While diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI as the terms are collectively known, are discussed at almost every philanthropic gathering, what accompanying action is needed? Are these the building blocks destined to historically reshape the foundation playing field? Or are they just the latest foundation fig leaf for inequitable practices that started with the birth of the paternalistic, charity mindset?
“We have to be honest about the sources of wealth and how wealth was accumulated in this country—a great part of it was on the backs of people of color, and now those communities are benefiting from just a very small percentage of dollars,” writes Edgar Villanueva, a respected expert on social justice philanthropy. “Once you know, how can you not be equitable about how you’re distributing the money?”
The two of us have engaged in a series of cohort-based learning efforts with foundations of differing budget sizes, funding priorities, geographic areas of focus, and leaders on almost every level of a foundation organizational chart. Since last year, we have engaged foundation presidents and CEOs through the Presidents’ Forum on Racial Equity. These leaders, whose foundations control 15 percent of all US philanthropic assets, have participated in a series of in-person sessions and webinars that center racial equity in their professional development. As one participant said, “I’m trying to understand my own white privilege from a foundation where we are the recipients of extreme white privilege.”
The following are six leadership imperatives (and guidance for navigating them) for leaders who want to lead in ways that center racial equity and justice.
1. Don’t be a leader in name only
A leader has to be vulnerable, open, and actively engaged. Racial equity work is hands-on and requires co-ownership with board and staff. As Equity in the Center says, leaders must “model a responsibility to speak about race, dominant culture, and structural racism both inside and outside the organization.”
“You can have a conversation about diversity and never talk about racism. My staff needed to see me show up and be present in that space,” said one president.
The way forward
The biggest failing of internal racial equity efforts is that the leader is not seen as deeply engaged, vulnerable, and highly participatory with staff on every level.
This is a space where it is acceptable for the CEO to not be the lead content expert in the process. Still, staff members are hungry for the executive to set the tone in this space. We hear from early-stage leaders that they do not have time to be heavily involved in this type of work, while their more seasoned counterparts know that internal racial equity processes are as mission critical as strategic planning. One leader said, “I haven’t arrived, but I’ve certainly agreed to go.”
This can be challenging for a CEO who might herself be seeking answers, but it can be done. Practical steps include developing the leadership team with clear intentions, communicating about who leads the process and about when and how goals will be set, using cultural competency assessment tools like the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) to establish a baseline, and then measuring progress intermittently.
But even more than practical leadership, emotional leadership is critical. The CEO should be accessible, deeply engaged, and the lead point of accountability. This includes being present and focused during meetings, expressing vulnerabilities and asking for help, being patient and responsive to the frailty of others, and otherwise signaling to colleagues that this work is mission critical.
When executives put themselves fully in the racial equity space, staff will follow.
2. Prepare for the mess
We live in a country with a history mired in structural racism. Because of this, few spaces exist where people can have honest, productive conversations around race and ethnicity. Though equity work is messy, it does not have to be dysfunctional. It will be disruptive. It will shift all internal dynamics and relationships with external stakeholders. It will surface tensions, frustrations, and resentments.
Yet it can be done intentionally and skillfully.
Centering racial equity and justice can result in deeper, more authentic relationships. It can bridge some of the deep chasms among us, and usher in far more power-balanced relationships between the sector and underrepresented populations.
“Our definition of leadership in white dominant culture is that one person decides what should be done,” said one CEO. “Leadership also comes from outside the ‘leader’ and there are examples of where leadership exists inside and