People from both outside and inside philanthropy frequently criticize the sector for how overly white it is, and a 2021 survey from the Council on Foundations is the latest dataset to back up their critiques. The report found that the workforce is less diverse than the broader population, with people of color making up 29% of full-time foundation staff. Leadership is further skewed, with people of color representing just 12% of foundation CEOs. Both figures are up a couple of points since the 2020 survey.

After 2020’s reckoning on racism in the United States, many philanthropies increased their commitments to diversify both their programming and their staff, as IP has reported—though many of those we spoke to agreed the sector still has a long way to go. While in some cases, funders’ efforts may be more rhetoric than reality, many are working hard to change traditions, practices, and mindsets that have contributed to #philanthropysowhite.

A number of foundations are committed to and transparent about the diversity of their staff, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which provides details of its workforce composition on its website. The Ford Foundation was already focused on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in its practices before 2020, and publishes an annual report to chart its own progress. NewSchools Venture Fund appointed Frances Messano, a woman of color, as its president, committed $100 million to support diverse leaders and innovators in K-12 education, and doubled down on its racial equity work, as IP previously reported.

With its new Rising Leaders for Equity initiative, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation is trying out yet another approach. The initiative offers early career professionals from diverse backgrounds a salaried, two-year position that will allow them to explore the sector from the ground up.

The McGovern Foundation is built on the fortune its founder amassed as the creator of International Data Group (IDG), publisher of the popular “For Dummies” series, as well as the computer publications Macworld and PC World. Pat McGovern died in 2014, but the foundation’s mission, to bridge “the frontiers of artificial intelligence, data science, and social impact” reflects his goals. The foundation works to promote the use of technology, including artificial intelligence, “to solve humanity’s greatest challenges,” according to its website.

Vilas Dhar, the McGovern Foundation’s president, says the Rising Leaders for Equity initiative grew out of the following question: “How do we bring diverse new leaders early in their career to think of philanthropy—not just as a job, but as a purpose-driven career?”

Learning journey 

Diversity has long been a priority for Dhar, and since he started at the McGovern Foundation as a trustee in 2017, he has made it an organizational priority, as well. The foundation names “inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility” as core values on its website. And in a round of funding earlier this year, McGovern committed $4.1 million to “expand tech education and build an inclusive tech workforce,” as IP reported. The funds support organizations that provide young women and young people of color access to technology skills and training.

“I’m a person of color who has primarily operated in spaces of power and privilege as I’ve grown in my career,” said Dhar. “And I’ve seen that bringing in the diversity of my own background and the backgrounds of those in the communities we try to serve has always led to better decision making.”

The McGovern Foundation landed on the idea of the Rising Leaders for Equity initiative after what Dhar describes as a “learning journey.” Foundation staff had many conversations with leaders in philanthropy and other areas to identify some of the dynamics that have created and entrenched the lack of diversity in the sector. Through these discussions, Dhar and his team learned that people of color and others with diverse backgrounds and orientations seldom encounter or consider philanthropy as a viable career path.

Dhar, a lawyer with a background as an entrepreneur and a human rights advocate, began working in philanthropy later in his professional life. “I thought back to my own experience entering the field and realized that if you are somebody who’s not connected to institutions of philanthropy, it’s not really a career path that pops into your mind when you say, ‘what do I want to do with my life?’”

Participants in the Rising Leaders for Equity initiative will get an immersive experience in philanthropy at the start of their career trajectories. The program is designed on a rotation model: participants (called program associates) will be exposed to all aspects of nonprofit and philanthropic work during their two years in the program, and will have a chance to focus on and develop their own individual interests.

“Our goal is to not just create a fellowship or a kind of dip-your-toes-in-the-water kind of experience, but to take people with great potential and surround them with all of the resources, the programmatic learning, the experiential aspects of operating in philanthropy,” Dhar explained.

McGovern recruited its first cohort of four program associates from HBCUs and community-based organizations, and they started at the organization just a few weeks ago. They come from a range of backgrounds, and Dhar makes it clear that the program is not a college-to-job pathway.

“We’re really interested in folks that come from alternative life experiences and alternative educational pathways,” he said. “To truly be representative of where America is today, we need to bring folks from where they are. So it may be the case that in future cohorts we find folks who are not in college, who are going through two year programs, or have had life experience that supplements whatever their academic experience might be.”

Public trust

Rising Leaders for Equity is a pilot program and just getting off the ground, but once it’s up and running, the McGovern Foundation is eager to share what it learns.

“We’re committed to doing open webinars, to creating some knowledge products that come out of this process,” Dhar said. “And we’re committed to making our team available to speak with other organizations to say, ‘here’s what we’ve learned.’ Our hope is that, even as we continue to grow our cohorts of Rising Leaders, other institutions will join in and that we might have a little bit of a movement happening for organizations to open up this kind of diversity-based recruitment approach.”

Dhar believes foundations are stewards of public trust, and as such, should be leading the way when it comes to diversity—instead of lagging behind. “If we want to be an institution that stewards public trust, we can’t do that unless we are truly representative, unless we’re truly inclusive, unless we build diversity into what we do,” he said.