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280 Diversity on Foundation Boards: If You Aren’t In the Room, You Won’t be in the Next Room

June 2nd, 2017

Richard Marker

The recent survey of the makeup of foundation boards reported in the Chronicle of Philanthropy has received a good deal of press, and a good number of comments. The study looked at many of the very largest foundations and who sits on the governing bodies of those institutions. Not so surprisingly, those boards were disproportionately comprised of alumni/ae of a limited number of universities, are disproportionally white males, and they live in a limited number of zip codes.

I doubt many were surprised by the findings. As one who sits on some foundation boards, and has advised many more, there is no question that they are comprised of those whom the leaders already knew. It is especially true among family foundations. After all, whom do you want in the room when family secrets, foibles, and relationships are on display? As we have written about in other settings, it is hard enough to get to reasonable decision making and good behavior under the best of circumstances; if one adds to that the complexity of folks whom you don’t know, or whose background doesn’t allow an easy cultural shorthand, the board room suddenly seems quite crowded.

It is true, as well, for independent foundations. Foundation boards are prestigious, usually deal with amounts of money that can intimidate those of lesser means, and have their own cultures and ethos that can be hard to penetrate for outsiders. Most board members are on multiple boards. They/we take the roles seriously, but not so much that the board interferes with lots of other valued claims on our time and social obligations.

Diversity has another challenge as well. Even when trustees acknowledge the statistical imbalance [racial, ethnic, gender, geographic] on their own board, it doesn’t mean that a board member is enthusiastic about ceding one’s own seat at the table.

So even if there is not purposeful bias or intention, the reality of foundation boards makes resolution of this quite problematic. It fits into the category of “if you are not in the room, you won’t be in the next room”.

This post is not about me, but my personal experience may be illustrative of the dynamic underlying this. For a good deal of my career, I was active and fairly visible within a particular societal subgroup. I was neither the most famous nor the most influential, but I was an insider, knew most of the decision-makers and they knew me [indeed, during the time I was CEO of an influential foundation, I guess I was a decision-maker myself]. Of course, I wasn’t on every board, or taskforce, or asked to speak at every conference nor serve as a consultant to every project. But I was in the mix, and no one had to ask, “who’s he?” when my name came up, and sure enough, I spoke widely, sat on lots of boards, and consulted extensively.

For the last 15+ years, my career has taken me far afield from that group. Every once in a while, I am at a conference or an event and see folks from that earlier part of my life. Often they will ask, “why weren’t you a speaker at such and such an event?”, or “why weren’t you the consultant for that project?”… I learned that the answer is quite simple. As time has gone by, the new decision makers don’t know me, have never heard me speak, never been the beneficiaries of my advisory/consultancy work. Whom had they worked with or invited to speak? Those whom they knew or had heard recently. I wasn’t in those rooms so I wasn’t invited to be in the next room. [So that there is no misunderstanding, my current world has many more rooms, and I am flattered to be asked to speak and advise in many other settings.]

Thus, given my experience as an insider who became an outsider quite quickly, should it be a surprise when those who have never been insiders are not on short-lists for foundation boards? When the selection committees turn to search firms, they are given prominent names – often the same names every other search yields. It may yield some tokenistic diversity, but does not address the point of the study.

This entire question raises three important points:

1. Does diversity on foundation boards really matter?
2. If yes, how does one rectify this in a sustainable, non-tokenistic way?
3. If not, how does one build authentic connections with stakeholders so that decisions are made beyond the social walls?

1. While the Chronicle article makes a compelling case, not everyone agrees. Indeed, I once had a public panel disagreement with a woman of a minority ethnic/ immigrant background who had herself transcended these boundaries and was functioning within the inner circles of a prominent foundation. She felt strongly that who was inside, and what their gilded circumstances may be are irrelevant to grantees. All that matters are that the foundation make good decisions and that recipients get their money. My own view, which I have expressed in these pages in the past, is that those of us who are funders need pay close attention to optics. It is far too easy to reinforce a patronizing classism without intending to do so.

Any of us who have sat long-term on boards of any sort can attest to how easy it is to assume a status quo ante when questions arise. The value of newcomers is that they raise good questions; a healthy organization honors those questions and is willing to rethink their facile answers. How much more so is this the case when the newcomers are not already social friends or peers with the existing board members.

In many ways, this is an extension of the transparency/glass pocket issue. How open should a private foundation’s decision process be? Once a foundation has met the philanthro-ethics standards of conflict of interest, and the legal requirements of reporting all grants, is there an ethical or moral obligation to tell more? Should there be a “best practice” that mandates more?

This is not straightforward, but I certainly believe that, minimally, every foundation owes it to itself, its stakeholders, its community, and our field to undertake a serious conversation about how it wishes to respond to these questions.

2. If the foundation decides that its governance should reflect greater diversity, how does one transcend simple tokenism? After all, to find a single qualified representative of a particular gender/racial/ethnic/national origin/sexual orientation is not so difficult. To have a sustainable system for doing so requires a very different commitment. Here are a few sample approaches:

a. Encourage foundation board members to sit on boards of other organizations serving diverse subgroups, particularly those with diverse stakeholder boards. This means that they will get to know potential board members over time, observed them in action, and learn to appreciate the larger issues that the organization addresses.
b. Have regular convenings with diverse groups, including those who may not be fully at home in these leadership settings. There are different vocabularies, priorities, leadership structures, and histories that can inform our own thinking. It is likely to lead to a respect for bringing diversity into the foundation inner circle.
c. Create social settings for more informal interactions. This is easier said than done for folks who are accustomed to socializing only with their peer groups, but is easier done than many think. [There are methods we can share if any reader is interested.] d. Develop a feeder system so that board selection and succession has a broader base.
e. [Please suggest additional methods to be added at a later updated posting.]

3. As acknowledged in #1 above, many foundations will never achieve a meaningful diversity on the board to reflect their stakeholders. That doesn’t exempt us from finding ways to reinforce our need for our grantmaking to be authentic, responsive, and transformative. How does one bridge those divides [and there are many]?

a. The proposals a, b, c in #2 above apply here as well.
b. Create grants subcommittees with seats reserved for diverse stakeholder populations. Even if they are not Trustees, their positions will be heard and felt.
c. Convene fellow funders to sponsor opportunities for stakeholder groups to speak of the issues before them. These sessions should focus on both larger policy and systemic issues as well as the day-in day-out challenges of serving at risk populations.
d. Serve as advocates and door openers with policy makers in government. Foundation leaders have access. Professionals in direct service organizations often don’t.
e. [please suggest additional methods to be added at a later updated posting.]

Private foundations are in a unique position, legally and functionally. We have philanthro-ethical obligations to set standards of behavior and sensitivity that exceed the legal requirements. Especially in this time of cynicism toward all institutions, the extreme divide between the few haves and the many haven’ts, and the need for rebuilding trust in civil society, we should do no less.

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