Philanthropic organizations need more diversity

One of the most surprising and unknown facts about Michael Jackson’s life was that he was a formidable philanthropist. In fact, he had an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the pop star who gave most money to charitable causes.

However, within the ranks of the vast majority of philanthropic organizations that give money to communities of color in America, people of color are nowhere to be found. Can a philanthropic foundation with a lack of diversity in its leadership ranks exercise its commitments, expertise and passions to eradicate the societal conditions that disproportionately affect communities of color? Foundations operate almost exclusively in this vein today.

While certain sectors have made strides to adapt to the changing diversity of the country, others have been slower to embrace the new paradigm shift. Chief among these laggards have been philanthropic institutions which have been slow to evolve to better reflect the nation’s growing diversity.

Over the past few years certain corporations and industries have made dramatic shifts to bring their management staff and their customer base in line with the reality of the country. But there is still an absence of Blacks in philanthropic leadership positions and the direction of grant making.

The old adage “the numbers don’t lie” is appropriate, especially when race and statistics converge to illustrate what is commonly known about the philanthropic landscape. A study by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors found that “while two-thirds of New Yorkers are people of color… they are only fifteen percent of boards, under 6 percent of CEOs and little over a third of staff.”

The manner in which race is shaping the philanthropic landscape in America today was most recently highlighted by the attempted passage of Assembly Bill 624 in the California state legislature. The bill would have required large California foundations to report on the racial and ethnic composition of their staff, board, and grantees. Assembly Bill 624 was ultimately withdrawn after California foundations with their backs against the wall decided to take matters into their own hands by enacting a full scale initiative for communities of color. By then it had been too late; the issue had been brought center stage and had gained national attention.

The Johnny-come-lately response by California shows that philanthropic institutions have a great deal more work to do when it comes to greater inclusion of voices. Especially since there is a belief that there exists a distinct role for African Americans in philanthropy that speaks to the inherent tensions between foundations and the communities they serve.

As the head of an advisory firm catering to non-profits and cultural arts institutions, I’ve championed diversity at the staff and board level. Not only because it determines who sits at the table, but also how the proverbial pie is to be divided. There is often an interdependence of grant making institutions and grassroots community-based grantees. The stresses and tension often resemble a walk on a tight rope between foundations – whose leadership primarily lacks diversity – and the organizations they fund that predominantly serve, people of color.

There is an irrefutable advantage of having a diverse leadership team when strategizing on building collaborations and relationships. You have the confidence that on one side of the coin, he or she is capable of translating the technical and bureaucratic policies of foundations for grassroots organizations and keeping up with the management needs of their constituents.

While on the flip side, they urge their foundations to engage the community on its terms, to acknowledge that there exists in these communities the capacity to identify and resolve their own problems.

Then only then, can philanthropy better address the challenges facing the communities they serve.