On the Front Lines of Change

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By Michael J. McDermott

Philanthropy plays a key role in the fight for gender equality and bringing an end to structural racism. As Nonprofit HR’s “2021 Nonprofit Diversity Practices” report points out, these issues challenge every corner of society, including the nonprofit sector.

Since philanthropy’s raison d’etre is to address gaps in societal needs, the report suggests that nonprofit leaders reflect on their practices in this area and take action to step up their game. They are doing just that. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, 63 percent of North American nonprofit organizations have made adjustments to prioritize diversity objectives and/or initiatives, and senior leadership staff are spearheading 81 percent of those efforts, the report found. Forty-four percent now have a formal diversity statement, the same percentage address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their overall strategic plan, and 43 percent explicitly state “diversity,” “equity,” or “inclusion” as a core organizational value.

While philanthropy can and should carve out new pathways toward gender equality and against structural racism and pursue radical change at a deeper level, it cannot do this work alone. “It is crucial that philanthropy leads in fighting for gender and racial justice,” says Latanya Mapp Frett, president and CEO of Global Fund for Women, the leading funder of gender justice organizations, initiatives, and movements worldwide for more than 30 years. “However, all sectors must be involved in this work. We are all stronger when we work together.”

That is why Global Fund for Women partners with many different sectors, including governments and multilaterals, to bring funding to local movements and activists fighting for change on the frontlines. The organization was started with the belief that women’s human rights are essential to social, economic, and political change around the world.

“Our founders knew that by trusting local partners to drive solutions in their own communities, change would happen,” Mapp Frett says. “They were right. We get core, flexible funding and resources directly to feminist activists around the world. We don’t practice top-down philanthropy.” The approach is designed to shift power toward women, girls, and all marginalized people worldwide.

The organization also works to ensure that its internal practices are aligned with its core values. Internally, women and people of color comprise the majority of its executive team. “We work to have diverse representation and voices on our board of directors and staff, as well,” Mapp Frett says.

Efforts by Global Fund for Women to promote racial justice have been reinvigorated by recent events and the injustices faced by Black communities in the U.S. and globally, she adds. At the individual level, the nonprofit has developed several pathways for political education for staff; at the institutional level, it has issued a statement on racial and gender justice to underscore its commitment to fighting anti-Blackness.

Global Fund for Women has also hired a fellow to focus on the landscape of Black philanthropy in the U.S. and held several all-staff workshops. Sector-wide, it has developed a joint statement with other funders, published op-eds about racism in the nonprofit sector, and spoken on racial justice in many different forums.

Added Urgency Due to the Pandemic

Members of the philanthropic space have a duty to play a leadership role in fighting for gender equality and to end structural racism, says Gregory Johnson, managing director of The Rockefeller Foundation’s U.S. Equity and Economic Opportunity Initiative. In fact, their efforts are needed more than ever.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issues facing women and people of color in the U.S., Johnson says. A report by the Center for American Progress cites U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that the number of women who left the labor force last September was four times greater than the number of men. Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous women have been particularly hard-hit.

“Black, Brown, and Latinx communities continue to face higher cases [of COVID-19], higher death rates, and higher unemployment due to the virus,” Johnson says. “These same communities are also being left out of our nation’s recovery planning.”

Philanthropic leaders have the decision-making power and resources available to advance equity for low-wage workers, women, and people of color, Johnson says. “The only way we can help eliminate barriers to access to capital, credit, and other resources is through public and private investments and collaboration with local government, businesses, faith-based organizations, and nonprofits,” he adds.

Overcoming Entrenched Barriers

In the face of well-entrenched barriers to meaningful gender equality and the stubborn persistence of unconscious bias, The Rockefeller Foundation employs two main tactics to further the achievement of real results and lasting change. First, it channels its resources and expertise into a finite set of endeavors to ensure measurable and meaningful impact and consequential outcomes. “Secondly, we always listen to and engage with the communities we are working to support,” Johnson says. “Women and people of color must drive decision-making in the fight against inequality.”

