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Staying True to Our Mission and Operating Principles Has Resulted in Foundation Diversity

By Gary L. Yates

A recent study by a nonprofit advocacy organization indicated that, among large foundations, The California Wellness Foundation has one of the most diverse boards with regard to ethnicity (70 percent) and gender (50 percent). But this wasn’t always the case.

In 1995, the Foundation’s Board of Directors did not look like the state’s diverse population. Barely three years old then, the Board was composed of four white men.

By 1998, the Board had expanded to 10 directors—half were ethnic minorities and half were women. Also, our staff had more than doubled, reflecting greater diversity in ethnicity, gender, and professional background.

How did we get there in three years?

First, let me state what the Board did not do:

  • We did not formalize and pursue diversity goals aimed at governance and programming.
  • We did not establish benchmarks, metrics, or quotas.
  • We did not create a diversity plan or conduct diversity audits.

Yet, in a short, three-year period, we succeeded in transforming the Foundation into one of the most diverse in the nation. We became a major California funder of nonprofit organizations providing health services to communities of color and advocating to improve the health of the underserved.

I believe two key factors made our transformation possible: We stayed focused on our mission and made a concerted effort to “live” our operating principles by integrating them into all facets of our work.

Mission Matters

We never took our eyes off of our mission, which is to improve the health of the people of California. One of the Foundation’s key priorities in pursuing this mission is to address the health needs of California’s “traditionally underserved populations, including low-income individuals, people of color, youth, and residents of rural areas.” The Board logically believed that we would be most effective in reaching underserved communities around the state if we recruited trustees and staff armed with expertise, diverse professional backgrounds, and first-hand experience in California’s diverse nonprofit sector.

Embracing Our Operating Principles

We were informed by the Board’s 1995 operating principles, which guided the foundation as we developed our grantmaking program. Among the operating principles was one devoted to promoting pluralism and inclusiveness:

“Given the diversity of California’s population, the Foundation will seek to engage individuals on its board and staff who are representative of that diversity and committed to incorporating the values of pluralism and inclusiveness into every aspect of their work. We will also seek to fund organizations that embrace those values in their mission[s] and activities.”

We “lived” the principles. By that I mean we worked consciously and intentionally at all levels to bring the best expertise to the Foundation in pursuit of our mission. We hired people with backgrounds in health, finance, communications, philanthropy, and law, among other professions. For California, it was critical to recruit professionals who understood the multi-ethnic dynamics of our state.

This effort was not limited to Board and staff. We sought consultants, who were experts in their fields. For example, our communications program uses multi-language media outreach campaigns and cannot rely on one general media market agency. We retain multiple firms with diverse backgrounds in reaching key audiences through ethnic, general market, and Internet media. For more than 15 years, we have worked with ethnic- and women-owned agencies to build a communications program that effectively reaches diverse communities.

Foundation Effectiveness

Has the recruitment of a diverse board and staff helped us to be more effective in our grantmaking? I have no quantitative evidence but I believe it has. We’ve made more grants in diverse regions of the state and reached more underserved populations, including women and girls, than we would have without the nonprofit experience and ethnic/gender knowledge that the Board and staff represent. A recent assessment of our grantmaking by an independent evaluation firm noted significant progress toward achieving our goals, and a constituent survey we conduct every three years showed increased satisfaction with our interactions and process.

That said, I do not endorse a “one size fits all approach” regarding diversity for all foundations. I respect the diversity in the philanthropic sector and the independence of individual foundations to honor donor intent, mission, and strategy. Each foundation’s board of trustees must develop strategies and activities they deem appropriate to achieve their charitable missions. In our case, embracing the values of pluralism and inclusiveness in developing a board and staff somewhat representative of the state’s diverse population was, and is, an effective way to work toward improving the health of the people of California.

Gary L. Yates
President and CEO
The California Wellness Foundation

This article originally appeared in the October 26, 2009 issue of Thought > Action > Impact, an e-journal published by the Council on Foundations.

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