TheCorgi/shutterstock
TheCorgi/shutterstock

Back in the summer of 2020, Inside Philanthropy did the grantmaking world a real service: It gathered and published survey data that confirmed one of those things about the funding universe that “everybody knows,” but prior to that moment, hadn’t been backed up with concrete numbers.

This open secret was that the staff of philanthropic foundations are often at odds with the boards of those same foundations when it comes to how seriously to take racial justice issues. While 9 in 10 respondents to the survey believed that their colleagues are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in their foundations, only 50% felt this was true of their boards. That’s quite a chasm, even if you’re a glass-half-full person.

We aren’t surprised by this finding because we spent much of the last two years interviewing grantmakers for our book “Modern Grantmaking: A Guide for Funders Who Believe Better is Possible.” During this research process, we interviewed far more grantmaking employees than board members for the simple reason that our book was aimed at the working people who make foundations run day-to-day. We wrote a book for them because when we were grantmaking staffers ourselves, we slowly came to realize that a lot of writing on philanthropy was shaped by the unspoken hope that one day, Warren Buffett would sit down to read it. Sorry Warren, but our book isn’t for you.

In the research interviews we conducted with grantmakers, we heard all sorts of things, but the single most urgently and repeatedly articulated request to us was: “How do I persuade my board to get with the program?”

The tensions that exist between professional grantmakers and their boards are often along lines defined by age, race, gender and wealth—lines that originate from outside the walls of philanthropic foundations, but have big impacts inside them.

One of the most obvious lines that divides boards and their professional teams is age: Board members tend to be older, sometimes much older. So how does this impact on attitudes?

To pick one left-field but illustrative example from the country we live in (the U.K.), consider the sensational media phenomenon that was the combination of Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. When the young royals did their tell-all interview with Oprah, the British public’s response was stunningly divided by age, with 61% of younger people feeling that Harry and Meghan had been mistreated by the rest of the Royal Family versus a negligible 15% of people aged 65 or more.

This kind of generational difference—fundamentally about racism, national pride and the nature of justice—is real and wide, and is obviously going to have an impact on the average grantmaking institution that has older board members and younger staff. And it is a pattern seen clearly in U.S. data, too; for example, in the hugely differing proportion of older and younger Americans who describe themselves as “extremely proud” of their country (20% vs 53% in Gallup data from 2020). While people of a similar age clearly do not always share similar opinions, we’re more likely to run into challenging differences in perspective when there’s a generational gap.

The attitudinal divides within our societies don’t just fall along age lines, of course. It’s no secret that U.S. foundation boards are much whiter and much richer than the average American. Meanwhile, foundation staff, grantseekers and grantees are (somewhat) closer to the national average (about 27% of full-time foundation staff are people of color vs. about 39% of the population).

This really matters when you consider that in polling, only 51% of white people agree with the statement “Our country needs to continue making changes to give Black Americans equal rights with white Americans,” whereas 89% of Black Americans assert that this is the case. It isn’t hard to see how a largely white board is therefore likely to clash with a more diverse staff over this most fundamental of questions.

We are not, however, citing this data as a counsel of despair. As we researched “Modern Grantmaking,” we found plenty of situations in which funders really are reforming, taking steps like changing their hiring processes to ensure greater diversity, investing to make grant processes more accessible, and sometimes, even handing over money and power entirely to less rich, less white decision makers. So change is absolutely, definitely possible.

With the help of our interviewees, we were also able to list some approaches that individual grantmakers can try, even if they are far less powerful than their own board members. In fact, we argue that one of the key things about the grantmaking profession is that everyone in grantmaking can be a grantmaking reformer, no matter how junior they may be. Just because you can’t personally sign off on millions for your favorite causes doesn’t mean you can’t nudge, educate and ultimately influence the people around you.

Nevertheless, as we said in the title of this article, modern grantmakers must be prepared to walk away for good when they see things happening at their funder that just shouldn’t happen. We say this while recognizing that it’s far easier for some people to leave a job than it is for others—privilege is never more real than in the job market.

You need to be willing to walk away because funders that are badly run or fundamentally morally compromised will not generally get “caught” or reformed by the powers that be. They will just corrode the world around them, free of accountability, while sending you a vital but anesthetizing paycheck at the same time. It will ultimately be worth the pain to move on to another funder, or a nonprofit, or even a well-run business, rather than work for this kind of organization.

The bad things we’re talking about here are not just decision-makers lamely ignoring urgent systemic injustices because they’re “political.” The bad things also include unacceptable behavior within the workplace.

While writing our book we obtained data from the Grant Givers’ Movement suggesting that a remarkable proportion of grantmakers in the U.K. had personally witnessed bullying and discriminatory behavior inside their own organizations, something that is as depressing as it is outrageous.

Furthermore, we heard of similar problems in the U.S., where one grantmaker told us: “The question for many Black and Indigenous grantmakers is: Is the harassment and second-guessing just too much for folks, and do they end up leaving?”

So while we believe that every grantmaker can and should try their best to be a reformer, we also believe that every grantmaker should have in their head a clear line that defines acceptable from unacceptable conduct at and by their funder. As a grantmaker, we urge you to think hard about what and where your line is, well in advance of the day when you might need to make the biggest grantmaking decision of all.

Gemma Bull was England director and funding strategy director for the UK’s largest community funder, and now specializes in supporting organizations to innovate, improve and collaborate. Tom Steinberg founded civic tech pioneers mySociety and was senior executive at two of the UK’s largest institutional funders. They are co-authors of “Modern Grantmaking: A Guide for Funders Who Believe Better is Possible.”

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