

Fidelity Charitable team and Darren Walker

“Power and privilege are hard things to discuss, but we need to put it on the table. We’re going to be talking about hard issues, and I’m here to make you uncomfortable.” With this bold introduction, Darren Walker began his passionate lecture at Duke University, which my team and I were fortunate to attend. Darren has led the Ford Foundation since 2013 and used his position to re-orient one of the most reputable U.S. foundations to focus its grantmaking exclusively on tackling inequality. But Darren’s most admirable quality is his exuberant passion and personal commitment to use his voice to tackle inequality, confronting those with power and privilege to consider the consequences of their actions.

My team at Fidelity Charitable has the pleasure of working with donors across the country who are focused on supporting effective giving. We are proud to help facilitate the altruism of more than 250,000 donors, which translated to over $7.3 billion in grants to more than 155,000 charities last year. While our donors give to all manner of causes, Darren’s words have inspired us to consider how we can share some of his lessons with our wider audience as they consider how to give charitably to address inequality.

Here are three insights from Darren’s lecture that resonated with me:

1. Scaling what works

Darren reminded us that philanthropy has supported many projects addressing social ills over the last few decades, whether it be homelessness or workforce development. These successful pilot projects have proved to be scalable and rigorous in addressing inequality.  Some great examples of this are:

  • The Nurse Family Partnership, which demonstrates how having home nurses engage with first-time moms improves health and educational outcomes for children and their parents;  
  • Access to crop yield data and seed supplies, which dramatically improves small farmers’ crop-growing ability and incomes; or
  • Early childhood education, which leads to improved social skills, better performance in grade school, improved attention span, and enthusiasm for lifelong learning.

All of the above examples are funded by philanthropy.

By and large, we generally know what approaches work but have failed to invest in them at scale to make considerable progress. Darren implored donors to work alongside government officials and the private sector to scale some of these projects, rather than funding marginal innovations or getting caught in a trap of funding the next shiny thing that may not move the needle.

2. Tackling root causes

Darren challenged us to consider the root causes of issues and address them head-on. At Fidelity Charitable, we see donors sometimes fall into a trap of wanting to immediately find effective organizations to solve urgent issues in order to do good as soon as possible. But it is in our interest to step back and identify root causes to see if there are alternate pathways to address an issue. We were challenged in the audience to reflect on the fact that inequality stems from the underlying racism and classicism that still exists in the U.S. today and to consider how to address that through our actions, including our giving. Root-cause analysis can help uncover why certain charitable endeavors have failed and how to more comprehensively and systemically address an issue for which we have deep passion.

3. Unpacking power and privilege

Darren reserved his most forceful and passionate comments to challenge the audience to consider our own power and privilege. Is privilege buying us insulation from being uncomfortable? Are we holding on to a realistic notion of how many of our fellow citizens are living day-to-day or is our romanticized vision of the country clouding our perspective? Do we know how to identify the power we have, own it, and use it to improve the causes we care about? Do we prioritize credentials over lived experiences? While he acknowledged the generosity of the audience and donors at large, he concluded by providing the audience with a challenge: Learn how to give back (for we are inherently altruistic), and learn what to give up, specifically how to give up our privilege so we can make a dent in inequality.

Darren did not mince his words, and his provocative comments provided deep reflection for our team. I am proud that our team at Fidelity Charitable has built trust with thousands of donors and advisors across the country, so that we can have open and honest conversations about how to continually improve how we give charitably and consider what we may want to give up to make a difference on the issue of inequality.

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