Confronting Diversity: Can Foundations Face Their Own Equity Contradiction?

06/27/2013 02:36 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

Until I was seven, my family lived in a veterans' housing project in Woodside, NY. WWII veterans and their families lived together in that project in a racial mix that likely reflected the military. Using my-grown up memory to look back, I recall the composition was about 1/3 white families, 1/3 African Americans and 1/3 Puerto Ricans. Our kid friendship groups were totally racially integrated. Kids played without parental supervision (it was the 50s after all) in the courtyard formed by the apartment buildings. With the exception of one older white boy (he was 10, the rest of us were 5-7 year olds) who now would be called a bully, no one understood racial difference as difference; we were all kids - my parents, never pointed out any difference.

Starting childhood with that instant integration provided comfort with diversity. Our differences were unknown to us, and it was a surprise to me when the bully asked me why I was lending my brand new bike to my six-year-old heartthrob, Angelo--because he was "colored," a word I had never heard used before in relation to a person. For weeks I was consumed by wonder about where the colors were on Angelo's body because they were not apparent. In my child's mind, I imagined a rainbow somewhere--maybe on his hip hidden by his pants. In a month or so I stopped thinking about the rainbow and just returned to admiration--because he could actually ride my two-wheeler, whereas I could not master the balance until much later, after we had moved from the project.

In philanthropy, because its mission is equity, diversity, writ large, encompasses not only racial and ethnic diversity but also age, culture, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, size, ability, politics and diversity in thinking. But are we walking the talk?

Difference, when used to isolate, does its job well by separating and solidifying fear, envy, misunderstanding and distrust. How many of us even have a close friend who holds a different political persuasion?

We need a powerful force equal to and opposite of discrimination. But even leaders of foundations are vulnerable to groupthink. That kind of familiarity breeds not contempt, but comfort; people of the same background often "get" each other immediately and relate with shortcuts. If we had shared our cultures, lived and worked together, we might all have those kinds of shortcuts. Simplistic yes; plausible, perhaps not, but now we are left with a tangled web to unweave.

I learned from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management researchers who track data on, that in 2011 there were more non-white babies than white babies born in the U.S. Hello, white people, you'll be in the minority soon. Wake up call.

Philanthropy's mission is to invest in leveling the playing field for vulnerable populations. Diversity in thinking is as important as lessening the racial divide. If we have boards and leadership that represent all facets, might we not be more likely to meet those goals?

Kelly Brown, the director of the D5 Coalition, a Chicago-based effort supported by some major foundations to delve into diversity over a five-year period, says that diverse representation is one issue, but improving foundation diversity goes well beyond the racial and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientation of staff and leadership. D5 grew out of decades of work on diversity and philanthropy, but in its current form was spearheaded by the California Endowment. Brown and the website acknowledge that the world is changing and philanthropy needs to keep up and even, perhaps, lead. She says, "Changing the complexion of trustees doesn't always change the equation, and that makes it more of a complex issue." Amy Segal Shorey, of GMA Foundations in Boston, agrees. "Diversity at foundations is not all about the workforce," she says. It seems it is more about the force of the work.

Brown wants more robust analyses of the problems and the equity issues. "We've found openness to these ideas in the foundation community." But she also says the questions that have to be asked include: What does it take to be inclusive? And how do you know who benefits from investments without the data to make that determination? Brown also supports the notion that diversity does benefit and influence impact and leads to greater effectiveness. She sources this from research done in corporate venues where outcomes are more measurable and corroborate that point directly.

"In philanthropy," she says, "it is more difficult to measure the diversity impact on outcomes but that doesn't mean we should shy away from trying. A universal database reflecting these issues would help," she adds.

Cynthia Gibson, a consultant who has worked with numerous foundations across the country and writes about philanthropic issues, says that what may be needed now is an expansion of the definition of diversity that includes recognition of the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. That split isn't just economic; it's also about where people went to school, where they live and their social capital pedigree. "Having someone who hasn't gone to college or is from a completely different end of the political spectrum participating in important discussions about where philanthropic dollars should be going--discussions that are made up primarily of liberal, white, college-educated and socially privileged elites--would be a dramatic deviation from the current norm."

Gibson has been loosely tracking who's getting into foundation leadership positions and has seen that it's mostly white men of privilege; people with Ivy League credentials, law or MBA degrees; and/or those with previous stints as university presidents, high-level public officials and/or consultants for multinational corporations like McKinsey. Nothing's wrong with this, Gibson says, except when it becomes a pattern--which it's in danger of becoming. Why? Because people of privilege in foundation leadership positions may not always have the skills for understanding and addressing the real-world problems the people that philanthropy serves face every day. "Are hedge fund managers the most knowledgeable about how to eradicate poverty? Are wealthy donors basing their strategies on evidence-based metrics that they may demand from grantees but not from themselves?"

Prentice Zinn of GMA Foundations says, "Foundations like Haymarket in Boston have made a real start by deeply challenging their own assumptions about equity and going through a thorough and complex process to do so. It certainly won't be as easy as diversity 1, 2, 3."