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Professionalizing the besieged aid industry: A chat with Eric Walker

Former PATH VP Eric Walker is on a mission - to change the way we think about charity.

For today’s podcast, we’re talking with Eric Walker, formerly a big shot at Seattle-based PATH with the unenlightening title of vice-president for corporate services.

One thing you learn early as a journalist is that it is often the people with the most boring titles working behind the scenes who are doing the most important work. That certainly holds true with Walker. If PATH was the Starship Enterprise, Walker’s role there might have been best described as a combination of Scotty the engineer, Bones the doctor and Spock the annoyingly logical voice of reason. His job description said Walker was responsible for PATH’s human resources, finances, facilities, legal affairs, information services and grant and contract services. Might have been easier to list what he didn’t do.

Eric WalkerWalker has since left PATH and is now working independently on an even bigger mission – professionalizing the aid and development sector. What’s really gotten him fired up these days is what might be called the ‘overhead debate‘ within the non-profit and philanthropic community. Walker, along with leaders in the sector like Dan Pallotta, have been pushing back against donors and funding agencies who set limits on how much charities can spend on overhead or administrative needs, usually from 10-15 percent. This, Walker says, is creating a ‘death spiral’ within the aid and development sector and undermining good works through financial erosion.

Charity Defense CouncilThe concern is so great that Pallotta, Walker and others have even created a dramatic-sounding new organization called the Charity Defense Council that, accompanied by the image of a shield defending against arrows, has set up a legal defense fund for charities under siege, an anti-defamation league to counter inaccurate media, a ‘civil rights’ movement for charities and so on. Sound a bit over-the-top? Well, listen in and learn.

Tom Paulson’s chat with Walker is a nice follow on last week’s Humanosphere podcast in which we talked with an academic, Pablo Eisenberg, about the growing political and financial influence of this sector, and how non-transparent and dangerously unaccountable it is today. Eisenberg says this lack of public accountability stems from a simplistic and naive mindset about these charities, non-profits and humanitarian groups. Walker says it is the same mindset that is setting up the humanitarian sector for failure, by assuming the financial realities we accept for any other enterprise somehow don’t apply to charities.

As usual, I begin the podcast by chatting with Tom about some of the big stories in the Humanosphere. This week, we talk about the New World Disorder and widely ignored and almost never applied international doctrine known as the Responsibility to Protect, the Gates Foundation’s $50 million donation to the fight Ebola in West Africa, the record amount of funding donations for humanitarian aid in 2013 (and why it’s still not adequate) as well as a review by Tom Murphy of the unintended consequences of a big new law aimed at reducing the human toll of so-called conflict minerals

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About Author

Gabe Spitzer

Gabriel Spitzer covers health and science at KPLU, after a year covering youth and education. He joined KPLU after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago.