Leading the Change

If philanthropy is going to be successful in tackling the great challenges in society, we need to start by changing the culture within our organizations.

As philanthropists, we work to promote the common good. And as the face of America continues to change, embracing the strengths, leadership, and perspectives of emerging populations in our communities presents us with the opportunity to make our philanthropy more impactful and reflective of the people we seek to help.

Many philanthropic leaders across the country understand that advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) helps them better achieve their missions—whether their focus is addressing environmental issues, improving education or helping local communities. They know that bringing different voices to the decision-making table allows them to draw on a rich variety of perspectives to identify solutions to tough challenges, including issues of equity.

People who have historically been excluded—women, people of color, LGBT people, and people with disabilities—are the emerging majority.  Many in these communities continue to face the effects of systemic exclusion. Yet many are accomplished individuals whose perspectives can be essential to ensuring that all of our institutions function effectively to advance the common good in a changing world.

While advancing efforts to authentically include diverse perspectives is a widely shared goal, many leaders still struggle to find the best way to do it within their organizations. For many, just starting the conversation about sensitive issues like race and gender identity, much less equity is a challenge.

Last year, Philanthropy Northwest, the regional association serving foundations throughout Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming, launched a project to look more deeply into what it takes for organizations to have these critical conversations and to position organizations to become more responsive to DEI issues. And after interviews with 23 philanthropic leaders at the executive, board and staff level, and a yearlong peer learning group of 10 foundation CEOs, they found that above all, it begins with leadership and dialogue.

In its recently released report on the project entitled, “Vision and Voice: The Role of Leadership and Dialogue in Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” Philanthropy Northwest came away with two key findings:

1) Organizational culture is central to advancing DEI, and

2) Leaders need support from their peer networks to advance this work and hold themselves accountable. Organizational leaders are in the position to introduce and adopt policies and practices to advance DEI, and to promote their importance to their Boards and staff. And they need support, and sometimes pushing, from their peers to do it.

The project yielded practical lessons for advancing DEI:

  • Leadership, from the CEO in particular, is critical to advance this work. Leaders must raise the issues in their organizations, model a commitment to them, and support action and attention toward them.
  • Leaders must foster an environment of learning. Organizational staff needs to be able to feel free to engage in a process of inquiry. A leader must create an environment open to dialogue and disagreement.
  • Talking about inequality is difficult but essential. It often takes the courage of a good leader just to start the conversation about groups that have historically been excluded, and to ask difficult questions of themselves, their board and their staff to truly get to the core of why DEI is an important value to advance within the organization.
  • Experimenting is good. Organizations should think outside the box in terms of how to recruit more diverse candidates, and expand their networks and approach to recruitment.
  • Sharing life experiences builds trust. Letting others know where you came from, and learning the same of others, humanizes the process of changing the organizational culture.
  • Place matters. Organizations are shaped by their geography, so the discussion must be tailored to the unique makeup and history of a given area. The conversation in an urban-based organization can and should be different than one based in a rural community.

The peer cohort of 10 CEOs illustrated that creating opportunities for “safe, regular, direct and honest in-person conversations” among philanthropic leaders about DEI issues will help the field as a whole to advance them. In the report, Philanthropy Northwest shares the model for their peer cohort, which proved so successful that all 10 CEOs signed-on for a second year.

As one CEO who participated in the project put it, the cohort “prompted me to think more about diversity and equity, and to think more creatively about what I am doing…having conversations, especially about race and equity in this country is hard, but we did it here and it gives me hope.” The report concludes that “model policies and practices alone will not spur consistent action; leaders need support, encouragement—and sometimes pushing—from their peers to advance DEI.”

The D5 Coalition is here as a resource for organizations working to advance the DEI conversation. Just recently, D5 commissioned a comprehensive scan of the philanthropic sector to identify the policies, practices and programs that have helped organizations start conversations just like these. Its clearinghouse of resources provides the community with proven tools and best practices for starting these conversations that lead to the change we need.

Change isn’t easy; but given today’s changing world, it is not optional. But we know what it takes—strong leadership and support from peers can help all of philanthropy achieve meaningful, lasting impact.


Kelly Brown is Director of the D5 Coalition, a five-year, effort to increase philanthropy’s diversity, equity and inclusiveness. Prior to this she was Principal Consultant at Viewpoint Consulting, which provides program design, planning, research, and facilitation services to nonprofits, philanthropic organizations and individuals investing resources to strengthen underserved communities.

developing strategy, diversity, diversity equity and inclusion, foundation governance, foundation strategy, leadership
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