Diversity: A Means or an End?

Common wisdom tells us that racial and ethnic diversity in our sector will result in a greater emphasis on issues of racial equity and attention to solutions that are rooted in the experiences of people of color.  Clearly representation is critical, but true inclusion requires more than simply checking boxes.  Attention must be paid to addressing the dynamics of power inherent in the relationship between a philanthropic institution and the community it seeks to serve.

The Edward Hazen Foundation’s institutional record indicates an evolution in thinking about race and diversity beginning in the 1970s when the Board of Trustees began to focus on ensuring that the organizations it supported were led by people representative of and from the communities being served. It also began to focus on activities that engaged parents and young people in taking a powerful role in the life of their schools and communities.  These evolving interests paralleled the increasing diversity of the Board of Trustees itself.  Hazen board minutes note that the composition of the board had changed dramatically in the time since just after World War II “from twelve men drawn mainly from private colleges, to ten men and five women, one third of whom represent minorities.”  The 2014 Hazen board comprises five women and two men; five of the seven are people of color.  The Foundation’s three presidents since 1988 have all been women, two of them women of color.

The Hazen Foundation is committed to patient, sustained support for grassroots organizations that engage in organizing for educational justice and that develop the capacity of young people to generate a sophisticated analysis of their lived experiences, to identify issues central to structural inequity, build power, and strive to change them.  Over two decades of supporting youth organizing and education organizing, for example, the problem of the racially disparate imposition of punitive school discipline policies emerged time and again as common across geography and local systems.  Hazen’s support for students and parents’ efforts to surface the issue and fight for positive alternatives have been critical in focusing national attention on this problem.

The path that led the Hazen Foundation to its current work required specific, intentional actions over several decades, implementing ideas that were truly innovative at the time and remain unusual today in the philanthropic sector and, over time, reshaping the institution into a racial justice organization.  Foundations seeking to develop internal and external practices to drive a racial justice agenda can consider these lessons from Hazen’s experience:

  • Hazen’s leadership took pains to bring all the members of the board along through discussion and exposure to new ideas.  As a group, the board and staff undertook activities – meetings, site visits, readings, briefings – that helped to develop a common language and understanding of racial justice, diversity, and oppression.
  • For Hazen, pursuit of a racial justice agenda has been an evolving, dynamic process that reflects leadership and personnel changes, shifts in the environment in which the Foundation operates, expansion of the understanding of the dynamics of oppression, and frequent re-examination of the Foundation’s progress.  Whether just beginning to pay attention to issues of inclusion, or pushing a deeper commitment to self-determination, foundations need to develop and maintain an ongoing examination of their attitudes and practices in order to avoid complacency.
  • Hazen has learned that racial justice will not be achieved by checking boxes.  But paying attention to data and quantifiable metrics can provide a useful tool for measuring change. For Hazen, it has been important to be explicit about the purposes of diversification and representation so as to identify and articulate the values that underlie the institution’s efforts.   Making the purpose of the data collection from applicants and grantees clear has meant that this information has become an integral part of the Foundation’s evaluation and decision-making.
  • While for the most part, Hazen leadership moved forward in a linear fashion, it has sometimes paused to surface tensions, particularly about the dynamics of power.  It has been helpful to examine the existing culture of the Foundation in a way that avoids personalizing disagreements or obstacles to progress.  Hazen’s experience teaches never to assume that everyone understands or agrees with an interpretation or analysis.  These assumptions can lead to confusion and contention down the line.
  • Bringing trustees into contact with grantees and bringing grantees onto the board has proven to be an effective way of being responsive to the Foundation’s constituency, but it can test the power inherent in the grantor/grantee relationship.  For Hazen, a key lesson has been to be clear about roles, and to let the constituency frame and define the issues that are most important to them while extending the social capital that the foundation possesses to the grantee community.

Philanthropy has begun to pay attention to diversity within its own ranks and that of its grantees. But, the increase in diversity within foundations has tended to remain at the staff, rather than leadership, level, and its impact on the practice and focus of grantmaking is unclear. A 2009 survey of New York-based foundations by The Foundation Center found that, of those responding to the survey, “Ethnic and racial diversity is greater at the administrative level (48 percent people of color) and lower at the CEO and board levels (16 and 18 percent respectively).”   Further, according to the same survey, just 25-30% of the respondents collect data about the racial and ethnic composition of grantseekers’ boards and staff. The survey did not ask whether foundations used the data in their grantmaking decisions, although it did note a positive correlation between racial and ethnic diversity of foundation boards and explicit policies regarding diversity.  It may be that diversity as a value in and of itself drives some foundations to pay attention to the composition of its leadership and staff.  However, if racial justice is the ultimate goal, then diversity is a necessary condition, but not sufficient on its own.

This post is based on an article appearing in The Foundation Review, issue 6.1. The full article is available at http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/tfr/vol6/iss1/7/.

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