Every fall, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Higher Education program conducts site visits to grantee campuses to get closer to the ground, assess progress, and meet with the faculty, staff and students whom we hope to empower in advancing racial equity. This year was different in one very important way: The message we heard in meeting after meeting was the need to change culture. This isn’t new—culture and related concepts like racial climate are often discussed by those working on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in STEM and other fields. What was new was who said it, how many said it, and the urgency with which they made this point.

The past year and a half has seen all sectors of society coming to new or renewed terms with the imperative of seeking racial justice. Philanthropy is no different. Although philanthropic giving has not (yet) matched the soaring rhetoric and lofty ambitions that captured headlines last summer, the attention to racial justice within private philanthropy has never been sharper. Just like many of our science and non-science peers, Sloan recently revisited and made public its commitment to DEI, and set a new path for its targeted investments in this area.

To inform the latter, the foundation commissioned a report examining recent public and private giving in STEM DEI higher education pathways. Conducted by Higher Ed Insight, the scan looks at the grantmaking practices of private foundations, corporate philanthropy and federal agencies. Here’s what we found:

A small handful of universities are receiving the bulk of the dollars—Based on analysis of Candid data, we see that of overall private philanthropic investments in STEM higher education between 2016–2021, the top 10 most-funded institutions received 44% of total dollars. Federal funding reveals a similar trend. The result of such concentrated investment? A higher education ecosystem that reflects and reinforces societal inequities that our students bring to their college doorstep. These trends speak to the imperative for funders to examine the ways in which their funding practices uphold the very systemic inequities that we claim are important to dismantle.

A dismally small number of funders are prioritizing DEI. In private philanthropy, funding explicitly targeting groups underrepresented in STEM comprised just 5.8% of total STEM higher education investments. Only 203 out of 2,330 funders invested in such initiatives—that’s just 10%. We ought to be ashamed of this number. How can we possibly support scientific advancement in the 21st century if we’re not willing to cultivate talent in all its forms?

All too often, funders seek to advance individuals without attention to their environment, presumably with the intention that representational or numerical diversity will lead to inclusion and equity. Yet the last many decades have taught us that numerical diversity is a necessary but insufficient condition for achieving inclusion and equity in any form. What is needed is attention to the environment, in addition to the individuals who reside there. Importantly, this is a chief finding of another scan commissioned by Sloan examining the landscape for DEI in U.S. STEM graduate education, conducted by Julie Posselt and colleagues at the University of Southern California.

Fortunately, something else revealed in HEI’s scan was a new commitment by program officers and foundation leaders to apply DEI principles to their own work—that is, to how they make grants, whom they support, and what they signal as priorities. As they told us, this means looking in the mirror, asking hard questions, and acting in response to the answers they find, not to the answers they want to find. Indeed, all foundations should be asking themselves: Do our grantmaking efforts foster equitable access to and distribution of opportunities and resources? Or are we creating, perpetuating and upholding unjust systems? More specifically, as science funders, we can ask questions like:

  • What do we mean by diversity, equity and inclusion? As an acronym, DEI is often used as a single, unidimensional construct, when in fact, the meaning behind each letter is quite different and each of them is crucially important. Answering this question should lead funders to develop a language that is specific to their context and that reflects the true nature of their investments. It can also be a filter through which funders can test their lofty aspirations against stark reality.
  • What level of change are we investing in? One should not assume systems-level change will emerge from investing at the individual or program level. This doesn’t mean the latter investments are not valuable or needed, but that foundations should be honest about the limitations of such investments and pursue other avenues if systemic change is a goal.
  • What does the diversity of our grantee portfolio look like? Without a diverse set of awardees, funders can inadvertently work against their own DEI investments and interests. This includes, but is not limited to, principal investigator demographics, institutional/organizational profiles, and geography.
  • How connected are those we fund to the communities we desire to impact? For investments to have the greatest impact, it is important to consider whether awardees are best positioned, through authentic connection and demonstrated evidence, to reach the communities that investments are intended to serve.
  • How do we collaborate with our grantees/awardees? The key to reflecting on this question is ensuring that relationships are not static or unidirectional, and that funders consider ways to learn from those we fund through partnership.

Other questions to ask include whether we are employing culturally responsive approaches, whether we are centering race in our grantmaking, and whether our public-facing language is clear on our commitments.

It’s high time for philanthropy to widen our tent. At Sloan, we’re broadening our reach with the recognition that talent and scientific excellence are found across a spectrum of higher education institutions. In Sloan’s DEI program, in particular, we are going to where the students are—investing in minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and others with a strong track record for enrolling and graduating Black, Latino and Indigenous students. We are investing in pathways from MSIs to STEM graduate programs across the country because we believe this pathway is broken, and if repaired, can have a systems-level impact. We are seeking a systemic-change approach to our grantmaking, which, among other things, will require that we leverage the strengths of the broader funder community beyond our science philanthropy peers. We and others are responding to the fact that philanthropy is failing to rise to one of the most important challenges of our day, but that there is a way forward. We can and must do better.

Lorelle L. Espinosa is a program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, overseeing grantmaking to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM higher education. Tashera Gale, PhD, serves as director of evaluation services at Higher Ed Insight.