Building Board Support on Issues of Racial Equity: A Conversation with Sector Leaders

Chloe Heskett

Foundation and nonprofit leaders came together to discuss changes made to philanthropic practice in response to the crises of the last two years at CEP’s third 2021 Virtual Learning Session. In this excerpt, the panelists respond to one of the findings of CEP’s new research, “Foundations Respond to Crisis: Lasting Change?”: foundations that have boards with more racial diversity tended to adopt more practices to support grantees and the communities they serve. Yet, nearly half of foundation leaders say that their boards are the biggest impediment to their foundation’s ability to advance racial equity.

A video recording of the event, including a table-setting performance from 2021 U.S. Youth Poet Laureate Alexandra Huynh and a presentation of CEP’s latest research, can be found here. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Moderator Hilary Pennington, executive vice president of programs, Ford Foundation: What will it take to sustain changes like this and what gets in our way? And if you guys don’t mind, let’s talk about boards. You know, those findings at the end of the CEP data are so striking. So, how do you bring your boards along in support of these kinds of practices? Especially in light of the data in the survey about the difference that the composition of the board makes. […]

Crystal Hayling, executive director, The Libra Foundation: So, because I know CEP well…I’m just going to treat this like a family conversation and be totally honest. There are not many women who look like me who run family foundations. And part of that has to do with the fact that most families select people who they trust and who they have deep relationships with. And it is indicative of the society that we live in that for most of those families that are white and are wealthy, they don’t necessarily have relationships with African Americans or other people of color.

So, I have to say that already, by hiring me, the family that I work for demonstrated a willingness to break out of what their normal traditional comforts might have been. To say, “there’s a certain kind of work that we want to do and we want somebody with the kind of experience that can do it.” So, the family was already committed to human rights work. They knew that they wanted to professionalize their family foundation, which had been a little bit more like a kitchen table than like a board table, and so they brought in someone like me who’s got about 30 years of experience in philanthropy.

When I interviewed for the role, I said that if you are doing mostly work in the United States and you have a human rights focus, then you have to have a racial justice lens, because race is the sorting hat in America, and so we have to be able to look at that.

I also pushed the board around issues of being willing to push more authority down to the staff who had engaged in trust-based philanthropy with our grantee partners and to say to them, trust us to do things, and then we will learn about them as we move along together, as opposed to saying, let us prove something to you upfront, convince you of how right it is and inextricably prove [it] and then say, how do we move together?

I would say those are some of the things that we have done: push the decision-making farther down, trust in people who are not necessarily the same folks that we’ve always seen as partners, and really be willing to say, [as] the great LaTosha Brown from Black Voters Matter says…“racism makes all institutions unjust.” So, we have to be willing to go to those critical root causes of many of the inequities and injustices that we see and be willing to tackle them head on.

HP: There’s so much in what you just said. […] And I think that you’ve named one of the huge stumbling blocks in the mindsets that I think we and boards have about what it means to be strategic and accountable.

And I see you nodding, Donna. I’m curious how this lands with you, and I’m sure you all in the association do a lot of work, either with boards or on the issue of boards?

Donna Murray-Brown, president and CEO, Michigan Nonprofit Association: Oh, absolutely. And thinking about our board — and I thank goodness that the work around diversity, equity, inclusion and justice really started back in 2009 — but when I became president and CEO in 2013, and just thinking about the board structure — it was actually a barrier to us having very diverse members on our board.

Just to share with you very quickly, our bylaws had 23 permanent seats that were held by presidents of associations. And as you might imagine, those presidents of associations were white, male, older people centered in our capital. So we decidedly said, “wait a second, we will never be able to — with this system in place — be able to have a diverse board in the first place.”

So, we took a process led by the board and I supported the board in their process to actually have the opportunity to even have people that represented racial diversity and all aspects of diversity on our board. But that isn’t enough. That is a big piece, but it isn’t enough, because oftentimes people actually experience tokenism when they’re on the actual board and they’re not really even having the opportunity to be their full self.

So, we keep challenging ourselves over and over again: not just who’s at the table, but what does it mean to belong at the table and what does it mean to be able to leverage their thought leadership? And so, we have things to learn, but we’re moving forward.

But I will say that [from] those that we serve in the nonprofit sector in Michigan there were lots of stories of boards that were not diverse and that they were having knee-jerk reactions to, “we have to let our CEO go because they’re not a person of color.” Wait a second; that’s a very knee-jerk reaction that is not mitigating the issue that’s at hand. And so we had lots of conversations around, what does it mean to embrace and be an anti-racist organization? And how might you work towards that? And how do you change behaviors and ultimately change hearts and minds around this? And that’s the work. And obviously, it’s never ending.

We’re really grateful, and I feel certainly privileged to be able to work alongside a lot of nonprofit organization boards around how they actually get to the place they really want to be and be smart and strategic about it.

HP: These are such great examples because what you are describing is really the deep work, right? It’s not getting the one and only person of color on a board or even to lead an organization and then everybody else thinking that their work is done. And I love imagining the kinds of conversations you must continue to have as you do this deeper work.

And so, Bob, curious to your thoughts about this question: boards and also this notion of how do we move our boards towards deeper work on racial equity, in every sense of that word?

Robert Fockler, president, Community Foundation of Greater Memphis: Well, we’re fortunate to live in a community that is majority minority…and I also run a community-based board, so we get to create our board drawn from the community. So, our board has been diverse, not always, but it has been diverse for 30 or 40 years. But by the same token, even a diverse board doesn’t necessarily come to change very readily either.

And I think that we’ve been on this journey for a while. We pitched three years ago, long before the pandemic, we pitched for the first time using an extra lens on even our donor-advised fund grantmaking. We used to just make a grant to any 501(c)(3) public nonprofit. We actually edited the lens because there’s a lot of nonprofits that have 501(c)(3)s that engage in funding hate issues. And we actually used the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate group list as a new filter for even our donor grantmaking starting about three years ago.

So, we started this conversation a long time ago, and as we’ve been dragging our board through that, I’ll say one thing: very key to this is board leadership. We’ve been very, very lucky on this journey [because] for a two-year period my board chair was Terri Lee Freeman, who many of you may know. She’s former head of the community foundation in the national capital area, DC, and then she moved to Memphis to be president of the National Civil Rights Museum here in Memphis.

She was my board chair as we were doing all these things and as we launched into the pandemic. Even she was a little slow to say some of these changes are not what you should be doing, but she was very quick to finally adopt them and then lead them. So, I think that the fact that we had strong leadership up and down the board, that was the key.

And I’ll say, even…[though] a snapshot of our board looks diverse, but that diversity runs through cultural and political views as well. We still had some very conservative people on our board who still resisted it [racial equity work]. […]

It’s [about] leadership.

To hear the full panel discussion, find a video recording of the event here, and read CEP’s latest research, “Foundations Respond to Crisis: Lasting Change?”, here.

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