Diversity as a Family Affair

What value can diversity bring to the work of family foundations? First of all, diversity is now more interwoven into the fabric of our society, including our neighborhoods, education, business and media. Integrating diversity into many aspects of a family foundation’s work can result in more compelling grantmaking, particularly in responding effectively to demographic changes that nonprofit organizations face every day.

Diversity also holds the promise of helping family foundations highlight fresh voices in leadership positions, inspire new thinking, and gain insightful observations that strengthen a board’s vision.

When I am asked how family foundations can embrace diversity in their philanthropic work, the most obvious answer is for them to consider appointing board members that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve or issues they fund. And by diversity, I mean it in the broadest definition, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability, among other criteria.

However, I recognize that most family foundations are created by families—bound by their founders’ vision, mission, and charters, as well as linked by DNA. Most often, family foundations are small with boards typically composed of only family members and perhaps a close family friend.

If, for varied reasons, expansion of a board is not possible, there are other ways in which to invite diverse voices and ideas that can help family foundations pursue their mission with an eye toward becoming more responsive to diversity in their communities and the issues they fund.

One such idea is creating advisory committees composed of diverse leadership from the communities served that can inform and educate the family foundation about ways in which to respond effectively with their philanthropy. And perhaps in the future when a family considers expanding their foundation’s board, there would be a ready-made pool of candidates to consider, thanks to their experience with these advisory committees.

I recall an experience we had with an arts program funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation on whose board I currently serve. We had a grantmaking effort involving a group of small arts organizations with diverse backgrounds, and we funded each of them separately. We asked representatives of each of the five groups to meet together with us and advise us how to improve our grantmaking.

The leaders of these culturally diverse arts groups asked us to consider providing funding to acquire sound and light equipment that all the organizations could share, thereby creating an opportunity for more artists from many institutions to benefit from the grantmaking than if funds would have gone to just one organization.

This communal solution was one that our staff and board would never have considered on its own because we were using the funders’ conventional paradigm of funding individual groups. Thanks to the feedback we solicited from the arts leadership, it had an immediate positive effect on the diverse communities they serve. We found that if we met with one organization they would just talk about themselves and their programs. However, asking four to six nonprofit leaders to meet with us would bring forth all sorts of information and ideas about how to really make a difference in their communities. We could be involved in changing the community rather than just helping it.

This is but one example. I invite you to share your experiences in the comments section of this blog. Tell us how your family foundation has responded to the increasing diversity we see across the country and what steps you are taking to become more effective in your grantmaking. We have much to learn from your experiences and, most significantly, are eager to see how family foundations can play a role in promoting greater diversity in our field.


This post originally appeared on the D5 website. D5 is a five-year coalition to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in philanthropy. Learn more about their work here.