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Dear Colleagues: An Urgent Open Letter to the Philanthropic Community

Thursday, May 23, 2019   (0 Comments)
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Editor’s Note: Like D5 Compass, Nonprofit Quarterly also wants to urge our readers to participate in BoardSource’s important survey about nonprofit and foundation governance. Please visit leadingwithintent.org.


There is a lot of talk about data in philanthropy and how essential it is to gauge impact and effectiveness. There is also a lot of talk about the importance of diversity, inclusion, and equity. Surprisingly, these conversations seldom connect.

Let’s be clear: there are encouraging signs of action. More and more foundations acknowledge that systemic factors related to identity contribute to the disparities they seek to address and that data is essential to understanding how to address them. But data on how the make-up of senior foundation leadership relates to this remains opaque.

As leaders of D5 Compass, we believe that to accelerate the pace of change, we must cultivate greater commitment and urgency among trustee and executive leadership to ensure their organizations are relevant, effective and inclusive. And that includes being clear on who is doing the leading.

BoardSource’s 2018 report, Foundation Board Leadership: A Closer Look at Foundation Board Response to Leading with Intent 2017, sheds light on the current reality as it relates to foundation board diversity. While admittedly a small sample, it was illuminating to see that—among those foundations that responded—85 percent of board members were white. And 40 percent of these foundations had boards that were all white. Fifty-five percent of foundation board members and 67 percent of board chairs are male, and only 29 percent of board members were below the age of 50.

Perhaps even more instructive was the fact that these boards’ recruitment practices offered little reason to believe that board demographics will change in coming years. Eighteen percent of foundation respondents said that they were dissatisfied with the board’s racial and ethnic diversity but placed low or no priority on demographics when it came to board recruitment. That means that nearly one in five of the foundation leaders surveyed indicated that they were unhappy with their board’s racial and ethnic diversity, but were unprepared to take steps to change it.

These findings opened a window into what’s really happening within foundation boards. We know that effectively engaging difference is hard. Reaching beyond our comfort zones contradicts every instinct that we have about what feels right and safe. And yet, the research is clear that when we engage difference, we work harder, we struggle deeper, we lean in, and we do better. But we need good data to guide us.

That is why we are pleased that BoardSource will once again conduct this study, and why we encourage more foundations to share insights about their boards via their recently launched survey.

It takes understanding about where we are to navigate to where we want to be. And when it comes to creating a philanthropic sector that is more effective, inclusive, and focused on equity, there is no time to waste.

To learn more or to participate in the survey, please visit leadingwithintent.org.

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