Diversity, inclusion prioritized

February 25, 2010
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(Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a series of stories examining the issue of ethnic diversity in local nonprofits and community foundations.)

Foundation executives and board members in Michigan tend to be white, male and older than 50, according to a Council of Michigan Foundations study.

Released in 2009, the study and others like it in California and New York are breaking ground in quantifying diversity and inclusion in philanthropic foundations.

“The phenomenon of research is really quite recent, growing out of efforts that were sparked by a national project called the Diversity and Philanthropy project that was created in late 2006, which was intended to galvanize the field on this topic,” Larry McGill, vice president of research for The Foundation Center, said.

“Michigan not only is doing more in terms of the issue of diversity and philanthropy beyond research per se, it has also initiated more strands of research on diversity,” he added. “In Michigan for example, they’ve also looked at age and the extent to which young people are involved in philanthropy.”

Half-way through its six-year program called Transforming Michigan Philanthropy through Diversity and Inclusion, the CMF study of 89 Michigan foundations, conducted by Grand Valley State University’s Johnson Center for Philanthropy, found that:

  • Ninety percent of board chairpersons and 88 percent of CEOs in responding organizations were white.

  • Of CEOs age 50 and under, 80 percent were white; of CEOs with 20 or more years of experience, all were white.

  • Forty-three percent had adopted policies regarding board diversity; 20 percent had policies regarding executives; and 25 percent, regarding staff members.

  • The demographics of staff members below the executive level mimicked Michigan’s general demographics.

McGill said simply gathering the demographics data about foundations has been a major step forward. The CMF also commissioned a separate study that looked at the demographic make-up of Youth Advisory Councils, giving a glimpse into philanthropy of the future.

“You wouldn’t have seen much evidence of this research at all prior to 2007,” McGill said. “It is absolutely having an impact nationwide.”

The Foundation Center, a national nonprofit service organization based in New York City, coordinated the survey efforts in the three states. Researchers made sure to include some of the same questions to ensure that data is comparable over time and similar state-to-state as it moves across the nation.

CMF President and CEO Rob Collier said state and national lawmakers more and more often began to ask philanthropic leaders for information on how well their organizations represented society.

“We realized we really didn’t know the answer,” he said. “We didn’t have a good set of data to really respond in an accurate way.”

The CMF board began looking at diversity and inclusion issues in 2001, considering not only race and ethnicity, but also sexual orientation, disability, gender and age. In March 2009, the organization conducted a symposium.

This year, the CMF has brought together seven foundations to participate in a year-long process of learning about diversity issues and how to implement solutions. Among them is the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. GRCF President & CEO Diana Sieger was a CMF board member when the efforts were launched.

“How decisions are made is really reflective of the people who are making those decisions,” Sieger said. “So the importance of having a very diverse board and having diverse staff really becomes pretty imperative.”

With its participation in CMF’s Peer Action Learning Network this year, GRCF has made 2010 a time of particular attention to diversity and inclusion, she said. In addition to the sessions with other foundations, she said, she had challenged her staff to attend at least two professional development events focused on the issue.

“We are really looking at every aspect of our work — whether it’s our organizational mission and values, all of our policies, how we monitor the demographics of our staff, all of our communication materials, staff development, even how we do audit and donor services — to put everything through the lens of how can we be more inclusive, how can we better match the community we’re serving and how can we be a leader in this area.”

The renovated building that now houses GRCF offices at 185 Oakes St. SW was built with subcontractors and a work force that was 49 percent minority or female, Sieger said.

“This is not just about putting numbers on a piece of paper,” she added. “Let’s embrace this so these patterns can continue on.”

GRCF Vice President of Programs Marsha Rapp said the GRCF’s board commitment to diversity and inclusion is helping to make a difference.

“Our board is not shy about challenging the nonprofits to increase their diversity, and we reward them through our grant-making for doing that and try to help brainstorm ideas,” she said.

“We often will work with our nonprofit grantees to have good conversations about diversity. We do ask about the demographics for every grant that we are reviewing.”

The issue takes another twist when it comes to private foundations. For example, the Sebastian Foundation, aims to make diversity and inclusion important aspects of its grant-making, said Executive Director David Sebastian. But the staff is limited to one part-time assistant and the board is comprised of family members.

“I think to be an effective organization, you need to be open to different perceptions. People with different life stories come to the table bringing different experiences and wisdom,” he said.

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