Study: Why Has the Number of Black Professionals in Philanthropy Decreased?

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May 2014; Association of Black Foundation Executives

We’ve seen very little discussion about this interesting phenomenon occurring among African-American professional staff at U.S. foundations. Despite a lot of relatively thoughtless self-congratulation within some foundation circles regarding the progress of people of color in philanthropy, somehow the statistics on blacks as foundation CEOs and foundation trustees haven’t shown growth in recent years, and the number of black professional staff and black program officers in grantmaking organizations has actually decreased. ABFE combined these statistics with the anecdotal evidence of “goodbye e-mails” from black foundation staff to conclude that there might be an issue here to be examined and understood.

Beginning in 2013, ABFE and the Black Philanthropic Network partnered to conduct an “Exit Interview Study” of black foundation staff and executives to determine why they might be leaving philanthropy. Combining information from interviews and focus groups with both current and former black foundation staff, the study has some striking conclusions that, if correct, ought to challenge what people think they know about recruitment and racial diversity in institutional philanthropy. Here are the “key findings” of the ABFE report.

Black philanthropic professionals do not believe they have real opportunities for meaningful leadership roles in the field, although they do see some general progress as staff at grantmaking institutions.”

That statement might be as much a reflection about institutional foundations as it is about blacks in philanthropy. One might guess that some blacks join foundations in the hope that they can influence grantmaking in a meaningful way, but are they actually saying in this finding of the report that foundations often prove themselves resistant to new voices—not different voices from young, privileged white people, as is often the focus of efforts behind philanthropic recruitment, but the voices of people of color of all ages.

Black philanthropic professionals who leave grantmaking institutions often move into positions where they are more directly engaged in creating community change.”

This doesn’t mean that they are all leaving philanthropy for positions in grassroots nonprofits, but that they are choosing other sectors in general, including government and business, to have a feeling of more impact on communities and change.

The current culture of philanthropy is perceived as nudging Black professionals to go elsewhere to find more satisfying careers, and some actually feel pushed out.

People have lots of things to say in exit interviews that some might find tinged with bitterness, but even this finding is a serious indictment of institutional philanthropy. After years of debate around diversity in philanthropy, the notion that black professional staff feel nudged out must be seen as terribly troubling. This may be indicative of the culture of philanthropy, more of a closed society than many foundation executives would hope to present to the outside world. Black foundation staff report feeling isolated and their input not as valued as their colleagues. One out of five departed black staff say specifically that they actually felt pushed out of their jobs in grantmaking institutions. It is also an indictment, sad to say, about the support networks for black staff themselves. Something is going wrong in the culture of philanthropy, untreated and unresolved.

Many Black philanthropic professionals in grantmaking institutions are concerned that rather than expanding the number of diverse professionals on staff, foundations may simply be reallocating or opening up their ‘designated minority’ positions to other groups.”

Does this finding reveal a critique of the diversity game? Does philanthropy get caught up on the big announcements of individuals here and there and missed broader dynamics among foundations in general? “Several interviewees suggested that the recent hire of Black philanthropic leaders to head two major foundations—the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Ford Foundation,” the report says, “may mask the realities of what is happening to other Black professionals at the majority of grantmaking institutions.” It is much like the Obama phenomenon, the mistaken notion that the election of an African-American president means that we have become a post-racial society. Obama in the White House doesn’t make the nation post-racial, and Darren Walker in the C-suite at Ford’s 43rd Street headquarters or La June Montgomery Tabron heading Kellogg in Battle Creek doesn’t alleviate philanthropy of its obligations to changing the demographic of leadership in foundations.



Despite these trenchant observations, the report’s recommendations feel thin. Bringing board members up to snuff on the challenges faced by black professionals, getting the executive team involved, training board members and executives about the roadblocks faced by black foundation staff, collect better longitudinal data on black staff trends in foundations, encouraging human resource staff to find out through exit interviews why black staff leave, and offering black staff help through training, mentoring, and coaching.

When foundation executives bemoan the state of philanthropy, maybe they should be thinking about who populates their institutions—and who they are themselves. Maybe the governance and staffing of foundations are a bit anachronistic in our society. According to the ABFE report, “the D5 Coalition recently declared that ‘philanthropy is not keeping up with the changing face of America.’” Why would black professionals feel compelled to stay in philanthropy when society is changing but philanthropy isn’t?

The report misses the necessary lever of change to change the demographics of any sector. It is the need to hold foundations’ metaphorical feet to the fire. Affinity groups and other foundation advocates may have been much too polite on this score, steering clear of questioning the composition of foundation trustees—who are much whiter than corporate trustees, for example—and are perhaps too celebratory about changes at the top of Ford and Kellogg, like our society has been about the occupant in the White House, and underemphasizing the troubling dynamics around race elsewhere in the sector and in society.

