Chattanooga's Philanthropic Ecosystem Lacks Diversity, Report Finds

In order to more effectively address pressing social issues, foundations, nonprofits, and other stakeholders in the Chattanooga area must do more to increase the racial diversity of their boards and staffs, a report from Chattanooga Organized for Action argues.

The report, Chattanooga Next: Moving Beyond Good Intentions (20 pages, PDF), found that of the hundred and forty-nine board members serving high-impact organizations involved in designing, implementing, and evaluating public policy in Chattanooga, 82 percent were white, as was the overwhelming majority of staff of those organizations. The study also criticizes "Chattanooga Way" — a public-private coalition of foundations, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and local government working to address community challenges — as an insular group of powerful, mostly unelected actors with inordinate influence in deciding who gets what, when, and how.

Written by Tennessee State University assistant professor Ken Chilton, the report suggests that the lack of inclusion among the stakeholders who drive local policy has contributed to the failure of previous plans to improve the lives of Chattanooga residents living in poverty. Moreover, while Hamilton County is home to a vibrant nonprofit sector, poorer residents of the community have yet to benefit from the redevelopment of the city — which itself has been supported by policies driven largely by foundation investments. Indeed, many residents face systemic exclusion from decision-making processes that affect them and, as a result, continue to struggle with limited economic opportunities.

Tia Capps, communications director for business accelerator Co.Lab, one of the organizations named in the report, told the Times Free Press that diversity in local decision making is imperative for innovation to occur. "You have to have people who can identify problems to solve," said Capps. "So if you are working with a set of people who come from a uniform cultural and socioeconomic background, you really aren't empowering people to tackle all the problems that are out there. Different people with different cultural upbringings can identify different problems to solve."

"COA challenges nonprofits and foundations in Chattanooga to more proactively identify and train new community leaders for civic service. Efforts to make Chattanooga’s economy more inclusive are heavily dependent upon decisions made in downtown boardrooms," the report concludes. "New perspectives and lenses will contribute to better policies that are more democratic, authentic, and responsive."

"Chattanooga Next: Moving Beyond Good Intentions." Chattanooga Organized for Action Report 08/06/2016. Joan McClane. "Chattanooga Activists Call for More Diversity in Local Philanthropy." Times Free Press 08/06/2016.