Through an agreement with UK-based Alliance magazine, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles about global philanthropy.

From Diversity to Representation — A Road Map for Foundations

From Diversity to Representation — A Road Map for Foundations

There are at least two good reasons why foundation boards and senior management should be representative of the communities they serve. First, truly representative boards and management have a wider range of experience and produce a greater variety of viewpoints, which in turn arguably improves decision–making and problem-solving. Second, philanthropic organizations usually champion values such as equality and fairness, but the reputation of the sector in which they operate will surely be weakened if these values are not reflected in the organizations that espouse them.

If the case for representative boards in the philanthropic sector seems clear, where do we go from here? The first thing to note is that the needle has begun to move on this issue and there is growing momentum to do truly do something about it.

Some excellent work has already been done by the likes of D5 in the U.S. and by the European Foundation Center's Diversity, Migration and Integration Interest Group (DMIIG), while in the UK the Ariadne community is currently looking at representation vis-a-vis the boards and senior management of UK grantmaking organizations with an eye to developing an initiative involving interested foundations. 

Progress, however, has been slow, and the road not always smooth. For one thing, conventional foundation legacies and practices can be a significant barrier.

The emphasis on executive experience, for example, more often than not eliminates those able to bring first-hand experience with and knowledge of the communities in which foundations often work. Recruitment criteria tend to emphasize management or governance experience, which leads to selection from the usual suspects, with "unusual" candidates who may have the requisite competence but not necessarily the contacts or experience being screened out.

Regulatory guidelines also give weight to certain aspects of a trustee's duties (e.g., fiduciary responsibilities), which further helps to solidify an already risk-averse selection mindset.

Nor is unconscious bias addressed as boldly as it should be. Even people with the best of intentions tend to recruit in their own image. This is very apparent if we consider the board composition of foundations in the UK.

Between 2005 and 2015, almost 30 percent of the registered grantmaking trusts in England and Wales had men-only boards. By way of comparison, in 2014 just 8 percent of FTSE 250 companies and 3.6 percent of S&P 500 companies had men-only boards, according to Factary, a research and fundraising consultancy. 

So, what insights can we offer to organizations wanting to address the issue of representation at the senior level in the philanthropic sector? For starters, how about these:

  • Change takes time. A five-year plan is the minimum that should be considered.
  • Funder networks can provide support for a program designed to work with a small group of foundations as they go through the process of diversifying their boards and (later) sharing their experiences with others. This would help to de-risk the approach and encourage others to follow suit.
  • Senior-level champions are needed to create and maintain momentum.
  • Talent pipelines need to be fostered. If they aren't, it is an easy fall-back for recruiters to say there are no suitable candidates. Internships, mentoring, secondment, and skills-swap schemes can be incorporated into the operational activities of larger, more progressive funders willing to model forward-looking practices.
  • Approaches will vary. The right and moral case will resonate with some, but to be successful the arguments in favor also need to reach those who are yet to be convinced and should span both the cognitive and emotional.
  • Change will not happen automatically. A core group of committed foundations needs to set aside dedicated time and resources to make it happen.  

As the space for progressive values continues to shrink, it is up to the philanthropic sector to do more to uphold those values. What better way for foundations to do this than by making sure its ideals are reflected in the composition of their senior management teams and boards?  

Jenny Oppenheimer is UK coordinator of Ariadne, the European human rights funders network. Email