Social Justice and a Relevant Philanthropic Sector: Advancing DEI

Miles Wilson

This post is the fourth in “Social Justice and a Relevant Philanthropic Sector,” a five-part series by Miles Wilson about where philanthropy is stuck in old paradigms — and where there lie opportunities to advance social justice both within the sector and across American society.

By 2003, several years into my career in philanthropy, I began to see a noticeable uptick in conversations at the Council on Foundations, as well as among the various regional associations of grantmakers, regarding building greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within organized philanthropy. In later years, I was excited to take part in some of those discussions and watch as the field produced a vast number of papers, guides, handbooks, and even DEI initiatives to advance the work.

Across these efforts, we spoke not only of greater representation of people of color in leadership roles in philanthropy, but also of more grant dollars going to communities of color, including an emphasis on organizations led by people of color. Seventeen years later, I am deeply disappointed that very little meaningful action has taken place to grow DEI in philanthropy in any substantial or comprehensive way. In fact, I fear the field has actually moved backward on this important issue.

In terms of people of color employed by foundations, little has changed over the years; if anything, it’s possibly worse. In 2014, ABFE reported that only 3 percent of the nation’s philanthropies have Black CEOs running the organization. This is in a country where foundation leaders have been talking, writing, and planning aggressively to implement DEI practices for at least two decades, and where African Americans make up 14.6 percent of the population. This truth completely belies the number of African-American senior executives I’ve known personally over the years who are more than CEO-ready but have yet to be offered the top job.

It’s not just an issue with people of color as CEOs. In fact, the best way to advance DEI in foundations is to first ensure that DEI is an influential presence in the boardroom. If this is prioritized properly, issues of DEI as they pertain to the CEO and staff will be addressed sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately, there has been very little movement in this area beyond token representation on many boards. It was certainly this way in 2009, when I was part of a committee of foundation trustees discussing how to achieve DEI in foundation boardrooms. Another committee participant, Julia Guevara, spoke about her experiences as a Latina on a foundation board where the voices of white males and white females were more valued:

Organizations like to say they have a diverse board, but behind the scenes is a ‘good old boy network,’ and when it hits, it hits hard. With one board member you can have a dialogue, but when you hit up against a network, communication is so much more difficult. It can be really discouraging to find the public face is not the same as the behind-the-scenes reality.

I need to also acknowledge a positive example from past service on a foundation board. This board worked hard over the years to implement DEI throughout the organization, and then took the next step to establish policy that required grantees to conduct a DEI audit and report those findings to the foundation. The confirmation of those audit findings was then included among the factors that determined if nonprofits would receive a grant. The foundation did the same with its vendors as well, with the clear purpose of encouraging greater DEI within these organizations.

Predictably, however, there was a substantial organization in the community that refused to conduct an audit and report its results. Despite the pressure by the community elite on the foundation, it held its ground and chose not to fund the organization. I was proud to sit on the board of this foundation that clearly saw advancing DEI as part of its mission and key to building a stronger, more equitable, and more effective nonprofit sector and community.

Getting more people of color seated on foundation boards is only half the work — retention is the other. As stated in a 2014 ABFE report called The Exit Interview, “Not only were Black philanthropic professionals not joining the field in large numbers, but many of those who had joined were leaving the field and heading elsewhere. This decline in overall representation by Black philanthropic professionals in the sector is disturbing.” Any real effort to retain people of color at foundations must be intentional and must begin with foundations asking themselves to what degree the foundation is a supportive and welcoming environment for people of color. Then they must make changes accordingly.

The key findings of The Exit Interview suggest that Black professionals in philanthropy don’t see opportunities for meaningful leadership roles or the ability to create meaningful community change. Furthermore, Black philanthropy professionals feel the culture of the sector is in effect pushing them out, and so the majority of these professionals tend to head to “nonprofits, the public sector, or consulting.” Finally, the report also found that Black philanthropy professionals perceive that rather than expanding the number of diverse professionals on staff, “foundations may be simply reallocating or opening up their ‘designated minority’ positions to other groups.”

This information is very disturbing.

Any foundation that funds communities of color must care about this issue because a deep and personal understanding of context and cultural relevance matters to both nonprofit and grantmaker effectiveness, including where power building and self-determination for communities of color is concerned. I want to applaud and acknowledge the important work of affinity groups such as ABFE, Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP), Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP), and Native Americans in Philanthropy, which provide support to people of color in philanthropy.

But their work alone is not enough. While their leading efforts are helpful, unless substantial numbers of individual foundations are committed and intentional about efforts to recruit and retain people of color, this trend will continue.

Miles Wilson is a philanthropic professional with nearly 30 years of experience supporting the U.S. social sector as well as past efforts in Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, and South Africa. He currently serves as deputy director of education grantmaking at Ascendium Education Group and wrote this piece while serving as a senior fellow during 2019 with the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.

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