Desirable outcomes don’t come automatically when high-minded statements are hung on board room walls. Creating a diverse board that genuinely welcomes the ideas of those in the communities the foundation serves is unlikely to be easy or comfortable — but making progress rarely is.
This op-ed originally appeared at philanthropy.com on 11/2/2021
During meetings with my fellow board members at the California Wellness Foundation, I often find myself thinking back to my childhood as a Black boy in segregated Washington, D.C.
I grew up on the Howard University campus in the shadow of Freedmen’s Hospital, established during the Civil War to provide care for formerly enslaved people. When my father took me there for medical care — usually to get something stitched up — we received great service from the warm and welcoming all-Black staff. These were people from the community taking care of the community.
That same sense of community and representation is what makes my experience as a California Wellness Foundation board member feel so different from the many other boards I’ve sat on. Whether those boards were in the corporate, nonprofit, or academic world, the majority of people I served with brought their experiences as upper middle-class white folks to our decision making. By contrast, when I sit down at the California Wellness Foundation board meetings, I see a remarkably diverse group with deep connections to the communities we serve, particularly those historically denied equal opportunities and an equal voice.
Our grantees are not upper middle-class white people, and neither are the members of our board. We are primarily people of color and women — 12 individuals with a wide range of experiences as activists, nonprofit leaders, immigrants, public health experts, clinicians, and more. We bring our lived experiences to the board of a philanthropic enterprise with an endowment of nearly $1.2 billion.
This should be the norm on philanthropic boards, but it is far from it. The Center for Effective Philanthropy found that out of 218 foundations responding to a survey last year, 57 percent reported that less than a quarter of their board members were people of color.
The experience of the California Wellness Foundation board shows why this needs to change and why doing the hard work of creating diversity pays off. I believe it can be a model for other foundations embarking on a similar path.
Our board’s unusual diversity was instigated by the foundation’s former president and CEO Gary Yates, a white man who had the foresight to suggest that the foundation’s board and staff should reflect the diversity of California, the state we serve. His commitment to diversity is reflected in the work we do nearly every day.
Consider the story one of our members shared at a recent board meeting about her undergraduate experience as a poor student at an elite California college. At a school where many students came from wealthy families, she recalled waiting until her peers left the cafeteria so she could load up a plate at the buffet table to take home to her younger brother who otherwise would have nothing to eat that evening. Such tales are not unusual from my board colleagues and help fuel the empathy necessary to better understand the challenges facing our grantees.
Informal Gatherings Build Bonds
Issues of race are always present when the trustees gather — even if racial equity isn’t specifically on the agenda. For instance, at every board meeting, we devote one evening to a small informal dinner. We are expected to share what’s been happening in our personal lives. We talk about our partners, our kids and grandkids, and the status of the communities where we live and work. We describe the good things that have come our way, and we report on the challenges we are facing.
When I first joined the board seven years ago, I thought this exercise was kind of corny. But over time I realized that such conversations were essential to our culture of listening closely to others and speaking forthrightly and honestly about tough issues, such as race, class, and gender. These topics are inherently sensitive, and we need to build trust among ourselves, so we believe that our colleagues’ statements, even when controversial and puzzling, are offered in good faith.
This is what community looks like, and this is what diverse and effective boards do.
Such diversity helps spur innovation and a willingness to learn together and work at the frontiers of philanthropy. For example, after the 2016 election we invited grantees to talk to us about their concerns, which led to an acceleration of grant making to address the urgent needs of immigrants, to protect access to health care, and to prevent hate-based violence.
For us, diversity is not just talk. And it’s not just numbers. It’s about values we share. We are committed to empowering people from communities whose voices have been silent for far too long in both the larger society and in the board rooms of philanthropy. At every board meeting, we invite grantees and community partners to talk to us about equity and racial-justice issues. Recently we’ve heard about the challenges facing incarcerated women of color upon re-entering society and the importance of centering racial justice when addressing climate change.
These discussions, combined with who is sitting around the table, directly affect our grant making. Four of our board members are from grantee organizations, which is unusual for private foundations of our size.
Investing Our Assets
Who we are also affects how we manage the $1.2 billion under our control. We now commit $50 million to investments that have a social impact, with a focus on businesses owned by and serving communities of color. We also make it a priority to hire more money managers who reflect the diversity of the communities we serve. At last count, 30 percent of the firms managing our mission-related investment portfolio and 33 percent of those managing our main portfolio were owned by women or people of color. By comparison, just 1.3 percent of the assets in the $69 trillion asset-management industry are handled by diverse managers.
Holding CEOs Accountable
Creating an inclusive, progressive board culture won’t happen naturally. It requires intentional work, and sometimes it means slowing down to understand a different perspective. Trustees on majority-white foundation boards need to actively push fellow board members to take steps toward diversity, equity, and inclusion. That includes having an honest conversation about who’s around the table and ensuring that CEOs are held accountable in their annual reviews for their diversity achievements.
When just one board member is a person of color, that trustee should consider joining affinity groups such as Native Americans in Philanthropy, Hispanics in Philanthropy, the Association of Black Foundation Executives, and the Association of Asian and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, which can provide support when pushing new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas.
The board also needs to take a hard look at how trustees are selected. At the California Wellness Foundation, we use an open process to recruit board members, which involves creating a position description, using a search firm, and asking the candidates to describe how they support diversity, equity, and inclusion in their own work.