Diversity, equity and inclusion have been foremost in the minds of people who work in Michigan’s nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.
An annual conference hosted by the Council of Michigan Foundations last week was intentionally designed to kick off conversations throughout the year about what equity is and what it means to professionals working in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, said Kyle Caldwell, the group’s president and CEO.
Members of the conference’s Planning Committee from the Grand Rapids area “help us to put the theme together every year and they really felt it was an important time and an important topic for philanthropy to engage in,” Caldwell said. “A lot of our members are engaged in thinking about equity, diversity and inclusion.
“We’re seeing in society that equity is a topic and issue that communities are struggling with. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are part of what philanthropy in Michigan has been exploring for almost a decade now. Instead of it just being a program or issue, we wanted to put it out in front.”
The “Equity. Partnership. Impact.” theme of the Council’s 47th annual conference offered a way for professionals involved in philanthropy to continue the discussions about equity and what it means to them.
Those discussions are important for the sector to prepare for changing demographics. For example, studies from the Battle Creek-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation show that by 2050 the racial and ethnic makeup of the state and the country will look much different than it does now, with African American and Hispanic populations being in the majority. During a recent gathering of the Economic Club of Grand Rapids, Juan Olivarez, the distinguished scholar in residence for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Grand Valley State University Johnson Center for Philanthropy, organized a program about inclusive growth that focused on these changing demographics.
The way in which the philanthropic sector embraces these changes will be very important, said Diana Sieger, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, who attended that presentation.
As is the case with the majority of community foundations and nonprofits throughout Michigan, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation started conversations about these changes several years ago. Sieger said GRCF has funds that have been established to focus on the LGBTQ and African American communities, and the organization has been working with them and others, such as the Latinx community, on issues of philanthropy.
“There’s been a great deal of discussion around identity-based philanthropy,” Sieger said. “The real focus of all types of foundations is really trying to address these issues of equity and removing the barriers to economic and racial equity. We need to continue to have good support in our community so we all can have access to all the opportunities available.”
The risks are very high if the necessary conversations and intentional work to level the playing field for all Michigan residents doesn’t happen, said Mike Goorhouse, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area.
“If you point to the future, when you say the Caucasian population is going to be less than 50 percent, it’s not about the future,” Goorhouse said. “There are people today who aren’t experiencing community in the way they should or could. The risk is for everyone who’s not getting an equitable chance for a thriving life. The risk is there for all of those people today whose lives aren’t what they could or should be if we don’t remove barriers.”
To that end, Sieger pointed to the growing income gap across the country. According to Sieger, the question remains: “How can we work to provide pathways to opportunity and address racial disparities that impact education, employment and housing?”
“One of the things we’re doing is being much more intentional in strengthening and working with our community partners,” she said. “How can we be helpful in lifting up the voices of people in our community who are affected by these conditions?”
Conference planners were genuinely curious about what equity means to their peers and colleagues and how equity is filtering out in the philanthropic sector, Caldwell said. About 300 grant-making organizations in Michigan are members of the Council of Michigan Foundations.
“We’re not using (this conference) as an opportunity to preach or hold ourselves up as some pinnacle of equity,” he said. “What we would say is our community of philanthropy is trying to figure out what equity means to them and how we can practice it in a way that creates equity for all.”
People who work within the philanthropic sector have been intentionally looking at all areas of their efforts through an equity lens, including ensuring that their staff and board members better reflect what their communities really look like.
“The data shows that foundation boards and leadership don’t reflect the communities that they serve,” Goorhouse said.
Although his foundation usually brings in one to two new board members each year, he said there are times when he wishes it could happen even faster. At the same time, it’s “hard to rush that because you want to be intentional and you have to continue to make progress,” he said.
“The representation and voices in the room matter and that includes staff and members of committees,” Goorhouse said.
This also means members of the Youth Advisory Councils that became part of the structure in the state’s community foundations in 1991 as part of a statewide W. K. Kellogg Foundation initiative. Among the requirements within the initiative, members of each Youth Advisory Council had to be at least 50 percent under age 21.
Goorhouse said the Holland/Zeeland Youth Advisory Council continues to be very reflective of the broad demographics of the communities it serves. He said it’s important to cultivate and bring these young people along so that they’ll be prepared to serve in other areas — including as board members — and sooner rather than later so the foundation can better reflect the community.
“We’re not just waiting for that group to move from age 18 to 53 to serve,” Goorhouse said. “We want to work with people of color and people from marginalized communities who we could engage now. We need to fill a pipeline with a boarder range of voices and we can’t just wait for that pipeline to come.”
In addition to being the philanthropic sector’s next generation of volunteers and leaders, this youth pipeline also will produce future generations of donors who are much more likely to give to causes and organizations that better reflect them and the way they want to make an impact.
Sieger said it’s important for people in philanthropy to be very intentional about getting the message in front of people. Foundations and others in philanthropy need to talk about how the sector cares deeply about their communities and is working in partnership with businesses and the public sector to make sure that equity lens is first and foremost.
“I think everyone’s at a different place and I don’t want to pretend that the entire field of philanthropy is in the same place on diversity, equity and inclusion work,” Goorhouse said. “There are some who still don’t see themselves engaged heavily in diversity and inclusion work. As an aggregate, they’re further along focusing on equity. It’s still a continuum. It’s good to see us tackling it.”
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