Diversifying the Field of Philanthropy

Diversifying the Field of Philanthropy


During our recent annual conference in Boise I was inspired to see how themes of DEI were woven throughout the event. Examples include the keynotes from Anand Giridharadas, author of Winner Takes All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, who said that philanthropy was to “give up [the power] rather than give back,” and Judy Belk, CEO of the California Wellness Foundation, shared with us stories of courage, and finally the closing plenary on philanthropy's role in championing democratic principles and institutions.

To add to the mix, consultant with The Giving Practice Anne Katahira and I led a session titled “How to Move Towards a More Diverse Philanthropic Sector.” The session was full of high energy and I left reminded of how hiring and retaining a diverse staff is a big challenge for many foundations. In fact, recent studies have shown that “despite the field’s effort to create a more diverse philanthropic sector, foundations continue to lag in their ability to recruit, hire, and retain employees of color.” [1] This of course is due to a variety of systemic factors including issues of access to professional networks and opportunities, implicit racial bias in the hiring processes, and foundations challenged with incorporating a DEI lens into their recruiting and hiring processes.

When session participants were asked what intimidates them about this topic, I heard statements such as:

  • I feel like I am tokenizing people of color
  • I can’t get a diverse pool of candidates
  • I am tired of being seen as the only “diverse” person in the room
  • Getting buy in from leadership continues to be challenging
  • White fragility is getting in our way

These are real and common challenges and they're complex issues not readily tackled with technical solutions, but rather, entrenched in our mindsets and structures of the status quo. I was impressed with how readily session participants were willing to talk about these challenges and dig into solutions. And these issues are solvable! Of course it won’t be easy, and some issues have quicker fixes while others require long-term culture change, but this is doable if you have or are willing to develop what Heidi Schillinger from Equity Matters calls, “The heart, the will, and the skill.”  Also important to remember is that you will make mistakes along the way and you will feel like you’ve failed at times, but this is normal and, in fact, good, because it means you are taking risks, stretching out of your comfort zone and being courageous.


The following steps are ones I have picked up from various equity trainers, consultants and resources that may help you diversify your organization and the sector. And don’t forget, at the core of this work is humans connecting to each other in a way that celebrates multi-culturalism and shared humanity.

1. Establish a clear organizational commitment.

Establish a clear organizational commitment to DEI. Share this internally and externally, align your processes, procedures and internal culture. This is long-term work and requires buy-in at all levels. For an example of a written statement check out Philanthropy Northwest’s Commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

2. Integrate DEI into culture.

This is stated above, but it's so important that it's needs its own bullet. Hiring is just one piece of the pie to diversifying your organization and can’t be done without also building an inclusive and equitable culture. This is about how you're building literacy around equity inside your organization, developing skills, disrupting systems that reinforce oppression, and building new systems at all levels of your organization.

3. Make your DEI goals clear and be transparent.

Make your DEI goals clear and direct. Be explicit that you value diversity and encourage POC and other diverse candidates to apply. Audit your position descriptions with an equity lens and adapt messages to include language and qualifications outside dominant culture. Integrate DEI into every conversation and make it part of your message.

4. Audit current hiring practices with a DEI lens.

Get curious with how your hiring procedures are undermining your goals of diversifying. For example, is your hiring panel all white? What language or education requirements are you still using in your position descriptions? All of these practices are designed with a dominant culture frame. Once you understand what practices are working against you, you can start designing practices that will serve your goals of diversifying.

5. Ensure the recruiter and hiring team have training on unconscious bias.

This is very important and necessary if you want to hire and retain a diverse workforce. Invest in adequate training for your teams and develop protocols such as redacting names on resumes, openly talk about people’s unchecked biases, etc.

6. Don’t move forward until your candidate pool is adequately diverse.

Send an anonymous survey to applicants asking for demographic information. This will allow you to assess the diversity of your applicant pool, and if you move forward before your pool is adequately diverse, chances are you won’t hire a diverse candidate.

7. Leverage your internal and external networks.

Use your internal networks for recruiting and hiring panels and leverage their networks. Do target recruiting to external POC and other diverse networks. 

8. Clarify what values and competencies you'll use for assessment.

How are you centering lived experience and/or skills in advancing equity in your assessment? You should be using these values as key metrics in your rating and review of candidates.

9. Ensure your hiring committee is diverse.

Look at the committee makeup, and if it's an all-white committee, consider asking POC trustees or partners to support this process.

10. Avoid common judgment traps.

Be aware of common traps in judgment such as being too focused on culture fit, speaking the philanthropy language, and specific technical know-how.

As we all work to ensure our organizations are relevant and impactful with the communities we work in, so it's imperative that we build teams of professionals that truly understand how to partner, support and galvanize action within these communities. We certainly don’t have it all figured out at Philanthropy Northwest, but I can say confidently that we're willing to fall, and get up, fall, and get up, over and over again until we get it right.

Interested in hosting a 2019 Momentum Fellow? Contact Erin Thomas for more info.


[1] D5 Coalition: State of the Work, April 2016: http://www.d5coalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/D5-SOTW-2016-Final-web-pages.pdf