Even with a change in the nominal racial composition of foundation trustees and executives, that, too, is insufficient to produce changes in foundation grantmaking that begin to approach issues of racial justice. But having foundation leaders like Darren Walker, Bob Ross, Ralph Smith, and Emmett Carson, just to name four, is a matter of substance, not just image, because people of that caliber in senior positions of foundations are able to make change happen, witness their combined work on galvanizing philanthropic attention to the needs of black men and boys. As the ABFE evidence reveals, however, racial change is hard to see from within philanthropy. The philanthropic watchdog community needs to turn up the heat, else we will be watching marginal changes at best in foundation leadership and even less movement toward what more blacks in senior positions should mean, greater foundation attention to racial justice.—Rick Cohen

  • Captain Obvious

    I’m a African-American male who has spent most of his nonprofit career in fund development. There great truth to what’s been shared in this article. But there are some nuances. By and large, I find that I belong to small and volatile group of professionals.

    At the foundation level, I see peers who are moved from “diversity” and human resource positions into development positions. So in some sense, its an act of musical chairs. You’re smart, you’re qualified and you’re experienced but rather than move you up in your chosen profession, you get routed to into these two areas and when the ceiling appears, you’re then corralled into development. Here the truth is telling and sometimes shameful, these positions are offered to divert capable minorities away from higher corporate positions that are currently held by non-minorities.

    At the nonprofit level, I see peers who asked to be moved into development because it offered a great likelihood of effecting change. But also, because some organizations are passing them over for senior executive positions at large agencies. In my case, I chose former. It gave me some decision-making power at a time when I was being blatantly ignored for an executive director position that I was not only qualified for, but essentially doing already. At a point, I went “rogue” and consulted because it was more satisfying and offered an opportunity to use all my skills and advance my career. My primary services to clients? Grant writing, special events and executive coaching.

    Finally, one of the other powerful things I noticed is that in many cities higher ranking development personnel are White women, who are married to executives and tired of being housewives or who’s children have grown up and left the nest. It’s become a running joke of mine that at AFP meetings I more often than not am seated next to a White female who is running a foundation or Chief Development Officer somewhere who had little relevant experience or education. Many are anxious to meet and “pick my brain”, others are visibly threatened. I appreciate that development has been a fantastic path for advancement for women, no matter what their color. But I’d like to think there is room for everyone. We shouldn’t be competing to see who is next behind white males in leadership roles. We should be advocating for more equity among all qualified professionals, regardless of race or gender.

    To say I’m one of few African-American males in the sector would be an understatement. By and large we are way underrepresented. Have I ever felt pushed out? Yes! But, as long as donors connect with me, I have no plans to change professions.

    One of the most interesting by-products of my experience has been working with high-net worth donors. By and large, even in conservative cities I heard the same thing, time and time again. Donors WANT to see more minorities in position of authority, running agencies and foundations. They are thrilled when they meet us. They can have frank and revealing discussions with someone that may or may not hold the same views, but share the same values. In my estimation, under-utilizing us only cheats the philanthropic community.

    I enjoy development work. I have no ill will towards my peers who are not minorities. But something or in this case, some things are hurting our collective growth.

  • WhistleBlower

    The truth is, the nonprofit sector likes to talk about diversity and equal opportunity, but it does not practice it in the hiring and promotion of black and Latino professionals. It’s a dirty secret that gets buried in the rhetoric of organizations that have no problem exploiting issues in communities of color to raise money, but absolutely refuse to support or promote high performing black and Latino non-profit professionals in their organizations. It’s less of a glass ceiling than it is an iron ceiling. people of color see no pathways for advancement open to them beyond middle management. There is no vision for or belief in the ability of non-whites to lead in the non-profit sector. This is why black professionals are leaving what is largely an unregulated sector, where a feudal apartheid system exists.

    The only time this will change is when grant-making organizations and donors demand evidence of diversity at every level of the organization – including the leadership level – as part of the criteria for grantmaking. Look at the leadership level of most non-profits and you will see all white faces, and maybe an Asian. There are no advancement opportunities for blacks and Lationos beyond middle management.

    I am a black female. I worked with an economic non-profit organization for more than 10 years in a senior director position. Every year I recieved outstanding performance reviews and promises of additional resources and advancement opportunities, which never materialized. I watched junior level white colleagues rise quickly through the organization to VP level, while talented black and Latinos left because it became clear that their careers would never grow there. I stayed because I loved my job, and I wanted to change things from within. When I brought my personal advancement inequities to the attention of leadership, what I did receive was hostility, aggression, bullying and the the setting up of impossible goals to force me out.I decided to leave for the sake of my health and well-being.

    I never want to work in a nonprofit organization again after this experience, and I encourage young people of color to start their own nonprofits or to find other ways outside of the nonprofit sector to create a positive impact in their communities. Do not give your money to a non-profit until they can prove that they fully embrace and are committeed to diversity at EVERY level of the organization, and not just on paper to satisfy minimum standards.