Reflecting a Funder’s Values Through Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Practices

By Justice FundersPosted under Breaking Bad Philanthropic Habits

Funders struggle at least as much as community organizations to be truly representative of the communities they serve. Michael Roberts, of the 11th Hour Project, a program of The Schmidt Family Foundation and itself an environmental grantmaker, used his participation in the Harmony Initiative to address this tension. The Harmony Initiative is a leadership development program of the Bay Area Justice Funders Network, and the program helped Michael think about how to incorporate policies and practices around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into the core of the 11th Hour Project.

By doing so, the foundation was joining in a field-level pursuit. The D5 Coalition, established a few years ago with the express purpose of advancing DEI in philanthropy, notes that the constituencies that foundations serve are becoming more diverse. To create the greatest impact, funders themselves need to reflect those varied and rich perspectives. Many funders are interested in incorporating DEI practices into their organization, seeing the inherent value of having an organization that reflects the breadth of experiences in the community. Yet fostering a sustained culture of diversity, equity and inclusion is often more complex than good intentions and explicit statements in hiring policies.

The Harmony Initiative provided a number of supports, including: rich discussions on values; trainings on approaches and processes that align with and support DEI; and, individual coaching on implementation. As a result, Michael deepened his understanding of the importance of DEI within a philanthropic organization, and gained the skills to paint an inspirational picture to his colleagues. Building the base for a supportive organizational culture, the 11th Hour Project reflected on the seemingly small decisions, procedures, and habits that could both support and benefit from an organizational commitment to DEI.

Michael described some initial successes: “We were an early supporter of Environmental Grantmakers Association’s Environmental Fellowship Program, now in its second year. The program places graduate students from historically marginalized backgrounds into positions within environmental philanthropies. In the last year, we were able to fill two program positions with graduates of the program. We recognize this opportunity not as an end goal, but a first step towards shifting our culture and practices as an organization and field.”  This long-term perspective is helpful because engaging in a DEI process often uncovers areas of work that are not “quick fixes.” Michael stated that the Fellowship Program “forced organizations to reflect that issues with institutional culture may prevent funders from providing meaningful careers to these future leaders.”

On organizational culture, Michael noted, “A major issue had been the lack of explicit systems. Without some written code or designated space to articulate norms, everyone operates from a space of implicit assumptions and values. It becomes particularly hard for individuals whose personal experiences do not align with the systems under which our organization operates. In pursuing this work, we have been pushed to be more authentic and more intentional with our staff and grantee partners.” Michael is pointing to some profound individual and organizational habits that are hard to see, and often even harder to change.

Engaging in a comprehensive and thoughtful DEI process is iterative and needs organizational commitment. Thanks to Michael’s personal passion and the foundation’s support, including bringing in external consultants, the 11th Hour Project built on its initial successes and lessons learned. It identified three specific focus areas to further support the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion:

Though the 11th Hour Project is already seeing benefits of their DEI process, the full story will not be known for some time. It is clear that when funders have teams that are reflective of the communities they serve, it leads to greater impact and effectiveness. Funders with direct, personal understanding of the issues affecting their community are more knowledgeable about solutions that might offer the best impact. Likewise, grantees develop a different level of trust with funders who authentically represent the communities they support. A philanthropic organization that utilizes DEI practices embodies the guiding values of a grantmaker that strives to increase impact and effectiveness.

Now we want to hear from you. Have you seen a DEI process unfold particularly well, or not so well? What individual and organizational habits may have contributed to that success or failure? Please send us an email and share what you are seeing and learning and how we might break bad philanthropic habits together.