Protest for racial justice in New York City in July. a katz/shutterstock
Protest for racial justice in New York City in July. a katz/shutterstock

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles based on a recent survey of foundation program staff conducted by Inside Philanthropy. You can access every installment here.

Conversations in philanthropy about racism and racial justice have been growing in recent years, leading many foundations to examine their own internal dynamics, as well as their funding priorities and practices. Pressure to address the lack of racial equity in American society has been heightened by the severe disparities revealed and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and this year’s national uprising in the face of police violence.

Based on Inside Philanthropy’s recent survey of foundation program staff, it is clear that foundations are doing a lot of soul searching about whether and how best to address racial equity. At the same time, participants reported notably higher levels of commitment to the issue among program staff than among presidents, CEOs and board members.

In August, IP surveyed hundreds of staff to gain a better sense of their perspectives on issues of racial justice, COVID response, mission investing and more. The responses on diversity and racial equity reflect the many examples of heightened focus on the issue that we’ve been covering in recent months, at major foundations like Hewlett, OSF, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and others. About two-thirds of the 235 respondents are at foundations that have taken steps to address equity, such as staff training around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); using a DEI lens for grantmaking or strategies; providing grants to organizations to advance DEI; and funding to advance racial justice.

For many foundations, DEI and racial justice work has been going on for a while. As one program VP says, “this has been part of the DNA of our organization since its founding.”

For others, there is more urgency now to address racial equity. One respondent says, “It has always been part of our work, but we are trying to be more explicit in it.” And a program VP at a midsized foundation admits, “We have a lot to learn, and a lot of internal work/reflection to do.”

Half of survey respondents report that recent Black Lives Matter and racial justice protests have affected their work and strategies in significant ways, including the introduction of new grants and investments.

According to program staff surveyed, however, not everyone within their foundations has the same level of commitment to racial equity. Nearly nine in 10 believe that their program staff colleagues (e.g., program directors, officers, associates and assistants) are “very much” or “completely” committed to DEI in the foundation, compared to 72% for the president/CEO and only 50% for the board. Eleven percent of respondents say their boards are “not at all” or “not very” committed to DEI, and 7% think the same of the presidents and CEOs.

A similar dynamic holds in response to the question of how committed people are to advancing racial justice through foundation programs and grantmaking. Eight of 10 respondents think program staff are “very much” or “completely” committed to racial justice in their programs, while 65% think the same of their president/CEO. Only 48% felt their foundation board was very much or completely committed.

Tensions between program staff with strong commitment to DEI and racial justice and foundation leadership with lower levels of commitment come through loud and clear in comments from survey respondents.

According to a program officer at one of the largest foundations in our sample, “our organization talks the talk, but doesn’t really walk the walk” with regard to racial equity. Another program officer active in the foundation’s DEI committee says, “Our board and execs appear to care more about optics than transforming our practices.”

Program staff are often at the forefront of change that is happening within foundations around equity. A program associate at a large foundation says, “Our board has become much more involved after a staff letter was drafted and signed by the majority of staff making big demands on how we can better respond and address racial justice in all our grantmaking.”

Many program staff are hopeful and “cautiously optimistic” that the movement toward greater internal equity in foundations and emphasis on addressing racial equity in their programs will continue. However, they are also well aware that it may be difficult to sustain.

As one survey respondent asserts, “I think the biggest challenge for philanthropy generally will be following through—these conversations about doing more to advance DEI and racial equity have happened before, with little action following.” Another participant worries that interest from foundation leaders will shift, as it often does: “Like most human beings, our leaders’ fervor lessens over time and other priorities come into play that seem more enticing and critical.”

As many critics of philanthropy have observed, the tendency of foundations to pay lip service to equity and racial justice is structural, and our survey backs up that sentiment. One program officer says, “The philanthropic sector is very white and privileged, and there is a disconnect between the work we do and the vulnerable, marginalized populations we ultimately help.”

Diversity in foundation leadership is severely lacking: According to BoardSource, 85% of foundation board members are white, and 40% of foundation boards are all-white. More often than not, what this means is that even at foundations that are dealing with issues of racial equity, the results are limited.

A program director in the survey says, “we hide behind our pretend wokeness, but are unwilling to engage our predominantly white staff and board in any real, meaningful or sustainable way, all the while patting ourselves on the back for our white savior complex.”

One frequent critique of the sector is that, although foundations may set out to support vulnerable communities, mostly white and well-heeled institutions and leaders end up making the decisions. There’s a growing push in philanthropy and nonprofits to allow those most affected to wield greater decision-making power in order to elevate their unique insights and dedication (we’ll expand on this in a later article).

All that being said, it is clear that foundations are grappling with the implications of racial injustice for their work, perhaps in ways they never have before. They have pledged over $1 billion in recent months to racial justice, and many are looking internally at practices to better support diversity, equity and inclusion.

It is also clear from the survey that foundation staff are hopeful and pushing for these conversations to lead to lasting change, but they are also realistic. They believe that foundation leadership is less committed to the goals of racial justice. Whether the current reckoning translates to more than just a bump during this historic moment will depend on how seriously leadership takes the internal and external pressures necessary for change.

Bill Pitkin is a social justice advocate and leader who has worked in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors for more than 25 years. Currently, he advises nonprofit organizations and foundations on strategy and social change.

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