One of the unique aspects of working in philanthropy is that when we come together with peers in our field, the lessons we learn can be both personal and professional in nature. I was reflecting on this truth after the United Philanthropy Forum conference in Boston last week, where a consistent theme threaded throughout the sessions was the importance of racial equity and inclusion.
The professional takeaways as they relate to racial progress are loud and clear. From each plenary speaker, we heard the call to action for funders and philanthropy-serving organisations (PSOs) to take up the mantle to speak out and advocate for policy change in a time when so many marginalized communities and civic institutions are in crisis. It was necessary to be faced with our painful history, hard data, and moving stories — and to be able to celebrate hard won victories together — in order to sharpen our collective sense of urgency and the knowledge of what’s possible. The week was also a great response to the Forum’s own racial equity scan of philanthropy-serving organisations, which found that 43 per cent of PSOs say that they are just beginning their race equity journey, with a request for more frameworks, resources, and peer learning.
The importance of coming together to learn was also underscored for me by the release of new research from my colleagues at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) last week. The piece is titled Nonprofit Diversity Efforts: Current Practices and the Role of Foundations, and it explores many facets of diversity, including racial diversity. What stands out from the report is that while 70 per cent of nonprofit CEOs believe that diversity is vital for their organisations to achieve its goals, only 36 per cent of nonprofit CEOs believe their staffs are actually very or extremely diverse, and only 42 per cent believe that their staffs reflect the populations they seek to serve. The study goes on to share that only a small proportion of nonprofits report that their funders talk to them about diversity.
Where there’s a gap between our aspirations and our reality, there is great opportunity. And I think that opportunity lies with us both professionally as well as personally. One theme I heard consistently throughout the conference was that PSOs need to advocate for policy changes that can shift the dynamics around race and ensure the protection of our vital civic institutions.
Less explicitly — but no less importantly — throughout the time, I also took away that we have a personal responsibility to examine ourselves and commit to the change we hope to see. After all, our institutions are made up of individuals — leaders who make decisions around who is hired, who is promoted, and most of all, whose voices matter. These decisions do not exist in a vacuum apart from our personal choices, outlooks, and practices, since our values demonstrate themselves no matter where we are.
For instance, I was struck that UC Berkeley’s Richard Rothstein (author of The Color of Law) described my neighborhood of Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as being one that has become much more racially segregated and divided over time. During the Q&A time with him, several audience members asked him about what to do personally if we are living in racially segregated neighborhoods and perpetuating patterns of gentrification, and I was looking forward to hearing his take. Understandably, he was gracious in his response, and said that policy changes were most important above all, and I couldn’t help but feel that there was a lost opportunity there to speak to us about how individual choices, when multiplied, can also make a difference.
It is simply not enough to talk about these issues or about what our organisations can and should do. Because the challenges we face are so great, it’s essential that we all keep our personal feet to the fire as well to continue to learn about racial healing, have the courage to cross boundaries of difference, and do the necessary hard work of pruning back our own privileges for the sake of others.
Grace Chiang Nicoelette is Vice President, Programming and External Relations at the Center for Effective Philanthropy