Is Philanthropy Using Inequitable Practices to Achieve Equity?

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May 20, 2020
by Lindsay Hill & Dwayne Proctor
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Is Philanthropy Using Inequitable Practices to Achieve Equity?

Lindsay Hill, Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Raikes Foundation and Dwayne Proctor, Senior Adviser to the President, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation open the new series of Salzburg Questions

This blog is the first in a new ad hoc series, the Salzburg Questions for Philanthropy

Before the coronavirus became a global pandemic and illuminated the life and death consequences of racism, poverty, segregation, and persistent underinvestment in low-income communities, philanthropy had been undergoing an important transition, focusing more intently on how its white dominance was affecting its ability to advance sustainable improvements in the lives of those who have been historically marginalized. That transition was just getting underway for many organizations when COVID-19 hit. Now is not the time for foundations to back away from their commitment to equity in the spirit of responding to this crisis. The health and economic impacts of this pandemic are real and responding in a moment of crisis is essential. That is exactly why foundations need to double down on our commitment to equity and work together to mitigate the effects of this crisis.

Here are five things we’re thinking about:

How do grant processes perpetuate inequities?

Unless we enlist people or organizations we know directly, most foundations approach grant funding through invitation-only processes. The result is that those who are first in line are usually in positions of power or privilege who already are in our networks. That process too often excludes those from communities most impacted whose efforts need support to make a bigger difference. The invitation-only approach is fairly embedded within most foundations so how can we be more inclusive? Are we using this moment to build new relationships with leaders and organizations whose leadership must be elevated during this time? Are we partnering with those who are acutely aware of the ways in which COVID-19 is exacerbating long-standing inequities? Are we being pushed to reexamine our own biases and limitations to better respond to our communities in this moment?

Are we intentionally recruiting and hiring a diverse staff?

Are we doing enough to enlist a diversity of people who have lived experiences tied to discrimination, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, in sectors like education, health, housing, or criminal justice so they can influence how we fund the work? When the Raikes Foundation, for example, shifted its recruiting and hiring practices to focus on equity and inclusion it produced tangible results, including increasing the percentage of our grantee partners led by people of color. The foundation is now a majority-people of color organization. 

Are we transparent enough?

Foundations need to be more transparent about how board members are selected, a process that has historically been very opaque. And, we need to reckon with who we are funding. There is tension in the field of philanthropy right now around a basic question: if you’re going to advance equity, do you continue to fund the same grantees who are not explicitly equity focused and help them along or do you seek out less traditional partners that are steeped in equity and have more credibility with the groups of people we want to benefit from our grant support? We believe it is more important than ever to seek out and support organizations most deeply embedded in our communities. 

What role does leadership play?

When it comes to equity, leadership can be more important than dollars. Foundation leaders that are all in with equity see it as their responsibility to use their power and privilege to shift mindsets and the behaviors of peers. Leaders have been most successful when they take time to educate their boards and founders, bringing them along to better understand how their foundations could have greater impact in the sectors we care about by centering equity in our strategy development and grant processes. 

Do we pay enough attention to where endowments are invested?

There are a lot of contradictions between where foundations invest their dollars and the issues they support. For example, there are foundations across the country working to improve the lives of boys and men of color. Incarceration is one of those threats to improved lives, however, those same foundations may be investing in companies that profit off mass incarceration like telecommunications, transportation or food vending. How are we reconciling this? 

It is easy to say that this work should be put off while we manage through this crisis. But if philanthropy is committed to advancing equity it must continue the work to reckon with the ways in which it has contributed to perpetuating inequities. “We’ll do this later” no longer works when we are staring these inequities in the face like never before. And if we aren’t willing to center equity during this critical time, what is the risk that we will contribute to growing inequities coming out of this moment? When might it be time for us to get out of the way for those who are willing to bravely walk in the direction of equity and justice?

Lindsay Hill and Dwayne Proctor are Fellows of the program Toward a More Inclusive and Diverse Global Philanthropy: Strategies to Address Social, Economic and Historic Inequality