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Philanthropy, Diversity, and Equity

July 15, 2014

Headshot_susan_battenIn May, the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE), in partnership with the Black Philanthropic Network, released the report The Exit Interview: Perceptions on Why Black Professionals Leave Grantmaking Institutions (21 pages, PDF). The report highlights the need for leadership pipelines, development programs, and effective retention strategies targeting African-American professionals in philanthropy and was prompted by the sense here at ABFE that too many African Americans were leaving the field. Indeed, data from the Council on Foundations — though not provided in a way that enabled us to analyze trends over time — seems to support our assumption.

We've received a lot of feedback on the report, ranging from approval and a sense of deep resonance, to frustration that nothing seems to be changing, to recommendations about what should be done. Clearly, there was demand for such an analysis. 

In June, two months after we released the report, the Joint Affinity Groups celebrated its twentieth anniversary by holding a Unity Summit where six identity-based organizations — ABFE, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, Native Americans in Philanthropy, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, the Women's Funding Network, and Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy — joined forces to talk about how we might work together to advance racial equity. The idea was that the field can and should do more to ensure that every individual in the United States has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. To that end, we developed a proposed definition of equity — we will have achieved equity "when one can no longer predict advantage or disadvantage based on race/ethnicity, gender and gender identity, or ability" — and further proposed that we should be able to see progress toward that goal and be able to measure reductions in disparities in well-being based on race/ethnicity, gender and gender orientation, and ability. For JAG, equity is about results, and philanthropy must play a role in shaping social and economic policy and practice to advance an equity agenda.

We also had an opportunity at the summit to reflect on diversity in the field and its connection to social and racial justice philanthropy. While the pace of progress is slow, it was clear that the more than three hundred colleagues in attendance felt empowered by the act of coming together. A month later, I remain optimistic about what we can accomplish as a coalition. As I reflect on the summit and the Council on Foundations’ 2014 annual conference that followed, several issues for additional brainstorming and potential action come to mind:

Leaders at the Unity Summit all had one thing in common: lived experience. Whether an attendee was a person of color, a woman, gay or straight, we were there because our lives have been deeply affected by issues of discrimination, oppression, and/or inequity. For me, the work on diversity in the field is very much connected to the value we place on the importance of "lived experience" as a leadership quality. While we need as many allies in the work of racial and social justice philanthropy as we can muster, it is time for us to have frank conversations about who should lead that work and how to support colleagues who have enjoyed privilege to "lead from behind."

Second, organizations and initiatives that provide data on diversity in the field (e.g., the Council on Foundations, Foundation Center, the D5 Initiative) need to provide more trend data that can help us understand what and how we are doing over time. With the profound demographic shifts taking place in the United States, it is no longer enough, in 2014, to share annual "snapshots" that fall short in terms of giving the field the tools it needs to strategize, learn, and develop new strategies to address issues of diversity and equity. If the field is serious about addressing these issues, infrastructure organizations need to produce data that can help the rest of us do that.

Third, more can and should be done at the board level to advance work on diversity and equity in philanthropy. Our Leverage the Trust campaign — a three-year effort to engage Black foundation trustees in conversations and actions around responsive philanthropy in Black communities — suggests this is a group that needs more support. Among other things, they lack basic information about where we have been as a field and are not that familiar with current initiatives and/or efforts to advance a diversity/equity agenda in the field. I believe they are an underutilized group.

Institutional and cultural change in philanthropy has never been easy. That said, we can be more explicit about the changes in behavior and practice as well as the additional data tools we need to point us in the right direction. We can also be more thoughtful about investing in new strategies and leadership groups that can help us advance that agenda. It's time for philanthropy to get serious about diversity and equity.

Susan Taylor Batten is president and CEO of the Association of Black Foundation Executives and was a member of the inaugural Class of ABFE Connecting Leaders Fellows, a program designed to foster the career development of emerging leaders in the field of philanthropy.

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