As charitable foundations go, the Ford Foundation—which lists “challenging inequality” as its defining goal—is not bad. But there’s always room for improvement.
A few years ago, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker very publicly declared that the foundation would focus its resources (and $13 billion endowment) on attacking the rise of global inequality. To the foundation’s credit, this was a wise choice, and they have funded important and worthwhile work in areas like building labor power, strengthening democratic systems, and advocating for affordable housing. And to the credit of Darren Walker himself, he has built a reputation as a person possessing at least as much self-awareness as could be reasonably hoped for from a man in his position—which is, in essence, that of a CEO of positive capitalism. In his new year’s letter, released today, Walker even acknowledges prominent recent criticisms of the philanthropy-industrial complex, and writes: “Many have pointed to the ways philanthropy replicates the worst dynamics and inequalities of our broader society... Rather than taking a ‘this too shall pass’ attitude, philanthropists need to engage in repairing the very mechanisms that produce, preserve, and promote our privilege.”
If you are ever walking around New York City in search of a jarring experience, you should visit the Ford Foundation’s headquarters. This organization dedicated to the humble task of ending inequality is ensconced in an enormous mansionesque high rise on East 43rd St. Behind a grand granite facade rising 12 stories lies an open, atrium-like interior bathed in light from ample windows, where offices look down on an indoor courtyard full of trees. Built in 1968, the building was completely renovated last year at a cost of $205 million. It is easy to imagine Don Draper walking in the front door of this grandiose structure to pitch an executive on a new slogan. It is even easier to imagine well-paid technocrats in blue button-up shirts walking in the front door of this grandiose structure in order to disperse millions of dollars to far-flung lesser technocrats.
It’s a nice building. It’s too nice of a building. It is downright weird to sit in a rarefied, exquisite midtown Manhattan conference room named after Nelson Mandela, deciding how to cure inequality as you luxuriate in one of the most unequal settings in the one of the most unequal locales in America. And—to be very practical here—this is a big waste of money. The Ford Foundation exists for the sole purpose of remedying inequality. As philosophers have taught us, we are morally responsible for the opportunity costs of the things we spend money on, when that money could have been put to much better use. Obviously, in a world with limited resources in which the goal is to remedy inequality, the best use of the Ford Foundation’s capital is not to maintain a lavish, spectacular headquarters building in one of America’s most expensive neighborhoods. A far more rational move would be to sell the building (or lease it out to tenants), relocate the foundation’s offices to somewhere cheaper—the South Bronx, for example, is only a few miles up the road—and use the money you have made to do something that will actually serve the purpose of remedying inequality. Even if we assume a very conservative gain here of, say, $500 million, that is plenty of money to fund, say, unionizing Amazon or winning a raise in the national minimum wage. On top of that, moving the Ford Foundation—which, again, is concerned only with ending global inequality, not with throwing fancy cocktail parties or having extremely nice views in the offices that its leaders occupy—out of such a gauche and unlikely setting would go a long way towards fulfilling what Darren Walker himself says is a mandate to “recognize and reckon with the fact that philanthropy is by no means immune from the plague of inequality.”
Reckon with it by moving to some low-cost office space in the South Bronx. It’s really insane not to do so.
Here’s to a more equal—if less scenic—2019.