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California Leads, Will the Nation Follow?

June 26, 2008

(Michael Seltzer, a noted authority on the nonprofit sector and philanthropy worldwide, is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic.)

As I've previously noted in PhilanTopic (here and here), the California State Assembly passed a bill, AB 624, in 2007 that would have required foundations in the state to disclose the ethnic composition of their boards and staffs and to provide details of grants awarded to minority-led organizations.

On Tuesday, the Sacramento Bee reported ("Pressed by Legislator, Nonprofit Foundations Agree to Invest in Minority-led Organizations," Aurelio Rojas, 6/24/08) that some of the state's largest foundations had agreed to make a multiyear, multimillion-dollar investment in minority communities. In return, State Assemblyman Joe Coto (D-San Jose) agreed to drop his sponsorship of AB 624, effectively killing the bill.

And so a debate that riveted the attention of the foundation field and diversity advocates across the nation has come to an end. Foundation leaders in California have succeeded in persuading state legislators that, when it comes to diversity, voluntary rather than legislated action is the right way to go, while the bill's advocates can point to the historically unprecedented commitment of the California Endowment and Ahmanson, Annenberg, California Wellness, Hewlett, Irvine, Packard, Parsons, UniHealth, and Weingart foundations to minority organizations across the state.

The real story, however, may not be about the conclusion of another round in the neverending debate between those who advocate for legislative versus voluntary action when it comes to regulating organized philanthropy. Instead, the history books are more likely to note how a small but substantially endowed group of independent and family foundations closed ranks in a common cause.

Let me be clear. This is not a case of donors joining together to provide funding to an organization or collaborating with other foundations on a new initiative, neither of which is especially newsworthy. What has transpired is an ongoing commitment by a group of large California foundations to address a key issue of our time -- the growing economic and social disparities affecting low-income and minority Americans, and the undercapitalized, community-based organizations that have been created in an attempt to make health care, education, and housing available and accessible to all Americans.

The agreement struck by these California foundations invites the question: What would happen if all U.S. foundations agreed to put poverty alleviation and the elimination of economic and social disparities based on racial, ethnic, gender, and other differences on their agenda and allocated a portion of their grant dollars toward that end?

After all, if the 180-plus member nations of the United Nations can agree to a set of Millennium Development Goals, why couldn't each and every one of America's foundations commit to an agenda of greater support for minority America in the broadest sense, bringing a higher standard of living and a fair share of the philanthropic pie to lower-income and minority communities?

That's a vision many of us could get behind.

-- Michael Seltzer

Comments

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GREAT article.

“The agreement struck by these California foundations invites the question: What would happen if all U.S. foundations agreed to put poverty alleviation and the elimination of economic and social disparities based on racial, ethnic, gender, and other differences on their agenda and allocated a portion of their grant dollars toward that end?”

Much appreciate the tone, inspiration and challenge. Really well written.

Thanks,

Chris

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