February 6, 2019
From the President

Who Is At The Table? A Look at Canadian Foundations and Diversity

Hilary Pearson

One of the questions that we think about at PFC is a fairly basic one: how does one give “well”?  The purpose of a foundation may seem a “simple” one:  to give money. But as many know who work in the foundation world, their job is much more than that. It’s to give money effectively.  More broadly, to support and promote community wellbeing, with money (and other resources) as the means to that end.

Experience and research point to the fact that giving well depends on information, which in turns depends on connection and communication.  This is more complicated than it sounds.  Communication within a foundation (among board and staff) is important but not sufficient; communication between a foundation and its grantees is also important but not sufficient. So, what makes communication more effective? A foundation that wants to give well today must think hard about whose voice is heard.  It must seek out and listen to diverse ideas and perspectives. And to attach priority to being thoughtfully inclusive in culture, policy and practice.

Canadians have only to look around to notice diversity, or differences among human beings. Differences, of race, ethnicity, age, gender religion, disability, sexual orientation, education and socio-economic status, etc, are everywhere. But it’s also true that those differences aren’t equally reflected and present in the decision-making about giving. How important is it for us in doing the work of philanthropy to acknowledge and include diverse perspectives?  How inclusive are the policies and practices of organized philanthropy? Can we learn from the experiences of peers who are finding ways to bring diverse voices to their board tables and to their decision-making around funding?

Diversity and Private Foundations

The family foundation world of course is characterized by many foundations started by donors and their families. A good many of these foundations, especially in early days, are governed by boards made up of their own families, with perhaps a couple of advisors and colleagues. This is certainly understandable. But it is a pattern that may have costs in terms of lack of diversity and lack of input from voices at the table who can provide “lived experience” on the issues that the foundation may be addressing. Much depends on mission. For those whose mission touches on community wellbeing, including social justice and poverty reduction, the question of how a foundation makes its decisions is critical to giving well. And we have seen from our current research that it is entirely possible for family foundations to focus effectively on the practice of diversity and inclusion.

In 2018, PFC launched an exploratory project to delve into the question of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in Canadian philanthropy. This parallels similar projects going on with philanthropy associations in the US, UK and New Zealand. We hoped that collecting data and sharing creative approaches to thinking about and practicing inclusion of diverse voices would be a valuable way for PFC members and others in the philanthropic community to begin the conversation. So, we began with a survey to get some information to give us a picture of the decision-makers within Canadian foundations. We asked foundation leaders (executive directors or board chairs) about who is sitting at PFC member foundation board tables, who supports those decision-makers, how they are recruited, and whether foundations are using any formal diversity and inclusion practices. In February 2019 we are sharing the report.

Here are Some of our Findings:

  • Most PFC foundation boards are made up of directors who are older (over 50) and generally white.
  • There are slightly more men than women on these boards. And typically, foundations are led more often by men than by women.
  • Staff members on the other hand are more female than male; they also have a slightly more diverse profile than the board members.
  • Recruitment to these boards is often informal and diversity criteria are not formally considered, although age and gender do play some role in balancing board composition.
  • Very few foundations have formal DEI policies
  • About half of foundation boards use committees. There is an opportunity to bring more diverse perspectives to boards though committees which can engage non-board members
  • A third of foundations do use an “equity lens” in their grantmaking already.

It seems that PFC foundations do not yet have the diversity of directors that would provide for views from those outside the immediate circle of the donor. Yet there are encouraging opportunities for creating more diversity in the discussion. This could be through engagement of other views on board committees, or more active recruitment directly on to boards, or more diverse staff recruitment.

Next Steps on the DEI Learning Journey

Our survey report is a first step in supporting a more informed dialogue about DEI and why it matters to think about policies and practices in philanthropic funding. PFC is committed to developing more opportunities for reflection that can guide foundations in moving forward with their DEI initiatives. We have investigated the practices and thinking around diversity and inclusion in philanthropy in the United States and the United Kingdom and have provided links to what we have found on our website. As part of our 2019 program, we will be offering activities with member foundations to unpack and explore diversity, equity and inclusion in practice, starting with storytelling by members who have started down this road to giving well.

Get Inspired

Watch PFC’s video from the 2017 Symposium Bringing Voices Inside the Foundation.

Read this Guide: From Words to Action A Practical Philanthropic Guide to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

This Grantcraft paper provides a practical approach on how to incorporate DEI into organizational practices. It comes from the US but can provide Canadian foundations with practical strategies on how to develop DEI policies and practices.

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