Philanthropies Deserve Frenemies, Too: Why Taboo Partnerships Can Be Valuable

Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation is working with Pepsi and the Koch Brothers and says sometimes you need to “check your ideology” at the door to get things done.

When Ford Foundation President Darren Walker joined PepsiCo’s board of directors in late August, he created a potentially sticky ethical dilemma: As the New York Times pointed out, Ford does social justice work. PepsiCo makes soda and Frito-Lay chips (along with some healthier fare like Quaker oatmeal). Cheap junk food has been linked to obesity, which can plague low-income communities. Was the partnership distasteful?


Ford reportedly gave out $500 million in grants last year. But the organization doesn’t have a direct conflict of interest with Walker steering Pepsi because none of that money went toward battling the byproducts of bad nutrition. For his part, Walker has said that he hopes to use his new position to make the food giant more accountable. As the Times reported, he’s already pushed PepsiCo to promote healthier products when they debuted their wares in at least one African country.

Strange partnerships aren’t new to the Foundation. The group has also funded the Coalition For Public Safety, an alliance that’s pushing to reform state laws fueling mass incarceration. Other CFPS members include FreedomWorks and Koch Industries, both of which are backed by the conservative libertarian Koch brothers.

In Walker’s view, this is the next evolution of social justice work. “I have this saying at the foundation… ‘We need to check our ideology at the door,’” he told a crowd gathered inside New York’s Civic Hall during a Fast Company Innovation Festival forum entitled ‘Why Strange Bedfellows Are the Future of Business.’

Why? “Because sometimes we need to be focused on impact and getting things done,” he added. “Because sometimes we become smug in our righteousness.”

In the case of the Ford-Koch accord, for instance, both agree that in many ways the war on drugs has failed. “It’s true they don’t start with a racial analysis, they start with the analysis of a libertarian that says the government shouldn’t be confiscating the private property of citizens without justification,” Walker said. But while the groups may be drastically opposed on, say, issues surrounding reproductive rights, that doesn’t mean they won’t accomplish more on a singularly focused issue together.

Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, joined Walker on stage and shares his viewpoint. “When it’s a movement about human dignity there is no such thing and an unlikely ally,” she said. While NDWA feels that in-home employees are radically undervalued, they’ve partnered with for-profit groups to at least try to achieve some decent standard practices. That includes the Fair Care Pledge for caregiver and job matching service, and Good Work Code for gig economy companies.


As Walker put it: “We sort of fetishize our values in a way in which we hold them up as something that really prohibits us from doing certain kinds of things. We should also really learn that we want to value impact.” Sometimes that means making taboo moves. The Times noted that Walker has even switched from Diet Coke to Diet Pepsi.

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.