Diversity trips up nonprofits, foundations

By Todd Cohen

In the charitable marketplace, talk is cheap.

Nonprofits and foundations talk a lot about the need for charities to be more “diverse” and “inclusive,” but within their own organizations they seem unable or just unwilling to put their words into action and bridge the same differences that divide Americans.

Many foundations, for example, require nonprofits seeking grants to disclose information about their racial, ethnic and gender diversity.

Yet many foundations are anything but diverse or inclusive, and are quick to raise a stink when anyone suggests they publicly disclose their own diversity.

When faced with calls for greater regulation of their virtually unchecked activities and power, foundations and nonprofits rear up on their hind legs and proclaim their critical need to remain independent, arguing from behind crocodile tears that they can and will fix whatever is wrong in their own domain.

And judging from the gospel they themselves preach about diversity and inclusiveness, plenty is wrong indeed in the church of philanthropy, including a culture of hypocrisy or just plain denial about the disconnect between what foundations and nonprofits say and what they do.

A new report, for example, says nonprofit employees see their organizations as promoting diversity but failing to practice it.

Nearly 90 percent of over 1,600 nonprofit professionals surveyed by Commongood Careers and Level Playing Field Institute believe their organizations value racial and ethnic diversity, yet over 70 percent believe their employer does too little to create a diverse and inclusive work environment.

Another recent study by the Council on Foundation found 85 percent of board members at over 500 foundations responding to a survey are white, 62 percent are male, and 74 percent are over age 50, with 19 percent age 40 to 49.

And a survey of 73 foundations last fall by the Foundation Center found that while foundation leaders in the U.S. seem to value diversity within their organizations, 51 percent disliked a failed California proposition that would have required public, private and corporate foundations with assets of $250,000 or more to make public the ethnic, racial and gender makeup of their boards and staff, and to provide an accounting of grantmaking activities that serve minority populations.

America is bitterly divided by race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, faith and ideology, to name just a few.

We cannot, in short, seem to tolerate anyone who is different.

The charitable marketplace consists of well over one million nonprofits and foundations, most of which have the mission of serving and enriching people and places in need.

And many of those people and places in need fall on the neglected or embattled side of the divides that have come to define America and that lie at the root of its intolerance.

It is common sense and an abiding lesson of history that organizations and communities are more likely to thrive when they include a rich mix of people and ideas.

The U.S., despite all the flaws that come naturally to a work in progress, is constitutionally rooted in welcoming anyone who wants to call it home, although that role as a safe haven is increasingly at risk because of escalating and increasingly ugly intolerance.

In the charitable marketplace, diversity and inclusiveness can be powerful strategies for building the capacity of nonprofits and foundations, and helping them fulfill their mission of boosting the capacity of people and places in need.

But while they preach diversity, far too few nonprofits and foundations will take on or can handle the difficult job of practicing it.

Far too many foundations that require grantseekers to disclose their diversity cannot bring themselves to disclose their own.

Far too few nonprofits and foundations that promote the fundamental value of diversity are willing or able to bring themselves to put their words into practice.

Indeed, many of the foundations and nonprofits that talk the most about diversity often are the least likely to include diverse ideological perspectives in their thinking and funding.

To be effective in fulfilling their mission, and to earn and keep the trust of their constituents and supporters, nonprofits and foundations need to practice the culture of philanthropy they preach.

2 responses

  1. So very true! Thank you for writing this, Todd.

    Because there are few incentives beyond “it's the right thing to do,” many foundations don't do their own internal work, or they stop it when it gets hard. That's also despite their efforts to push their grantees to greater inclusion.

    All of us, charitable institutions and nonprofits alike, can use our power to change the landscape. I think it starts with an honest self-examination or getting feedback from those we serve.

    Thanks again.

  2. Fantastic and poignant article Todd. Thanks for addressing this in such a public forum! I believe that while many foundations have made great strides in their progressive commitment to community change, we all still have work – both internally and externally – to go.

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