Real Change: How This Grantmaker Got Serious About Diversity

After years of paying lip service to the concepts of diversity and inclusion, some charities have completely restructured their operations—going well beyond the tokenism that has angered and alienated minority communities for years.

One such organization is Dance/USA, a Washington organization that, among other things, administers a grantmaking program to help member dance companies engage and build their audiences. With funds from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Dance/USA distributes more than $1 million to 20 or more recipient organizations in a grant cycle lasting 30 months.

In 2013, the organization adopted new core values of equity, inclusion and diversity, but “we had a predominantly white membership, and I was not OK with that,” says Amy Fitterer, Dance/USA’s executive director since 2011.

To restructure the organization’s grantmaking, Ms. Fitterer worked with Suzanne Callahan, a Washington consultant who helps administer the program.

They’ve made impressive gains in one grant cycle. “When I was hired, the board was over 80 percent white, and now that has changed substantially and will continue to change,” says Ms. Fitterer. “Internally, we currently have 13 full- and part-time staff members. Almost half identify as descended from African, Latino or Latina, Asian, Arab and/or Native American communities.”

The women’s first step: having numerous conversations with arts groups nationwide.

“I had lots of conversations seeking to build trust—a trust that is real and not tokenism,” Ms. Fitterer recalls.

The women also examined why minority dance groups, including people with disabilities and those from lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender groups, had not applied for funds in the past.

“There is a Catch-22 for minority arts groups,” Ms. Callahan says. “You have to be a certain size to be eligible, and you must have paid staff.” Such requirements, in addition to tax-exempt status and a dues-paying membership in Dance/USA, she says, had the effect of shutting out smaller organizations and groups that were not members.

The women decided to remove the membership requirement, lower the budget threshold, and streamline the grant-seeking process. Now, instead of a lengthy grant proposal, arts organizations write a two-page letter of inquiry. Then, those who are invited to apply complete a longer proposal.

Another change was made to the panel of people who determine which organizations get grants. Instead of having the occasional African American serve on the panel, more than half of the panel of eight are people of color. 

And to insure a more level playing field, Dance/USA offers applicants the chance to attend town meetings about the grants, webinars about its grantmaking guidelines, proposal coaching, and conversations with a program manager.

Meanwhile, “we also offer free racial equity training,” Ms. Fitterer says. “Staff has been through equity and inclusion training, and so has our board—and more than once. It is not something you do just once.”

She adds: “You have to keep exercising these muscles.”