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Has Inclusiveness Taken Hold in Philanthropy?

Resource type: News

How well are minorities represented within foundation staff and boards, and how well are the less advantaged served through grants?  In June 2009, a group of nonprofit leaders had a candid panel discussion on diversity in philanthropy, referencing the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ new report, Philanthropy in a Changing Society: Achieving Effectiveness through Diversity.  The 70-page report offers references, case studies, resources and recommendations, and thought-provoking data which foundations can use to think, dialogue and strategise.

As highly valued as diversity may be as a concept and societal ideal, questions remain as to how diligently the nonprofit sector has sought to achieve this goal in its own structure and operations. On Friday, June 20, a group of nonprofit leaders gathered at the offices of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers (NYRAG) for a candid panel discussion on diversity in philanthropy.

It was a highly impressive line-up: Gara LaMarche, President and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies; David J. Vidal, Research Director of Global Corporate Citizenship at The Conference Board; and Darren Walker, Vice President of Foundation Initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation. The discussion was moderated by Melissa Berman, President and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA). They were there to discuss RPA’s new report, Philanthropy in a Changing Society: Achieving Effectiveness through Diversity, which discusses the state of diversity in the philanthropic sector over the past 25 years.

The report, which was over a year and half in the making, is the first of three publications that will examine the topic through quantitative research, analysis of model diversity programs and commentary from leaders in philanthropy and related fields. The aim of this first report is to provide the sector with better understanding around how encouragement of diversity and inclusiveness leads to strategies for increasing foundation effectiveness. The next two publications will draw attention to lessons from leaders in the field as well as new voices in this work and the innovative strategies they are launching.

Some key findings, which can be substantiated by the graphs, statistics, footnotes and appendices that accompany the full report include:

  • Overall, there has been much progress from 1982 through 2006 among foundations in the areas of diversity. However, momentum slowed significantly in the latter half of that 25-year period.. Most of the gains in minority representation on all levels were achieved prior to the mid-1990s.
  • Diversity within foundations varies greatly by staff title. Program staff represents the greatest diversity, while there is still a notable lack of diversity among CEOs and board members.
  • Diversity across foundation types also varies. Independent foundations have the most diverse staff, public foundations the most diverse boards, and corporate grantmakers the most diverse pool of CEOs.
  • Gains in grant support to minority communities are taking much longer than gains in minority representation on staff and boards.
  • Diversity programs have evolved as the field has become more aware of “inclusiveness” as the ultimate goal. For example, there is more of a focus on ensuring the participation of diverse voices rather than just on diversity as a head count.
  • Diversity initiatives appear to have had positive impact on individual participants and foundations, but limited resources, scale and duration; lack of coordination across foundations; isolated operations and lack of outcome-oriented evaluations have hampered replication or field-wide advocacy.

As a general concept, diversity is certainly a broad topic to take on. The RPA report limits the scope by focusing on race and ethnicity, specifically African American, Asian American, Latino and Native American populations. The NYRAG panelists (and the report itself) were quick to acknowledge the limitations of such categories, whose boundaries can easily be moved to include women, LGBT, people with disabilities, and others. However, the panelists also understood the focus on racial equity, one of the most pressing components of the diversity discussion.

As the title of the report suggests, the premise of the report is effectiveness through diversity. As explained in the report’s introduction “diversity is [now] valued for bringing about greater effectiveness, better solutions, progress and success.” What was formerly a moral and legal argument, now grabs validity as “marketplace pragmatism” associated with changing consumers and a changing workforce. Also, management practices and organizational strategies – while still lacking – have become more inclusive of diverse perspectives as contributory to innovation. As foundations – and the philanthropic sector as a whole – adopt more of these business-like practices and focus on effectiveness, diversity becomes increasingly relevant. However, as LaMarche was quick to point out, focusing too much on “effectiveness” can make us lose site of the fact that inclusiveness and equity are fundamentally moral issues.

The report addresses diversity from two primary angles. It looks at human resources, specifically the racial/ethnic composition of a foundation, as well as the different levels of diversity among staff titles. It then moves into discussion around and analysis of grantmaking focused on communities of color, particularly how diversified governance or staffing may or may not impact a foundation’s relationship with its communities and constituents. The report also discusses several program strategies that have been supported by foundations to encourage diversity and inclusiveness within the sector.

The findings arrive amidst increasing public pressure on foundations to better engage with and respond to underserved and diverse communities, and for foundation leaders to be more thoughtful about including diverse perspectives when working to solve society’s most imbedded social welfare issues. The private and public sectors have long been facing similar criticism around diversity and inclusiveness—or lack there of—but it is the philanthropic sector, ironically, whose relative rate of progress has been least impressive. As Walker mentioned during the NYRAG discussion, in philanthropy, unlike the corporate sector, “there exists no market mechanism that keeps us responsive in real time” and also what Berman called an “ambiguous decision-making process among leadership.”

While improvements have certainly been made, lack of diversity is becoming all the more unacceptable for grantmakers because of shifting public paradigms around the use of philanthropic funds, which by virtue of their tax-exempt status are expected to serve the common good. Critics find it hard to believe that organizations truly have society’s best interest in mind if they pay no genuine attention to—or outright exclude—historically underrepresented populations. Whether it be in the making of grants, the hiring of staff or the demography of leadership, this neglect and exclusion from institutional philanthropy is becoming increasingly and vehemently less tolerable.

The report provides the philanthropic field with some advice as to how to create change in the areas of diversity. Some of the recommendations include:

  • Increase advocacy, outreach and peer support by networks and foundation leaders grappling with improving effectiveness and responsiveness in the face of rapidly changing demographics.
  • Collaborate with emerging donor communities to connect leadership among diverse communities with the larger institutional philanthropy field.
  • Promote field impact through coordinated multi-program strategies to leverage resources focusing on increasing diversity and inclusiveness, particularly at regional levels.

Jessica Chao, RPA Vice President and lead author of the publication, explained, “we hope this report will stimulate collective and institutional action toward an inclusive vision of our communities.” RPA hopes the study will encourage open dialogue in the field, highlight accomplishments and promising programs, and recommend strategies to address institutional and field changes. With over 70 pages (including appendices) of references, case studies, resources and recommendations in the report, there’s no shortage of thought-provoking data from which foundations can collaboratively think, dialogue and strategize.

“[RPA is] especially proud to be providing our colleagues with objective information to help them further their institutional missions while reflecting and adapting to a changing society” Berman said. The panelists at NYRAG were certainly complimentary of the research, but also seemed to understand the limitations of this—and any—study on the topic. Diversity and racial equity are themselves multifarious issues that require continuous, careful, and up-to-date analysis, and they are issues that need to be “understood” and approached from moral, legal, and pragmatic imperatives. While we can count on two more impressive reports from RPA, we must not let the conversation waver, because as a sector—and as a society—we have a long way to go before we are adequately and authentically including the views and perspectives of those people who have been historically underserved and underrepresented.

Click here to view a PDF version of Philanthropy in a Changing Society: Achieving Effectiveness through Diversity, or follow this link to view more RPA publications.