Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation. But his philanthropic career has put him in the middle of helping to resolve some of the nation’s biggest problems, from New Orleans rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina to the bankruptcy of Detroit. Coronavirus is a totally different disaster.

“Every crisis I’ve been involved in where there’s been some terrible act of God . . . it’s usually place-based,” Walker said as he pointed to disasters in specific places, such as tsunamis in Southeast Asia or Ebola in Africa. “And so the rest of the world can rush to help because the rest of the world is stable, prosperous and doing very well, generally speaking.”

But with coronavirus, “the entire planet is on edge,” Walker said in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “So the question for us is how do we respond in a circumstance that truly does require that we build a consensus that necessitates a global response, not just a response at the country level.”

That response always involves philanthropy. But the hobbled response from all strata of U.S. government will only enhance the role of philanthropy. Still, Walker firmly believes that philanthropy can’t replace government. “Let’s be very, very clear. We in philanthropy, without competent, robust and informed government, cannot be effective in our work,” Walker told me. And the work of the nonprofit sector is in danger.

“This calamity, the impact of covid-19 on the nonprofit sector in America, is potentially devastating. It’s devastating because these organizations depend on a combination of private giving, of revenue from ticket sales, patrons, etc. — as well as contracts from government at the federal, state and local level. All of this is at risk now,” Walker explained. “For many nonprofits, they don’t operate with endowments, with wealthy boards, with operating reserves; they truly are on the precipice. And I’m talking about thousands of organizations. This is not just anecdotal, this is serious business. We have an urgent need to address shoring up the nonprofit sector in this country.”

Walker is directly involved in shoring up the nonprofit sector in New York City. Through a series of phone calls with other foundations, Walker said, “What we learned was just how dire the situation is in the city,” which includes organizations “having less than $10,000 in cash” and others “reporting no endowment, no operating reserves and [not having] enough to make payroll for the next month — and that was it.” But the philanthropic focus isn’t just on other nonprofits.

“I’m supporting an effort among a group of philanthropists,” Walker told me, “to raise $20 million for direct cash assistance to restaurant workers, delivery, service industry folks who live off of cash tips, whose income is completely precarious. And for whom a talk of legislation in Washington is some remote, abstract idea,” Walker said. “These folks live paycheck to paycheck, and many of them have not received a paycheck in three weeks.” He noted that similar efforts are underway in Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles.

Given his experience dealing with disasters and with governments trying to respond to them, I couldn’t resist asking Walker what he would do to respond to the coronavirus pandemic if he were president of the United States.

“I would simply want to act based on the facts, based on the advice of experts and people who know best. People who have the technical knowledge and people who have the experience to guide my decisions toward the shared objective of winning the war on this virus,” said Walker, whose response makes you long for the day when that was essential to leadership in the Oval Office. “I am not privileged enough, and nor am I qualified to be president of the United States, but I do believe that there is an opportunity here for this nation to be better than it was before March 1, to be stronger than it was before this calamity was visited upon us. And the question is, will our leadership help us get there?”

Any viewer of the daily coronavirus “briefing” would be hard-pressed to answer in the affirmative.

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