This Foundation CEO Isn't Alone in Grappling with Race

We were struck by a blog post last month by Doug Stamm, CEO of the Meyer Memorial Trust titled, "Doug Stamm on the foundation'sand his ownracial equity journey." In it, Stamm discusses his transformation from disengagement from the struggle for race equity five years ago to becoming more meaningfully involved now.

He credits a 2013 staff retreat for galvanizing his new understanding of this area. And the trust as a whole has reoriented its thinking, issuing a Statement on Equity that Stamm said "represents our recognition that to move forward, we have to look back and own the biases, oppression and disparities that shape this place that is our home."

Stamm is exactly right, of course: Racial inequities have deeply structured American society and are entwined in just about every issue that philanthropy is taking on. That said, we don't hear a lot of foundation presidents talking this way. While some funders have long been engaging race, and think about it in sophisticated ways, many others have ducked the whole issue.  

A great place to get a sense of where the conversation lies is with a volume of articles published by the Philanthropic Initiative for Race Equity in June called Moving Forward on Racial Justice Philanthropy

Rick Cohen has an in-depth study in the volume on the different ways funders have come at race and the challenges going forward in this area, based on over 20 interviews. The report also has a comprehensive timeline about how the issue has evolved from 1992 to 2014.

The work of the d5coalition is another good starting point for newcomers to the race and philanthropy discussion. The group issues regular, data-rich reports that look at how well philanthropy is doing when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Its most recent report, State of the Work 2014, takes an optimistic stance, pointing to momentum in the field.

Kelly Brown, D5's director, writes in the intro of that report:

Long-time advocates are redoubling their efforts while an expanding network of philanthropic leaders are bringing fresh energy to the cause... What has been most encouraging to me, after almost 30 years of work on these issues in the field of philanthropy, is the willingness of a broader and often unexpected array of philanthropic leaders to take on meaningful conversations, to take their organizations beyond checking boxes and posting diversity statements. Going deep requires an analysis and an informed point of view. This is especially true around the most complex issues such as equity, the role of leadership, and the use and meaning of data.

Brown's last point on data is key, and that's one of the first promises that Meyer Memorial Trust is making in its quest to integrate a racial equity lens into its work. It will be tracking common outcomes in communities "hit hard by bias and oppression." It is also pledging to apply learning "as individuals and as an organization to make meaningful change in how we operate."

In turn, what has happened at Meyer is a perfect example of what Kelley Brown talks about: Philanthropic institutions engaging in a real conversation about race. 

Looking at bigger funders, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has been the most visible leader in this area in the past few years. The Root recently profiled Gail Christopher, the Kellogg executive who's taken the lead in the effort, which she says stems from a 2007 decision by the foundation to become “the most effective anti-racist organization they could be” and do much more to “promote racial equity.” 

That commitment has played out in a number of ways, including a signature Kellogg initiative called "America Healing." (Learn more on the foundation's website.)

Atlantic Philanthropies has been another big funder engaging race, as we noted in our recent piece on the foundation's end game. The roots of that effort go back to Gara LaMarche's leadership at Atlantic. LaMarche gave an important speech on race and philanthropy in 2008 that remains compelling reading six years later.

Among other things, Atlantic's commitment on racial equity has shaped its grantmaking on reforming school discipline policies. Most recently, the foundation has been a big player in My Brother's Keeper, an initiative on race launched by the White House in February that a number of foundations are involved with. 

Speaking of young men and boys of color, we recently wrote about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's major initiative in this area and, specifically, its new support of work to empower young men and boys in rural areas in the South and Southwest. 

We could go on with plenty of other examples of foundations engaging on race. But we could also reel off a long list of funders who barely seem to have thought about this area. So the picture remains very mixed. 

What we can say for sure is that race is a crackling zone of ferment right now within the philanthrosphere. We'll be watching to see how things evolve.