Attack of the Bean Counters

(This is a guest post from Sandra Bass,
Program officer at the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Sandra Bass

Zzzzzzzzz…..okay it’s not like I shouldn’t have know better…I mean the title of the session did have the word “counting” in it…so that the session “Beyond Counting: What can we learn from Diversity related research” turned out to be a bit of a snooze is not surprising. That said, I think this was a ‘sleeper” session in more ways then one.

Before I launch into my thoughts on this I should disclose….I am an African American woman…I’m also very tall, a native Californian, a daughter, a sister, and an auntie and I have this odd personality quirk of being both a nerd and an extrovert…(think Urkel on hormone therapy) Yes, like many of us I have multiple identities, but for the purpose of this post, that I am one happy black woman is the most relevant. I also should note that this is me speaking for me…not my organization.

As many of you know a bill was recently introduced in California that would require foundations over a certain size to collect data on the diversity of the organizations they fund to determine how much funding goes to “minority led” organizations: minority led being defined as having a minority ED, 50% or more minority staff and board, and with a stated mission of serving minorities. This bill comes to us courtesy of the Greenlining Institute who conducted their own review of funding to “minority led” organizations by major foundations and found it wanting. The session talked about voluntary efforts within the sector to collect more comprehensive data then that collected by Greenlining to provide a fuller picture of how philanthropy is faring on the diversity front. Even though all the talk of surveys and data gathering made my eyes glaze over, how we define and assess diversity is one of the most pressing issues facing the field.

As today’s breakfast plenary poll showed, diversity is not our strength as a sector, however Greenlining definition of “minority-led” organizations is far too limited to fully articulate the range of foundation funding that goes to organizations and programs benefiting minorities. While I personally don’t think Greenlining was being intentionally malevolent in pushing for this legislation (in fact one could argue that their actions have raised the profile of this issue within our sector) I do think they are misdirected….let me count the ways:

  1. While building and supporting minority leadership within the sector is a critical need, being a minority does not guarantee that a person will represent or serve the community of their racial/ethnic origin…let’s consider for example, the Clarence Thomas phenomenon. Although I haven’t seen the official DNA results, I’m betting Clarence Thomas is a black man. I’m a black woman…based on this logic, my interests are all taken care of in the Supreme Court because one of mine is sitting up there…yeah right.
  2. I know an organization in the mid-west that came up with the great idea of helping poor people in the inner cities get to jobs in the suburbs by giving them low-interest loans to buy cars. An impact evaluation of their work found that once people had cars they could access higher paying jobs which increased their standard of living significantly. At one of their sites about 80% of the loan recipients were black. The CEO of this organization is white, and I suspect his organization would have a hard time meeting the “minority led” criteria as defined by Greenlining. So this program which has helped lift many black families out of poverty would not pass muster.
  3. And at the end of the day, perhaps the most important reason these efforts will not lead to the desired change is that diversity is not about bean…or in this case head counting. As Mark Rosenman eloquently said in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy op ed. “Diversity is not a question of inviting others into your house. The question is how the house might be renovated so it reflects the designs of all now in it”. We’re talking culture shift not counting.

Yes, we as a field have a lot of work to do on the diversity front, and yes, we should care that there are so few people of color working in philanthropy and leading non-profit organizations. However there are concrete actions that can be taken (like leadership development, organizational capacity building, voluntary sector-wide data collection, and strategic partnering) that can help us get there a lot faster then filling out forms to meet a government mandate.

One Comment

  1. parker blackman says:

    couldn’t agree more…