Are Foundations and Their Grantees Discussing Race?

CEP’s work focuses on what foundations can do to be more effective in their work through their governance, their staff, their operations, and their work with key stakeholders, including grantees and beneficiaries. Our focus in our work is always on foundation effectiveness. And it is that same lens of effectiveness that we bring to thoughts about why diversity, equity, and inclusion are essential for foundations’ work.

I recently went back and re-read a pair of blog posts from 2012 that shared what we found as a result of our efforts to analyze race data from our Grantee Perception Report (GPR) surveys. Though from a few years ago, I found this data relevant to revisit, especially in light of the headlines we are seeing in the news almost daily about racial tensions, divisiveness, violence, and pain.

Below, I share highlights from what we found in the data.

Who fills out our GPR survey?

When a foundation commissions a GPR in order to understand how its grantees perceive it, we send a survey to the grantee staff member whom the foundation tells us is its primary contact. Those survey respondents complete the grantee survey (sometimes with assistance from their colleagues) and, if they’re located in the United States, they have the option on the survey of indicating their race, which many do.

Are respondents of color having different experiences working with funders than white respondents?

Over time, we have examined our data to understand if respondents of color were having different experiences working with funders than white respondents — and if so, in what ways. In 2012, we conducted this analysis with data from the previous five years (2007 through 2011) — from more than 20,000 grantee survey respondents about their experiences working with one of 148 funders.

The answer, which remained unchanged from analyses we had run with data from 2004 through 2008, was surprising to some with whom we discussed our findings. The 21 percent of respondents who identified as people of color during those five years on our survey didn’t report having different experiences with funders than white respondents. While we have in a few instances seen concerning differences by race of grantee respondent for individual foundations, we didn’t see such patterns across the grantees in our larger dataset.

Are foundations and their grantees communicating about issues of racial diversity?

We felt that one key element missing from the existing work on diversity in philanthropy was the grantee perspective on their funders’ role — and efforts — on this issue. We decided that developing a better understanding of whether foundations and grantees are even communicating about racial diversity was an important place to start, and a topic we were well-positioned to contribute to through our ongoing work. From the spring of 2010 to the fall of 2011, we included the following questions in the standard GPR survey:

Has the Foundation communicated with you about racial diversity as it relates to:

  • The Foundation itself (staff, board, etc.)
  • The Foundation’s programmatic work (funding, mission, programs)
  • Your organization (staff, board, etc.)
  • The work associated with this grant in particular

If yes to your organization, to what extent did this communication have a positive or negative impact on your organization?

If yes to the work associated with this grant in particular, to what extent did this communication have a positive or negative impact on the work associated with this grant in particular?

Is the work funded by this grant meant to address topics for which you believe racial diversity is a relevant component?

In addition, we developed a module of optional questions that foundations subscribing to the GPR could choose to include in the survey if they wanted to go deeper on the topic of their own contributions to conversations about racial diversity with grantees and in their fields and communities, more broadly.

To our surprise, given past requests for CEP to do more to collect data about this issue from foundations, very few foundations were interested in using the optional questions. A number of foundations even objected to the questions we added to our standard survey, arguing that we shouldn’t focus only on racial diversity, or that the questions just weren’t relevant to their work, or that the “diversity” wording we used did not fit how the foundation had been communicating with its grantees.

Nonetheless, we decided to proceed with collecting data on these standard survey questions from more than 10,000 grantees of 70 U.S. funders from spring of 2010 to fall 2011. Here is what we found:

Is communication happening about racial diversity as it relates to foundations’ programmatic work?

Thirty-eight percent of grantees report that their foundation funder communicated with them about racial diversity in relation to the foundation’s programmatic work. Just over a quarter said communication about this topic did not take place, but that it also wasn’t relevant. Fifteen percent of grantees said the foundation didn’t have this communication with them but should have. (See Figure 1)

Is communication happening about racial diversity as it relates to the work associated with the grant received?

Thirty-eight percent of grantees reported that their funder communicated with them about racial diversity as it relates to the work associated with the grant they received. Few grantees — 11 percent — thought that their funder should’ve communicated with them about this topic but hadn’t. Almost a third — 31 percent — said such communication didn’t happen, and wasn’t relevant. (See Figure 1)

Figure 1:

Figure 1

Seventy-five percent of the grantees reporting that they and their funder communicated about racial diversity as it relates to the funder’s programmatic work also reported that communication on this topic took place regarding the work associated with the grant received.

To what extent did this communication have a positive or negative impact?

Grantees reporting that their funder communicated with them about racial diversity in relation to the work funded were asked to what extent that communication had a positive or negative impact on the work. Hardly any grantees reported that these communications had negative consequences, but there is certainly room for these communications to have more beneficial results. Forty percent indicated that the communications had neither a positive nor negative effect. Less than a quarter of grantees — 23 percent — gave the highest possible impact rating for these communications. (See Figure 2)

It is important to note that we did see some foundations faring better than others on this question. There were a few foundations for which the majority of their grantees give them the highest rating possible on this item.

Figure 2:

Figure 2

Do grantees believe that racial diversity was a relevant component of the work they were funded to do?

Sixty percent of grantees said that the work funded by their foundation grant was meant to address a topic for which they believe racial diversity was relevant. These grantees were more likely to report having communications with their funders about racial diversity as it relates to the funded work — yet only 55 percent of these grantees reported that such communication happened. (See Figure 3)

Figure 3:

Figure 3

What Does It Mean?

From the data, it did not seem that grantees desire more communication with their funders about racial diversity. Few grantees that didn’t have such communication with their funder wish they had. This is true even among those grantees that explicitly told us in their survey responses that they believe racial diversity is a relevant component of the work they were funded to do.

When communication was happening, it didn’t seem to be all that helpful to grantees. Grantees were not saying that it’s harmful, but few were saying that it had a very positive impact. From our data, it is not possible to know if, or how, these communications could have a more positive impact — or if grantees even desired to be influenced in any way by their funders on this topic.

There is much we cannot know from this data that is relevant to the communications that took place. For example, who initiated communication on this topic — the grantee or the funder? What were the circumstances of the communication? Were questions posed from one party to another or did an in-depth conversation take place?

Stepping away from interpreting the data and reflecting on our method, it is possible that we simply did not ask the right questions in our survey, or ask them in the way that would be most relevant to grantees’ experiences and preferences.

Perhaps just as interesting as the data is the way it has been used. The fact is, data from these items has not been of great interest to many of the foundations commissioning the GPR. As a result, as of spring 2012, we removed these items from our core survey and have made all of them optional for funders wishing to collect this information from their grantees. (A note from today — as of 2016 — only a few foundations chose to add these items when commissioning a GPR.)

In the coming days, look for two more posts on our blog about foundation CEOs’ perceptions of the connection between racial diversity of foundation leadership and impact, and about the proportion of African American CEOs at the 100 largest U.S. foundations.

Ellie Buteau is vice president, research, at CEP. Follow her on Twitter at @EButeau_CEP.

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