Can Diversity Make the Cut?

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There is something wrong with the debate about “diversity” that has roiled the foundation sector. The problem is simply diversity itself. Like much of modern political syntax, it is the term of art because it is increasingly devoid of meaning — or because it is more palatable than other, older, more politically charged variations on the theme.

Official spokespersons of institutional philanthropy and many others in the nonprofit sector use language that equates the amorphous term, “diversity” with inclusiveness. For example, the Council on Foundation’s February 2008 statement on diversity, crafted with an obvious eye to the proposed California legislationi mandating reporting on racial/ethnic and other elements of foundation grantmaking and staff, commits to diversity as inclusion:

“The mission [of the Council on Foundations] requires a commitment to inclusiveness as a fundamental operating principle and calls for an active and ongoing process that affirms human diversity in many forms, encompassing but not limited to ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, economic circumstance, disability, geography, and philosophy. We seek diversity to ensure that a range of perspectives, opinions, and experiences are recognized and acted upon in achieving the Council’s mission. To enhance their abilities to contribute to the common good, the Council also asks its members to make a similar commitment to inclusiveness.”ii

The language used by the Diversity in Philanthropy Project (DIPP), funded by dozens of foundations of multiple — or shall we say, diverse — “perspectives, opinions, and experiences”, not to mention political persuasions, is similar: “The Diversity in Philanthropy Project is a voluntary effort of leading foundation trustees, senior staff and executives committed to increasing field-wide diversity through open dialogue and strategic action. We believe that diversifying perspectives, talent and experience can help ensure philanthropy’s continued leadership in a rapidly changing society.”iii

It’s all nice, progressives and conservatives can sign off on diversity as a philanthropic modus operandi without discomfort. To be successful, it’s good to be open to everyone and have a little bit of everything. There is some theory behind this, linking diversity (read: inclusiveness) to organizational innovation.iv But missing in this concept of diversity is the history and development of organizations that authentically speak for their communities because they are led by and controlled by those communities.

In the wake of the War on Poverty, starved of funding as federal resources went from the America’s inner city neighborhoods to a different war being fought in Indochina, organizations speaking for communities, controlled by those communities, and responsible to them have in a way become somewhat passé in favor of the more politically palatable concept of diversity.v But there are venues of support in the nonprofit sector for organizations that not only speak for minority communities, but are led by and responsible to those communities. The theory is self-determination or community empowerment.

The issue came to a head at the recent Council on Foundations annual meeting, at the plenary session held on the last day of the conference. This culmination of panels meant to promote the Council’s diversity agenda in opposition to the proposed California legislation on mandatory racial reporting encountered two unexpected events.

On the panel was Ann Weiner, a representative of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation who, in countering the concerns of a leader of the conservative group, the Philanthropy Roundtable that white philanthropists can and do care about the needs of minority communities, gave a telling response: “there is a real difference between making decisions for people and making decisions with people.” The Roundtable member spluttered something about Mother Teresa was good for the people of Calcutta even though she came from outside the community, but the point was made. For underserved and disadvantaged communities, sometimes is it crucially important that they think and speak for themselves rather than having anointed do-gooders act for them.

Equally important was the message of Congressman Xavier Becerra, member of the House Ways and Means Committee, who talked about the immigrant and minority populations of his South Los Angeles district and cited the needs of organizations that were clearly not only minority-serving, but minority-led. Demonstrating more than the often superficial Congressional concern in philanthropy, here’s what Becerra said:vi

“As a public servant, I have a public charge. I’m a fiduciary over [philanthropic and public] money through our government which has decided to give you philanthropists a $32 billion earmark because that is the amount of money we forego in revenues to the federal budget in order to give a tax deduction to those who make a charitable contribution. So I have an obligation to make sure that those 32 billion dollars that would have gone to the federal treasury but for that charitable contribution are used . . . to create public good . . . It’s not a matter of trying to mandate something, but we will if you don’t act, but it’s a matter of trying to make sure you do the right thing . . . So the point here is that we have to act, and America is changing, and philanthropy which is usually the innovator the pioneer, the vanguard of where America needs to go is falling way behind . . . You can no longer expect that the way business was done in the old days is going to work in these new days with a different America. It’s great to see Steve Gunderson and the Council on Foundations really moving forward . . . but please understand, you have a $32 billion earmark and right now earmarks are under a microscope . . . and it’s a big microscope, so do well . . . At some point, the numbers don’t lie, and someone needs to do something, especially when you’re using the taxpayers of America’s money to do your philanthropic work . . . I think we have to look at what I think are the . . . underlying facts that drive the operational facts on the ground of the disproportionate giving, the disproportionate numbers internally within the nonprofit world that are skewed against people of color . . . Most giving is local and most people give to those charities that serve them . . . those who can give most give most to those institutions and entities they patronize . . . We’re going to have to do something to change the facts on the ground. We need to do something to recognize the fact that charity extends to the entire national public and we have to recognize that we’re giving up taxpayer-wise something to have a charitable contribution.”

Becerra’s message was clear to all concerned. A little diversity of every kind doesn’t add up to the use of public funds — or tax exempt funds that the public has entrusted to the stewardship of private philanthropists — to meet the needs of peoples least well served in our economy and our society. Adding racial, ethnic, geographic, and philosophical tokens to nominally diversify foundations and their grantees make help the nonprofit sector demonstrate a kaleidoscope of people in the sector, but it doesn’t necessarily move us toward rectifying the all-too-frequent racial imbalances in our society.

i See Rick Cohen, “Foundations fight reporting on race”, Financial Times (May 3, 2008) for a brief description of the legislation and attendant controversy, and Rick Cohen, “’Greenlining’ Foundation Grantmaking: The Specter of Racial Reporting in California,” in the upcoming Summer issue of Nonprofit Quarterly for a more thorough analysis of the bill and the issues of race and ethnicity in U.S. philanthropy.

ii Council on Foundations, Diversity and Inclusion in Philanthropy Position and Action Steps: Response to Response to California Assembly Bill 624 (February 2008, Rev. 2/15/08), p. 2.,

iv For example, from organizational psychology: “Innovation effectiveness is positively associated with frequency of communications among persons having dissimilar frames of reference”, in Andrew H. Van de Ven, Harold L. Angle, and Marshall Scott Poole, Research on the Management of Innovation: The Minnesota Studies (2000: Oxford University Press), p. 164; “What characteristic of employees enable organizations to change, improve, and beat the competition? Diverse working and thinking styles and diverse motivational interests. Innovation arises from open mindedness, multiple perspectives, and willingness to experiment,” Heather E. Bock and Charles Greco, “Implementing a Benefically Diverse Organization”, Information Week (January 14, 2002), Implementing A Beneficially Diverse Organization

v We are all used to non-minority community organizers from national community networks such as ACORN and the Industrial Areas Foundation leading local organizing in minority neighborhoods. Occasionally, there is an eruption of conflict, such as the brouhaha between the white leadership of ACORN in New Orleans characterizing the leader of a minority-led Katrina-focused organizing effort as comparable to an ineffective, Bush-supporting Ahmad Chalabi in Iraq. After vigorous public criticism, ACORN’s Wade Rathke used his blog to apologize for his comments about Curtis Mohammed, cf. ChiefOrganizer.org. One letter denouncing Rathke’s “metaphorical” comparison of Mohammed to Chalabi was signed by minority leaders including Bill Fletcher of TransAfrica Forum and Makani Themba-Nixon of the Praxis Project.

vi Congressman Becerra was interviewed in the Cohen Report , “A Conversation with California Congressman Xavier Becerra” in January 2008 and in the Spring 2008 issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly.