In recent years, foundations have been increasingly diversifying their ranks, especially on their program teams that identify societal concerns and work with grantees on solutions. Two years ago, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors released a report, “Diversity, Inclusion and Effective Philanthropy,” noting, “Philanthropists who want to increase impact and reduce waste are turning to diversity and inclusion as tools for effective giving.” Further, the report states that “when the concepts of diversity and inclusion are added to basic due diligence, the result can create a philanthropy that is both responsive and efficient.”

Not every foundation has shifted toward a lens of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), but fortunately, many have. That said, there seems to be a glaring miss amidst all this DEI work, and that is with who gets to participate in it. Our anecdotal evidence and recent survey results reveal that DEI may be improving for most foundations on the programs side of the house, but less so on the operations side.

We must ask: Are the operational departments within philanthropy, namely IT, Finance, Facilities and HR departments, as well as Grants Operations actively recruiting people of different cultures, ethnicities, religions, genders and ableness? Are they receiving staff training on unconscious bias and the inherent value of diversity? Equally as important, have they developed retention policies and leadership programs for staff from diverse backgrounds?

A Missing Piece

Last year, the Technology Affinity Group (TAG), a nonprofit organization that promotes the strategic use of technology to advance the goals of the philanthropic sector, found some troubling responses in its 2018 State of Philanthropy Tech survey of those who work in technology-related departments of philanthropic organizations. Forty percent of respondents acknowledged not having any DEI training, nearly 70 percent of IT departments have not been offered training on unconscious bias, and 51 percent of IT departments don’t have DEI programs in place.

We were distressed by these results. It made us wonder: why would foundations with such strong commitments to expanding the circle of participants leave out the operations teams?

Clearly, there is often more DEI training within program teams that are frequently deployed in diverse communities. But DEI training needs to also be emphasized for operations staff to ensure they can fully contribute potential solutions for those we serve.

Operations staff shape not only the infrastructure for every interaction with a foundation but also the experience or the “how” of those interactions. Hence, when it comes to achieving the best outcomes in communities, it is imperative that operations and programming staff have equally strong awareness of DEI principles and best practices. Not striving toward this goal would be a missed opportunity for philanthropic leaders, one that could undermine progress and even create new barriers to success.

Some organizations have recognized the lopsided approach and are working to bring balance. The Ford Foundation lives by the Rooney Rule, according to their chief of IT, David Roth. “The top three candidates in every recruitment process must reflect diversity,” Roth said. “And while Ford has done a good job of diversifying its staff in more traditionally thought of ways—gender, race, ethnicity,” says Roth, “we are actively working to hire from the disability community. This aligns to our point of view that Ford must drive the disruption of inequality.”

Not only is having people of different backgrounds, genders and ableness at the table in operations “walking the talk,” but it could someday save a philanthropic organization from embarrassing missteps or oversights in the deployment of new digital systems, applications and data gathering that are all part of modern grantmaking.

The Risks of Unconscious Bias

The nation has witnessed the humiliation and distress at companies when a lack of diversity on a technology project leads to an AI or IT blunder. For example, an Apple watch would not initially work on the skin of African Americans; a Microsoft Uber facial recognition system couldn’t recognize the faces of transgenders; and a Google Photos program erroneously identified black people as gorillas. Is philanthropy unwittingly incurring similar biases in its systems, processes, and interfaces by not prioritizing DEI within its operations teams?

The role of the operations staff is to enable the mission to be fulfilled through efficient and effective policies, practices and systems. Every philanthropic leader wants an IT department that delivers cutting-edge systems, data for decision-making, innovative solutions and strong internal, user and grantee support. But these leaders must be urged to fully consider how diversity training is a vital investment in shaping effective operations departments.

Not having diverse voices at the table, people representative of who foundations serve, can be detrimental and the consequences of unconscious bias are real. When the people designing systems and solutions or providing vital support unknowingly bring biases to their everyday work, our efforts in philanthropy are negatively impacted. While these operational biases are more subtle, they are also more structural and therefore perhaps even more difficult to dismantle, increasing the importance to address.

Expanding the DEI Agenda

While the DEI journey is long, we urge foundation leadership to intentionally expand the focus of their internal work to include IT teams and the broader operations side of the house. Let’s ensure that digital systems, data and technology-driven innovation are the best they can be. Let’s develop them in partnership with the communities we serve. Let’s ensure they’re approachable for all education levels, available in multiple languages and accessible in a variety of ways by a variety of people at all income levels, backgrounds and ableness.

By bringing diversity to IT and other operations units, we can close the loop on a vital process many foundations began years ago: ensuring that leadership and staff reflect the communities they are partnering with for the pursuit of positive societal change. Ultimately, foundations must recognize that the house cannot be divided. When it is, the desired impacts you might envision are at risk. Our work is one centered on improving lives and communities. And it’s time for our organizations to live this commitment inside and out with integrity, respect and the innovative mindset that can only come through diverse perspectives.

Chantal Forster is executive director of Technology Affinity Group, or TAG; Satonya Fair is Vice President and Chief Philanthropy Officer at the Executive Leadership Council, and a member of the TAG Board of Directors.  

Share with cohorts