To Advance Racial Equity, Foundation Boards Need to Take an Active Role

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Click here to read on The Chronicle of Philanthropy

by James Canales and Barbara Hostetter 

The events of 2020 inspired many words in these pages about the imperative of putting racial equity at the center of philanthropy. The opening days of 2021 have only reinforced the urgency of this message. Less explored, however, has been the necessity of ensuring that foundation boards are fully engaged as partners and leaders in transforming our institutions and how we do our work.

As we reflect on our own equity journey at the Barr Foundation, it is evident that our board’s active engagement has been of the utmost importance to our deepened commitment to racial equity. It has enabled us to engage in crucial (and often challenging) conversations and decisions. We share our lessons here in hopes they may be of service to others.

As a co-founder/board chair and a president, the two of us are partners in the stewardship of a foundation created in 1997 as a family philanthropy. At that time, Barr was focused on its home city of Boston and was governed solely by its two founding trustees. Today, Barr has expanded its board beyond family members and grown into one of the largest private foundations dedicated to the New England region.

Like many of our peers, Barr recently affirmed a commitment to racial equity and communicated our intention to significantly expand our grant making, guided by three principles for this moment and for the years ahead:

We must be unequivocal about our foundation’s commitment to racial equity.

We must view this as a long-term commitment.

We must expand our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion with a focus on anti-racism.

For us, getting to this point has been an intentional journey many years in the making. Here are three lessons from a board that has embraced this work:

Ensure your board reflects diversity of voices, perspectives, and life experiences.

At foundations and nonprofits, we often focus our discussions about board diversity on demographic characteristics, and those are absolutely essential. Indeed for Barr, the decision five years ago to broaden our board beyond its two co-founders and president was linked to an expressed commitment to greater diversity of race, ethnicity, and gender.

We are still a small board today, with seven directors, three of whom are family members. Our board now consists of a majority (four) of women, and nearly half (three) are people of color. But beyond these demographics, our trustees bring varied life experiences and perspectives to our deliberations, including members who have worked directly on efforts to address gang violence, the leader of a community development corporation in a predominantly Latino community, and the volunteer chair of the City of Boston’s newly created racial-equity fund.

These diverse backgrounds and networks enrich board deliberations and keep us grounded in the opportunities, needs, and concerns within the varied communities we aim to support. It also means our board members bring a certain credibility, authority, and voice that can speak directly to this moment. As one tangible illustration, we share this heartfelt and powerful letter written in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by one of Barr’s trustees, Emerson College President Lee Pelton (who was recently appointed president and CEO of the Boston Foundation).

Importantly, we have also been intentional about building a board whose members don’t share a deep history together. We recognize that, while pre-existing relationships can make it easy for boards to work together, they can also lead to insular thinking and even inhibit open dialogue. For effective boards, varied ideas and expansiveness of thinking should be the goal.

Don’t delegate diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

For over two years now, our organization has been on a journey to more deeply understand the ways in which diversity, equity, and inclusion play out in our work, both in regard to our internal culture and practices and our grant-making strategies and priorities. Over this time, we have developed shared vocabulary, assessed our intercultural competencies (both individually and as an organization), deepened our understanding of structural racism and anti-Blackness and how they manifest in our society (and in institutions like ours), and applied our learning to various facets of our work.

At every step of this journey, the two of us, as organizational leaders, have been personally engaged. As president, Jim has served as an active member of Barr’s internal DEI working group, and as board chair, Barbara has participated in all of our training sessions, retreats, and all-staff workshops. Racial equity has also become a regular agenda item for our full trustee meetings — where our fellow trustees have the opportunity to engage with our staff on how these issues manifest in our program areas and in our own operations. We have also created opportunities to engage with other leaders; recently, we were joined by Boston’s new chief of equity, Karilyn Crockett, to discuss her efforts in this newly created cabinet position.

We have done all this not only because we seek to learn and grow ourselves but because we believe DEI efforts simply do not work when they are treated as something for the staff to do on its own. Leadership’s active sponsorship of and direct engagement with DEI work is essential. It demonstrates institutional buy-in and commitment, and it leads to stronger relationships, open dialogue, and a better workplace.

Commit to authenticity and vulnerability as well as to engaging in challenging and uncomfortable conversations.

One of the early findings in our work on DEI was that our “culture of politeness” was a barrier to open, honest, and difficult — but essential — conversations. The power dynamics of the two of us being in these discussions didn’t necessarily make it easier at the outset.

To our staff’s credit, however, they did not shy away from pushing these harder conversations — even with us in the room. And I hope we, too, played a role by demonstrating curiosity, probing for more detail when warranted, and allowing our own vulnerability and uncertainty to be expressed and seen by all. As challenging and difficult as some of the discussions have been, we are becoming a better organization because of them.

What we have learned together is that engaging in DEI as a foundation requires that our staff and board confront their own privilege and interrogate the power we hold as gatekeepers to the foundation’s resources. We also must consider what organizational practices may work against our commitments to equity. Requiring grant seekers to have a minimum annual budget size as a precondition for support is one example of the types of practices we are taking a close look at — as we explore who benefits and who is marginalized by our grant making and by our choices of vendors, consultants, and researchers.

We know we are just at the start, with a great deal of work still to do. Yet we share these reflections today to encourage others to do the same. There is certainly much for all of us to learn from each other.

What is eminently clear to us, however, is that absent the active engagement of foundation board members and leadership in DEI work, change will not take hold in our institutions. Let’s be sure to seize this moment to make it otherwise.

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