Emmy Ganos, Senior Program Officer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Carolyn Wang Kong, Chief Program Director, Blue Shield of California Foundation
Priscilla Ko, Program Manager, Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation
One can hardly deny America’s abundant prosperity and rise as a global superpower; yet, upon closer investigation, we see a gross, unequal distribution of that prosperity. This discrepancy caused many of us, including many of this year’s Terrance Keenan Institute (TKI) Fellows, to enter the philanthropic field, seeking to address society’s ills and correct historical malpractices.
The 2018 class of TKI Fellows was the most diverse class to date. Seventeen emerging leaders represented 13 states of rural and urban geographies, on both sides of under 30 and over 40. Most notable about this class was its striking racial diversity, with more than 50 percent of fellows from African American, Asian American, Latino, or Native American communities. We celebrated the space where we could be our authentic selves, and shared how our lived experiences informed our understanding of the communities we served. Yet, we saw that the decision makers and executive leaders were still largely homogenous, where only 8 percent of foundation heads are people of color and nearly 40 percent of foundation boards reported having zero leaders of color. Our cohort felt compelled to challenge the discrepancy and power imbalance that may be perpetuating the systems that keep our communities poor, sick, and in need.
In our youth, we envisioned a more just and fair place for our present and future generations. As we grew older, we were empowered with resources to actualize those dreams by lifting up voices from community, bringing community-led solutions to the table, and collaborating with partners towards lasting change. How, as funders, do we ensure accountability with our dollars and grantmaking practices? Asked of the 2018 Terrance Keenan Institute Fellows, the response was resounding – representation.
Representation, Not Tokenization
If a funder’s pursuit is towards equity and its foremost focus is on its communities, it must adapt its organization to a culture that enables that pursuit and focus. Conducting an internal assessment to evaluate the diversity of staff and leadership is a crucial first step, but foundations must move beyond counting heads. Representation is an aspect of authentic transformation, not a tokenized photo-op. Diverse staff bring invaluable lived-experience and divergent perspectives that inform strategy, shape how decisions are made and how foundations “show up” in community. Valued in this way, justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) are not just internal or external strategies, they are in fact, one in the same. After all, how can we champion JEDI among our grantees, and develop strategies that have an equity lens, if we do not also have a staff that is diverse, that feels valued, and is empowered to work differently in order to dismantle inequitable patterns?
We encourage funders to challenge and reframe thinking with these questions:
- How has hiring diverse staff changed the organization? How, if at all, are the insights and lived experience of those staff leveraged within the organization? How are diverse staff supported to grow and develop within the organization?
- Has there been a shift in funding allocations to organizations led by people of color, organizations that currently only receive 10 percent of philanthropic dollars?
- How has your organization changed or expanded your approach and relationship with diverse partners’ organizations?
- How has your organization adapted internal processes based on feedback from diverse nonprofit partners (e.g. application process, reporting, etc.)
Equip Diverse Staff, Support Diverse Leaders
In a 2013 Exit Interview Survey conducted by the Association of Black Foundation Executives, Black professionals disclosed that their reasons for leaving the philanthropic field were due to feelings of limited advancement opportunities, undue burdens in needing to prove their leadership, and insufficient engagement with the communities they served. Many chose to leave the philanthropic field in pursuit of careers in nonprofits, consultancy, or the public sector that would allow for direct engagement with their communities. Coupled with our own anecdotal observations of diverse staff and leaders leaving the field at higher rates and with shorter tenures, we felt compelled to probe organizations on how they may empower staff and leaders of color.
- Does your organization conduct exit interviews to understand why staff may be leaving, in particular diverse staff?
- How does your organization build a pipeline to equip diverse staff for future leadership positions?
- What external opportunities are offered for diverse staff to help build their philanthropic networks and professional development?
Engage Diverse Partners, Share Power
Advancing equity is ultimately about shifting power. For privileged organizations such as ours, this requires that we work to share power, relinquish control, and build trust, at all levels of the organization, and with the communities we seek to support. Doing the work to achieve health equity will mean questioning our practices and processes for finding and evaluating grantees, and for setting strategy. And, importantly, it will mean questioning our practices in our own hierarchies, and examining how our own world views, and those of our colleagues and leaders, may reinforce inequities that we say we wish to end.
- What mechanisms are in place for staff to raise concerns about power dynamics, both internally and externally? Does your organization make space to question established practices that may unintentionally promote inequities?
- How does your organization make space to listen to and respond to grantee and community voices, concerns, and priorities?
- Are there meaningful ways in which your organization could begin to shift power?
A Call to Action
We are heartened to see our field paying closer attention to these issues, and we have been energized by the critical discussions that have sparked in our field, and the actions that many organizations are taking to move toward a more equitable future. And yet, many of us felt as though the exemplary stories of health funders truly embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion in our own internal structures, our practices, and in our hierarchies, were still on the horizon.
This year’s class of TKI fellows brought together many like-minded colleagues in mid-career positions, poised to grow into leadership roles. But we do not want to wait to grow into senior leadership positions before taking on the challenge of rethinking how our organizations do their work, in order to embody our aspirations for health equity. We think that raising questions such as those outlined above–focused on authentic representation, shifting power, and supporting diverse staff and leaders–can start us on the path to living the value of equity, both internally and in our grantmaking. Only then can we move from continually speaking about equity to actually living it – because we will see the shared gains that a focus on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion can have on our communities, our staff and the field.