He points to The Rockefeller Foundation Opportunity Collective (ROC), launched last summer, as an example of those efforts. With $12 million pledged to a collective of government, business, faith-based, and nonprofit partners, ROC is catalyzing public and private sector investment in 12 cities to protect communities from displacement and eliminate barriers to financial resources. At every step of the way, the foundation has engaged in discussion with local leaders and community members around what would benefit them most. “Listening to the community means truly understanding their needs and addressing them for the long term,” Johnson says.

Reform at a Deeper Level

As important as the various initiatives many nonprofits are embracing may be, Darren Walker, president at the Ford Foundation, believes philanthropy “needs a rethink” and has stated so publicly. He envisions an entirely new framework for philanthropy to meet the challenges of gender equality and structural racism. While acknowledging all the good philanthropy has accomplished through generous acts of charity, Walker says “it is no secret” that philanthropy is both a product and a beneficiary of an economic system that needs reform.

“2020 forced us to see with new eyes just how stark inequality is in this country and around the world,” he says. “And coming out of this pandemic, the gap between the staggeringly wealthy and the poor continues to grow. To move from generosity to justice, we need to focus our giving to address the root causes of inequality.” Noting that inequality is the antithesis of democracy, he adds that ending it is at the heart of everything the foundation does across platforms, programs, and regions.

The past two years have been particularly challenging for many nonprofits, but “unprecedented times call for extraordinary solutions,” Walker says. Last year, the Ford Foundation became the first foundation ever to issue a “social” bond on the U.S. taxable corporate bond market, earmarking the proceeds to ensure nonprofits serving the world’s most vulnerable communities could continue to carry on their important work. Among the beneficiaries are racial justice and civil rights organizations addressing systemic inequality and the Black Feminist Fund. The Ford Foundation has also committed $420 million over the next five years to combat gender inequality around the world.

Getting the Message Out

As philanthropic organizations step up to meet the challenges of gender equality and structural racism, they are letting donors, potential donors, and staff know about their efforts in various ways. For example, along with the political education and workshops it offers to staffers, Global Fund for Women uses its website, e-newsletter, and social media channels to communicate its strategies, goals, and values to other constituencies.

After the murder of George Floyd, Concern Worldwide US, whose mission is to end extreme poverty, turned to its staff for direction on the collective actions it should take. That led to it hosting numerous educational town halls, engaging a consultant, and creating a new strategic plan with the goal of becoming more diverse and inclusive. That goal is supported by required objectives and strategic actions built into the KPIs of all departments.

“We often take opportunities to share with our donors when these issues intersect,” says Colleen Kelly, CEO at Concern Worldwide US. “For example, in 2020 we announced Concern Worldwide US would celebrate Juneteenth as a paid holiday, so we let our donors know why and what they could do to honor the day.”

Whatever approach a philanthropic organization chooses to address these challenges, it is critical to balance measurable and more opaque elements, suggests Adrienne Karecki, chief development and marketing officer at Mercy Corps, whose mission is to alleviate suffering, poverty, and oppression by helping people build secure, productive, and just communities.

Metrics are important to measure progress, while setting goals — like increasing the percentage of under-represented groups within leadership bodies — is critical to holding organizations accountable, Karecki says. “At the same time, dismantling discriminatory systems is more complex than the things we can measure easily, and it doesn’t happen overnight,” she adds. “Changing culture and creating a culture of belonging cannot be easily measured. Leaders need to be comfortable pursuing initiatives that don’t necessarily have tangible metrics.”


DEI Best Practices for Nonprofit Leaders

  •     Start at the top. Leadership must embrace the nonprofit’s goals in fighting for gender equality and ending structural racism to set the tone for the entire organization.
  •     Form an inclusion panel (as diverse as possible) consisting of a dedicated group of influential leaders one or two levels below the CEO.
  •     Celebrate employee differences by inviting them to share those differences in the workplace.
  •     Identify opportunities for improvement in areas like advancement opportunity, salary parity, and use of imagery and language in fundraising and other materials.
  •     Provide training and guidance for staff and encourage them to get involved.
  •     Set goals and use KPIs to measure progress where possible.
  •     Find additional resources and useful information at the National Council of Nonprofits DEI website.




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