Chicago DEI Series - Post 2: Advancing DEI in Philanthropy Means Starting Where You Stand

Advancing DEI in Philanthropy Means Starting Where You Stand

by Delia Coleman, Vice President, Strategy & Policy - Forefront


Have a conversation about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in philanthropy and you will probably encounter a veteran of these conversations who says, "Oh, we’ve been talking about this for years." And they sound a little exhausted. They have every right to that fatigue.

Philanthropy, and the wider nonprofit sector, has been talking about DEI for years and it has been exhausting for folks, particularly practitioners of color, LGBT professionals, and practitioners with disabilities, to see little to no progress made in foundation Board rooms, C-suites, or grant-making strategies.

How can emerging practitioners disrupt this exhaustion, breathe new life in the effort to advance DEI in philanthropy and throughout the sector, and begin to make DEI not only visible but consequential to communities affected by historic and systemic inequities?

Learn from the past.

The veterans of DEI are right – this conversation has been around for years within the Chicago philanthropic community. Some progress has been made. For those unfamiliar with those conversations, one place to start is to learn the role that Donors Forum (now Forefront), as well as other actors in the philanthropic space, played in the development and support of the D5 Coalition. D5 has been a five-year project to develop and disseminate resources and models designed to advance DEI in philanthropy across the country.

Learning that history can help give even more clarity to what’s happening now. Across the country in cities like St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Seattle, individual foundations and regional associations of grant-makers are openly discussing bias, white privilege, inequity, race, equity, and inclusion. Their conversations are also setting the stage for action. Most recently, Forefront’s counterpart in Washington, DC just launched their series on race. The significance? These are no longer private conversations in private boardrooms. Stakeholders, from within philanthropy and without, are urging action in addition to learning from one another. This increased discourse makes our collective engagement in advancing DEI more vital to success.

Be a champion.

In my regular DEI outreach I ask, "Who is critical to this conversation?" Significant advancement of DEI policies and practices relies on influential champions to encourage and empower peers. However, I would like to push gently against a notion of a single DEI influencer whose backing of DEI will trigger sector-wide change. Rather, meaningful change comes from sustained internal and external support from all segments of the philanthropic community.

In other words, we ordinary practitioners must assume the mantle of Champion in our organizations. (A note about this, however: Relying solely on people of color, LGBT staff, or staff with disabilities to be the consistent voice of DEI within an organization is not a best practice - and it contributes to the exhaustion. Ally-ship is key to success.) D5 developed a guide to help potential champions have this conversation; if you modify it slightly it’s a good place to start the conversation internally. (I use it to help guide my conversations with my grant-making members as I follow up with them.) We can be the change and the champion we need; the fatigued fighters who have fought the good fight for decades need not only our support but our new energy, ideas, and insight.

Know your data.

How far does your organization need to go? It’s harder to champion DEI within your organization without data, even anecdotal data. So find out. Do a gut check on your organization’s readiness to adopt more policies and practices meant to advance DEI. On a whim, I used D5’s DEI self-assessment to measure my organization’s internal readiness. And what I learned shocked me. Out of eighteen DEI indicators that were relevant to our organization, we met only three. Is this assessment only for organizations with work to do? Not at all. If your organization ‘gets it,’ take the assessment, as well. You will likely find room for improvement. For instance, if your organization is doing really well in implementing DEI practices in operations, how well are you doing in monitoring DEI?

And you don’t have to do this alone. There are evidence-informed models from peers in other foundations and organizations to borrow and learn from.

Commit to Meaningful Action

Those models from other foundations or regional associations tell me that this work is possible. Each of our organizations have unique environments but there is no environment that would not benefit from an increased commitment to DEI. When JustPartners, Inc. partnered with D5 to identify the most effective practices, programs, and policies designed to advance DEI one of their conclusions noted that in order for real change to be sustained, an organization must institutionalize their DEI practices. More than learning must occur.

While diversity, equity, and inclusion are related, they are not the same. The actions taken to address one should also align with the anticipated goal. Diversity and inclusion focus on people and processes; equity focuses on impact and requires grappling with systemic issues. Therefore, a practice that might produce a more diverse Board won’t necessarily bring you equity. The work to bring equity to grant-making is going to look very different from what it takes to create a more diverse staff or Board. These nuances and multifaceted actions require long-term commitment (as well as patience, tolerance, and third party facilitation.)


If we want to resolve society’s most difficult challenges then philanthropic strategies must pivot. The good news is: we can do this. Philanthropy is used to tackling difficult work. Moreover, efforts like D5, and lessons from other foundations and nonprofit organizations, have shown us that success is possible. And then we’ll be the veteran.


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