Should funding agencies also share in the sacrifice of social change?

Every day of every year, in places like Standing Rock and Ferguson and Aleppo and Hong Kong, tens of thousands of people put their lives and livelihoods on the line in the struggle for human rights. If they are paid at all the amounts are very low and the risks are often high, so shared sacrifice is demanded from everyone involved. Opportunities for personal gain are subordinated to solidarity with colleagues and the cause in order to knit together a strong social fabric. Consistency between words and actions is essential in building mutual loyalty and trust.

Faced by these imperatives, is it reasonable to expect the same standards of behavior from the funders, advisers and other intermediaries who support these struggles from a distance, and who gain publicity and legitimacy for their own work in the process?

It’s an old question that bubbles underneath the surface of conversations between activists and donors, though it’s rarely voiced directly because of the discomfort and blowback it can cause. But occasionally it breaks out in public view, providing an opportunity to re-visit the ethics of funding for social change. We’re currently witnessing one of those ‘teachable moments’ that’s centered on Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation’s avuncular and well-respected president.

On October 28 2016 the New York Times revealed that Walker will be paid between $275,000 and $418,000 a year to join the board of multinational “junk food” company PepsiCo (as New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle calls it), plus allocations and annual bonuses in the form of Pepsi shares, in addition to his regular salary of $789,000 in 2015.

Such arrangements are not illegal, nor are they particularly new. What makes this case more interesting is that Walker has publicly declared his commitment to re-focus all of the Ford Foundation’s work on inequality. He has also stated a desire to pursue transformational solutions instead of tinkering around the edges of social and economic problems, and to confront the thorny issue of privilege at both the institutional level and the level of personal practice.

These ideas have been developed in a series of carefully-crafted articles and speeches which have been music to the ears of activists and nonprofits—holding out the promise of healthier and more equitable relationships with their funders. But Walker’s decision seems at odds with the commitments he has made, threatening to undermine the message that philanthropy is in need of major surgery. How so?

Wikimedia Commons/Nathan Keirn (Some rights reserved)

Do sustained relationships with corporations compromise foundations' support of frontline activism?

First of all, inequality doesn’t happen by accident or by magic: it’s created when people take advantage of opportunities to accrue wealth which are unequally distributed among the population—including well-paid seats on the boards of corporations. Other Ford Foundation staff are prohibited from taking on paid board positions or even consultancies, and no nonprofit could do so because of the conflicts of interest that are involved, so Walker seems to be modeling behavior that directly contradicts the ‘level playing field’ that features so strongly in his writings.  

Secondly and despite the rhetoric of transformation, Walker’s move has a decidedly retro feel. Foundation presidents have been serving on corporate boards for decades with no significant results as part of the trend towards Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR, which has levered small changes in supply chains and other areas but has barely touched the core business practices of major companies. The largest ever evaluation funded by the European Union found “no credible evidence that CSR had made a positive difference to economies or societies in the region.” Neither have new board members halted the fall from grace of HSBCWells FargoVolkswagenMitsubishiUnilever and many other icons of CSR.

At a time when activists are energetically exploring life after capitalism it’s disappointing to see the Ford Foundation defending the current system with a few tweaks around the edges.

PepsiCo isn’t the worst of these offenders, running up the usual list of accusations concerning union-busting, forced labor and land rights violations, but ‘we’re listening and we’ll do better’ is always the mantra, buttressed by the gloss that’s added by respected outsiders like Walker. Unfortunately, however well they do they’ll still be a conventional stockholder corporation that’s duty bound to maximize its profits by selling stuff of little value to people who don’t actually need it. There’s no transformative potential in that equation. The real excitement lies in the new economy of co-operatives and other experiments which aren’t subject to the same constraints. At a time when activists are energetically exploring life after capitalism it’s disappointing to see the Ford Foundation defending the current system with a few tweaks around the edges.

That leads me to problem number three: Walker’s decision represents a lost opportunity to make a strong and influential statement about the future of philanthropy, just when the pressure for change is building through the #ShiftThePower campaign and other efforts. Everyone who works for a foundation, an NGO or an aid agency has been complicit in a decades-long process of under-investment in frontline activists and communities, and a corresponding over-rewarding of those who fund or support them in other ways.

I was a beneficiary of this system myself for many years, fighting for justice from the comfort of Business Class while those who do the real work and suffer the consequences are crammed together at the rear of Economy. It’s a peculiar arrangement—divisive, outdated, ineffective and ripe for upheaval if only funders were prepared to take up the challenge, and that’s where Walker’s decision is instructive.

Throughout history the outright rejection of privilege and unequal power structures has been a key tool of social transformation: think civil rights or women’s liberation or pretty much any successful social movement. The insider route can lever some changes when it’s connected to outside pressure, but no one has ever transformed the establishment by joining it. The pressure nearly always works in the opposite direction, though subtly and over time, narrowing the horizons of possibility so that they conform to what’s expected. After all, the more invested you are in any system the less likely you’ll be to confront it.

That’s why the impact of a very public rejection of Pepsi’s invitation could have been so powerful: a signal that finally, a major foundation is willing to loosen its ties to the corporate world and focus its full attention on those tens of thousands of people who are working at the sharp end of social change.

No one expects foundation presidents to work for free, but it’s not unreasonable to expect consistency between their actions and their words. As in this case, consistency does involve some sacrifices when self interest must be modulated, but they pale in comparison to the extra strength and solidarity that’s generated in the process. That’s much more important to the long-term struggle for social transformation.