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Can Diversity Be Legislated?

February 18, 2009

(David Jacobs is senior editor of the Foundation Directory and related products at the Foundation Center. The views expressed in this post, his first for PhilanTopic, are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the center.)

Readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the diversity initiatives being "voluntarily" undertaken by leading California foundations. Those initiatives were developed after the California Assembly passed a bill last January that would have required all foundations in the state with assets of more than $250 million to report not just the race and sex of their grantees’ board and staff members, but the race and sex of their own board and staff members as well.

Writing in the winter edition of Manhattan Institute's City Journal, Heather Mac Donald provides some much needed pushback ("Never Enough Beauty, Never Enough Truth") against the idea of government inserting itself into philanthropy and philanthropic decision making:

The legislation was steaming its way through the California Senate when California's ten largest foundations promised to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into minority-led nonprofits in exchange for the bill’s withdrawal. But the fuse had been lit. Similar diversity efforts have been spotted in various stages of development in Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Pennsylvania. And at the federal level, Xavier Becerra, a congressman from Los Angeles who serves on the powerful House Ways and Means committee, has warned foundations: "If you don’t police your own, you’re going to be policed."

A foundation that remains colorblind in giving and hiring is suspect, even criminal, in other words. The congressman has threatened government intervention if foundations don’t spend more on minorities and the poor....

The current economic downturn makes the prospect of shaking down foundations even more alluring. Federal and state governments, increasingly deprived of tax revenue, will likely to cut back on their payments to nonprofits. Meanwhile, foundations made $43 billion in grants in 2007. As the Greenlining Institute [which supported the legislation] put it: "Just beyond the desert [of government funding] there is a rainforest flowing with philanthropic dollars."

MacDonald chastises foundations for their response to what she calls an "assault on philanthropic freedom" and criticizes them for embracing what she labels "the two false premises of the diversity movement: that the skin color and sexual profile of foundation and nonprofit personnel are meaningful performance indicators, and that philanthropic enterprises can be pigeonholed as benefiting this or that particular 'diverse' group."

She has lots more to say -- about "diversity monitors" whose actions suggest that "only white people benefit from the expansion of knowledge, the cultivation of beauty, and the careful preservation of the past"; about why most anti-poverty efforts fail; and about "the complex power of ideas." And she concludes by suggesting that those

who would direct philanthropy into preconceived channels think that they already know the answers to the world's problems and need only to appropriate the funding for those answers. But no one can predict how ideas will play out in practice or who will be their beneficiaries. The public good is best served by giving maximum freedom to the creative spirit....

What do folks working in the trenches think? What is the best way for foundations to act in these situations? And what can and should foundations be doing to best serve the public good?

-- David Jacobs

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Posted by Archana  |   March 03, 2009 at 07:34 AM

We have a great guest post from someone "in the trenches" about foundations and diversity. Kiran Tahir of the Indiana Grantmakers Alliance writes about the real work that needs to be done to diversify - please check it out!

Posted by Marktropolis  |   March 05, 2009 at 04:04 PM

Realizing I'm a little behind on this... But I'm a tad skeptical reading something on diversity from the City Journal. City Journal is, after all, the house organ of the Manhattan Institute. The home of Charles Murray when he wrote "Losing Ground." Where anti-immigrant Linda Chavez cut her teeth (before going on to lead the not-so-ironically named Center for Equal Opportunity which has been a leader in the assault on affirmative action).

The "keeper" line from the article cited was this: "A foundation that remains colorblind in giving and hiring is suspect, even criminal, in other words." For those of you just joining the conversation, any time a conservative uses the phrase "colorblind" what they really mean is white. And yes, a foundation that remains white may in fact be criminal, if not legally at the very least morally.

Foundations carry a public trust - one that is codified in that whole 501 tax-free status they have. If you benefit from the public, you should provide benefit to the public. That's how it works. And if you're not benefiting a core constituency (and in California, yes, that's people of color) you're not serving the public.

You want to give up your nonprofit status, feel free, you can do whatever you want. But if you want to play in the field of philanthropy you do have an obligation to serve the public - and ironically, just because you have a few million dollars at your disposal, that doesn't necessarily mean that you know what you're talking about. That's why you hire people who can represent the interests of your target population. They may be people of color. Or they may be really smart white people. My sense is that if really smart white people were doing the right thing, then you wouldn't be getting cries from folks to diversity philanthropy.

And I love the "maximum freedom" line. Because after all, what really matters is supporting that free market of ideas. You know, those ideas that got us into a recession?

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