Pick any channel, any medium, any time of the day or night, and you’re bound to encounter joyous depictions or serious hand wringing about the “new” demographic of American communities. Think “Modern Family” or any analysis of the recent presidential election, and you get the picture.
The typical approach to the demographic shift is to count people — by race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, physical ability, or age. In 2001, the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) started promoting a different approach. It encouraged its members — 350 grantmaking organizations working together to strengthen, promote, and increase philanthropy in Michigan — to move beyond counting people to people counting. That year, CMF’s largely white Board of Trustees made a formal commitment to diversity based on its belief that “diversifying perspectives, talent and experience can help ensure philanthropy’s continued leadership in a rapidly changing society.”
While the demographics are certainly better than in 2001, the D5 Coalition State of the Work 2012 report of foundation demographics found that people of color make up only 10 to 17 percent of CEO and board leadership at foundations, and women constitute only 38 percent of trustees. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force estimates that LGBTQ individuals make up only 2 percent of foundation trustees. A CMF-commissioned study of the internal policies of 11 Michigan foundations found that most had formal written policies defining their visions of diversity and inclusion, yet few defined or monitored how or how well policies were implemented.
To understand how foundation boards can become more diverse and inclusive and why doing so matters, CMF and BoardSource co-hosted focus groups with diverse foundation trustees ranging in age from 35 to 75. Not one of them fit the typical foundation boardroom demographic in Michigan: White (80 percent), male (60 percent), and age 50 or older (66 percent.) Findings are reported in Diversity and Inclusion in the Foundation Boardroom: Voices of Diverse Trustees published by CMF in 2012 as part of its Transforming Michigan Foundations Through Diversity & Inclusion initiative.
What did we learn from these “outliers” about what it takes to build a diverse and inclusive board that adds value to achieving the foundations’ mission and goals?
We learned that
- change can start with a CEO or trustee who articulates and models a commitment to diversity and inclusion
- defining and agreeing to the strategic value of diversity and inclusion is essential. For many participants the ultimate benefit is a refocusing of the foundation’s work to equity and changing communities. As one participant stated, “Failure to address issues of equity in foundation governance will eventually lead to irrelevance.”
- becoming a diverse and inclusive board takes unflagging commitment, training, new policies and practices, recruiting beyond traditional networks, and patience. And, creating safe space for honest and sometimes difficult conversations is essential. Diversity with the expectation of assimilation vs. inclusion perpetuates tokenism, bias, misunderstanding, and frustration.
Change of this nature requires “realigning values and mores and ways of working to be more reflective of that new (demographic) composition.”
Does your board have a commitment to diversity and inclusion? Has it defined what that means? Has it grappled with the value it is missing from diverse trustees who are not being heard?
I invite you to consider the perspectives shared in this report and then to begin a dialogue with your own board — foundation or nonprofit — using the discussion guide provided in the report.
The first question is a big one: What are the costs of our status quo?