Implicit Bias Affects All of Us in Philanthropy

This post was authored by Chaletta Huertas, Program Officer at GMA Foundations, and appeared originally in the National Center for Family Philanthropy’s column, Voices from the Field. chaletta_huertas_gma

Historically, only a small percentage of philanthropic dollars goes to communities of color, goes to organizations led by people of color, or comes from people of color.  For many people, the word ‘philanthropist’ itself conjures up images of elderly white gentlemen in business suits. Has this changed much in today’s society which some would call ‘post-racial’?

No.  The Greenlining Institute reports that communities of color receive less than 5 percent of all charitable donations from the more than 72,000 foundations in the country (A Promise to Diverse Communities: Summary of the Foundation Coalition’s Efforts, Avis Atkins and Orson Aguilar, June 2012).

In reality only “10 percent of all charitable deductions are directed at the poor,” according to Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mmm…so…why?

This and similar questions were discussed during the November 5th workshop on ‘implicit bias’ held in Cambridge, MA by The Proteus Fund, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP), and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute on Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.  The workshop title, The Science of Wringing Out Racial Bias, refers to President Obama’s remarks regarding the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case.  The President suggested that we ask ourselves:  ”Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?”

The workshop featured Johanna Wald of the Houston Institute at Harvard who reported on research showing that we all have bias and ‘wringing it out’ requires work.  A lot of work.  Intentional work.  Collaborative work.

Help!  How Do We Wring Out Implicit Bias?

Ms. Wald argued that the only way to change the reality of the philanthropic landscape is first to admit that it is being affected by implicit bias and then to work together to address this hidden, yet natural, scourge within each of us.

She pointed to old and new research studies that show how implicit bias starts early, influences our decisions, and has real consequences. It affects philanthropic giving and all of us doing this work.

The panelists all substantiated the presentation’s findings and offered ways to wring bias out of philanthropy.  They touched on bias affecting who gets hired, who sits on boards, what organizations get funded, who makes decisions, and how foundations set priorities.

Identifying the biases in these key areas is the first step to addressing them.

We All Have Been Infected by the Implicit Bias Bug.  Now What?

The room at the implicit bias workshop was packed.  Most of the participants were those already engaged in efforts to reduce racial/ethnic inequities in philanthropy, from the D5 Coalition to Third Sector New England’s Inclusion Initiative.  For these audience members, the workshop confirmed their knowledge and observations…and left a lot of unanswered questions.

I spoke with a number of participants afterwards; we were happy that this workshop had occurred.  After all, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”  Yet, we were all a little hungry for more.

Upon re-reading the invitation, I noticed – “As time allows, we will begin a conversation about the possible relevance of these findings and strategies for the work of philanthropy.”  Ah-Ha!  The large group presentation was only a conversation starter.

We hungered for an intimate and nuanced discussion of how each person struggles with implicit bias on a personal and professional basis. We really wanted to talk about our individual and collective work to change philanthropic realities – kind of a support group session with built-in action steps.

A Call to Action

So, let’s go back to the workshop organizers’ invitation to talk about the relevance of these findings and how those of us in philanthropy might work differently.  If we all have bias, and wringing it out requires work, let’s get started by looking inward, identifying the issues around us and working together to change.

Have you identified bias in your own work?  What are you doing, or thinking of doing, to change the face and mind of our field? Please comment below or contact chuertas @ gmafoundations.com


About the Author

Chaletta Huertas is a program officer at GMA Foundations. Chaletta joined GMA Foundations in July 2008. She serves as a program assistant for the Jessie B. Cox Trust, the Dolphin Trust, the Foley Hoag Foundation, and the A.C. Ratshesky Foundation. Chaletta came to GMA Foundations after working for the The Hyams Foundation through the Associated Grant Makers’ Diversity Fellowship Program. Prior to her fellowship, she founded and directed a college-preparation and mentoring program in Boston and evaluated federal healthcare programs and policies at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of Inspector General. Read more of her opinions @ChalettaH.