Foundations Must Lead the Way on the Diversity Agenda

Selina Nwulu

CEP’s latest report, Nonprofit Diversity Efforts: Current Practices and the Role of Foundations, comes during a time where the foundation sector at large is reflecting on its levels of inclusion and diversity. The case for diversity has been made time and time again. We know a diverse workforce creates more dynamic, anti-“group think” environments that are far more intelligent and reactive to the challenges around them. This is also understood within the sector; a 2017 survey on diversity from Green 2.0, as referenced in CEP’s report, shows how 100 percent of senior foundation respondents and more than 90 percent of respondents who work within nonprofits recognize that diversity enables organizations to be more connected to the communities they serve. Similarly, 90 percent of respondents overall also believe that diversity increases creativity within an organization.

Despite this common understanding, the foundation sector does not reflect this reality. Certainly, recent data from the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) makes it clear that in England and Wales, the foundation sector desperately needs to improve. The research shows that foundation boards in England and Wales are 99 percent white, men outnumber women at the board level at a ratio of 2:1, and over half of trustees are over 65 years old. With such a homogeneous landscape, are funds really being distributed as effectively as they could be?

While there is often a level of expectation that the organizations funded by foundations have diverse work streams that reach certain communities, there exists a deeply uncomfortable hierarchy whereby the people with strategic vision and decision-making power are white and predominately middle or upper class. Meanwhile, the organizations they fund are perhaps slightly more diverse, and the individuals the funds are ultimately seeking to assist are more likely to be people of color and from working-class backgrounds.

How can foundations expect diverse and inclusive working practices in the organizations they fund if they do not lead the way in meeting this standard themselves? 

We think the foundation sector can and should do better. However, we understand the stasis that surrounds many of the conversations around diversity and the sector. This is why we have developed the 2027 programme, a new program designed to support talented frontline workers from working-class communities and bring them into decision-making roles at trusts and foundations in several English cities. The foundation sector in the U.K. is sorely lacking lived experience leaders who can help inform strategy and lead change within foundations. We consider the 2027 programme a way in which the sector can proactively turn these conversations about diversity into action — not as some charitable form of outreach, but as a way to strengthen the sector through building decision-making practices that are more informed by diverse perspectives.

We are in the pilot year of a 10-year program and so are very much in a process of learning. But the response we have already seen to the program has been a welcome antidote to the “hard-to-reach” rhetoric that the sector often falls victim to. We have received more than 200 applications from frontline workers coming from a whole range of different backgrounds, including teaching, public health, and social work, to name but a few areas. It has been incredibly inspiring to learn of the innovative ways in which so many candidates have been creating and leading powerful change within their communities, and we are excited by the prospect of bringing that energy into foundation offices.

Set to launch in October 2018, up to 15 of these candidates will become the first cohort of 2027 associates — all of whom will be paired with a host foundation for 12 months. While we will provide support to the associates as part of the program, the support and guidance we offer to the participating foundations will also be crucial. We need to get beyond a mindset that implies a candidate with lived experience lacks the skills and knowledge to succeed in the workplace, and rather question how working environments have been normalized to the point that only those with a certain background can thrive. 

Only once foundations normalize having diverse operational teams can they begin to ask the right questions of the organizations they fund. The foundation sector at large operates within the extremes of wealth and power; what a powerful message it could send if it started embracing equity and meaningfully embedding lived experience within the heart of its practice. 

Selina Nwulu is a senior consultant at Ten Years’ Time, a founding organization of the 2027 programme, alongside Baljeet Sandhu, Ruth Ibegbuna, Koreo, and Charityworks. For more information on the program, visit 2027.org.uk. Follow Selina on Twitter at @selinanwulu.

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