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The View from Maryland -- Philanthropy's Leadership Summit, Day Three

May 12, 2008

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. He filed his first post from the Council on Foundation's 2008 annual conference last week.)

In the early days of the AIDS/HIV pandemic, Katherine Boo wrote an article for the Washington Monthly titled "What Mother Theresa Could Learn in a Leather Bar." At the time, the majority of people with AIDS/HIV in the United States were gay and bisexual men and intravenous drug users, and Missionaries of Charity, Mother Theresa's religious order, had begun to provide care to people with AIDS in high HIV-incidence cities like New York.

Ms. Boo deliberately chose a provocative title for her article to draw attention to a simple premise. Unless we walk in someone else's shoes, we cannot presume to understand the world in which he or she lives. Even Mother Theresa could better understand how to serve those most affected by AIDS by looking at the problem through the eyes of those living with the disease. In so doing, she and her fellow sisters would be more effective in their ministrations.

I was reminded of Boo's article when the Council on Foundations, for the first time in its forty-plus-year history of annual conferences, put diversity and inclusiveness front and center in a full plenary session ("Diversity: Leadership or Legislation?").

In that session, the overarching argument voiced by the majority of the panelists was the same one Katherine Boo made in her article. As put most succinctly by Ann Wiener, a trustee of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, decisions made for people rather than with people are doomed to failure.

Wiener movingly recounted her board's site visit two years ago to Appalachia and how a local resident had guided them on a climb of one of the mountains. Her vivid retelling of that experience transported all of us to a section of our country few in the audience had ever visited. Another speaker, Dr I. King Jordan, Gallaudet University's first deaf president and a director of the Theodore R. & Vivian Johnson Scholarship Foundation, recounted his role as an advocate for inclusion of deaf people on the foundation board on which he sits.

What would have been the cost to these foundations -- in terms of impact and effectiveness -- if their board members had not endeavored to walk in the shoes of those different from themselves or were not representative of the communities the foundation sought to serve?

Session moderator Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of Policy Link, a national research institute that works to advance economic and social equity, noted that only when diverse staff and trustees bring their experience and insights to the table will foundations truly be able to award grants that have the desired impact.

I heartily concur. To be effective in their grantmaking, foundation officers are well advised to enlist both trustees and staff from the communities they seek to assist. Only with their insights, talents, and experiences can organized philanthropy effectively tackle the most pressing issues of our time.

For more information on current efforts to make the foundation field more diverse and inclusive, check out the following resource: Diversity in Philanthropy Project

-- Michael Seltzer

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Posted by Roger Doughty  |   May 20, 2008 at 10:43 AM

I appreciate and agree with this assessment, and also pleased that diversity/inclusion are receiving more of the urgent attention they merit.

As in Michael's post, at COF there was appropriate emphasis placed on the greater impact and effectiveness to be derived from diversity/inclusion. As both growing research and basic social analysis suggest, this is certainly true and well worth underscoring. At the same time, the value and imperative of increasing diversity/inclusion as worthy, necessary goals in themselves should not be entirely lost in the language of impact. This is not just about the greater (measurable) impact that philanthropy can have, but also about the vision that philanthropy puts forth about democracy, empowerment, and engagement in this wildly-changing society. Seismic shifts in the country are underway in population, power, identity, and community. How the field responds to these shifts both practically and philosophically will have significant implications far into the future.

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