Continuing Embrace of Equity

Bonfils-Stanton’s Journey

Eddie Torres and Gary Steuer

I am honored to have this opportunity to interview Gary Steuer, president and CEO of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation. Gary is a respected colleague, a member of Grantmakers in the Arts’ board of directors, and co-chair of the GIA Denver Conference Planning Committee for the upcoming annual conference. I am pleased to note that Bonfils-Stanton has been embracing equity in their support of Denver’s nonprofit community, including its arts organizations.

Eddie Torres Gary, I’d like to start with understanding the impact of your embrace of equity thus far. Can you share with us some significant milestones?

Gary Steuer I’ll start with the Livingston Fellowship Program, which provides advanced learning opportunities to Colorado’s promising nonprofit leaders. During the first ten years of the program, about 20 percent of our fellows were leaders of color. Now, at least half of our fellows are leaders of color.

When it comes to our grantmaking, we’ve gone from 2 percent of our grantees being organizations of color (and historically marginalized communities) to over 13 percent within the past five years. But Denver is nearly half people of color. So, this is just the beginning.

ET That is considerable progress over ten years. Let’s establish context. Tell us about Bonfils-Stanton.

GS Bonfils-Stanton Foundation is typical of GIA’s members. As a private foundation, we were initially chaired by our founder, Ed Stanton, who upon his passing was succeeded by his brother Robert, but we have not had any family involvement since Robert passed in 2000. We have a local geographic focus and a staff of five. In 2018, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation awarded fifty-five grants totaling $3,272,000.

ET Private foundations make up a significant portion of GIA’s membership, and each are at quite different places in their racial equity journeys. Knowing this, what was the context in which you began to address issues of equity in your grantmaking?

GS Bonfils-Stanton’s funding was fairly traditional when I arrived. We funded larger institutions, human services, medical research, education, scholarships in private schools. Just before I arrived, the board had made the decision to focus 100 percent of our grantmaking on arts and culture. The foundation’s response to diversity considerations was primarily to invest in a large institution’s capacity to serve communities of color. Organizations led by the community members that these efforts sought to serve were regarded as potential partners to large institutions. We were funding the three leading organizations of color in the community but at relatively low levels, and our giving did not extend beyond these groups. These practices were engaged with the best of intentions. The foundation was not aware it was reinforcing inequities; it was just following original donor intent and historical giving practices, which was rooted in the unconscious biases of our original benefactor’s class and era.

When I came on as president in 2013, I began to explore how we could not only implement our move to focus on arts and culture but also how we could support creative self-expression most equitably.

One of the first things I did was begin to work with the board to develop buy-in. This included cultivating new board members who were excited by the potential of embracing equity. We expanded from a board of seven to a board of nine that now includes four people of color. Prior to my arrival the board had not had a person of color serving in its history. This has already proven to be a tremendously impactful decision as we move into the next chapter of the foundation’s history.

Early on in my tenure, we commissioned an outside assessment of the foundation’s work, which revealed racial and other disparities in our fellowship and grant programs. These were fairly commonly found funding inequities. But nonetheless, it was important to have data to help solidify the need for change. This led to the board engaging in deep conversations about equity.

In April 2017, we had a board retreat that included a deep-dive discussion on equity. In preparing for the discussion, we realized why people so often frame equity as part of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Some board members understood diversity and inclusion but were concerned that this equity work signaled an abandonment of long-standing investments and relationships. We engaged a facilitator who, recognizing these concerns, adopted the DEI terminology and framed the discussion in terms of curb cuts, which were first employed in Colorado Springs. Curb cuts were developed to include people with disabilities. But they helped the broader population as well. We framed diversity, equity, and inclusion in the same vein. This allowed us to enter this space gently, without immediate dismissal. Coincidentally, at the same time, our long-standing board chair took on new opportunities and needed to resign.

Bonfils-Stanton’s new board chair had served on the board of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) as it grappled with how to adjust its funding distribution toward equity. He had also chaired the Denver Botanic Gardens board as it began to advance equity in its operations. Initially encouraged by the Gardens, the foundation engaged Donna Walker-Kuhne as a consultant to assess the cultural community’s audience diversity efforts, and specifically the diversity and inclusion work of Denver’s major cultural institutions. The Denver Botanic Gardens began major changes in their engagement in response to these findings, as did the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (on which board our board chair now serves as well). Bonfils-Stanton’s new board chair helped me to accelerate the pace of change. Our next board retreat focused entirely on racial equity and served as a part of a deeper process that included reading material like Helicon Collaborative’s research and National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy reports.

I should also add that Donna’s work led to the creation of what is now called the Arts & Culture EDI Leadership Council with our support, encouragement, and participation. This group, which includes leaders from organizations of color and the larger white organizations looking to advance their DEI work, has been an important vehicle for addressing this work in a collective way. It also led to the group itself creating a new Diversity in the Arts (DITA) internship program that BSF funded, designed to address the lack of staff diversity in our arts community.

Following the 2018 retreat, we formed a board DEI committee, which worked to develop an equity value statement that was integrated into a new mission, vision, and values document. This document, which was widely shared, now underpins all our work.

It was in preparing background materials for the retreat that we uncovered that Bonfils-Stanton had gone from having 2 percent of our funding portfolio going to organizations of color (and historically marginalized communities) to over 13 percent without any formal change to our practice — only our priorities changed. We also realized we’d modified the Livingston Fellows program from about 20 percent leaders of color to at least half leaders of color.

At Bonfils-Stanton’s 2018 Celebration of Leadership Rev. Starsky D. Wilson, president & CEO, Deaconess Foundation, presented the keynote speech focused on racial equity, the arts, and social justice. Photo by Evan Semón Photography.

ET What decisions did you make to achieve these changes?

GS For the Livingston program, we initially broadened the pool of nominators so that they were more diverse. We eventually opened the nominating process so that it became a public nomination process. We also rotated the selection panel members and ensured a higher proportion of people of color on the selection panel. We began including leaders of smaller organizations, recognizing that because of inequity and bias, many of our most promising leaders of color are leading very small organizations. With all good intentions, the program had excluded their leaders out of concern that they would not have the time to devote to the required rigorous leadership advancement work and that their participation might in fact harm the organization. Changing the makeup of the fellows also changed the nature of the work they were doing with one another, resulting in much deeper group conversations around equity. I should also add that the fellows also include arts leaders, so as the fellow cohort became more diverse, and conversations around equity were embraced, this also began to change the priorities and actions of many of our arts leaders.

In our arts grantmaking, without creating any formal new program, we made incremental changes. We added several new grantees of color and also enhanced our support of groups we had long supported. For example, we had been supporting Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, our leading African American dance company, at a level of $20,000 annually. To help them build their institutional capacity, we increased their support 400 percent to $80,000 a year, allowing them to strengthen their development and marketing functions and also hire their first ever full-time director for their school, leading to increased earned and contributed revenue. At the conclusion of the three-year period, rather than returning them to the “normal” level of $20,000, we established a “new normal” of $50,000.

ET These are strong results from small changes; many would be quite satisfied with these results.

GS But we also discussed how in our grantmaking we were now funding the larger organizations of color (even though by art world standards they were all still on the smaller size). While we were grateful for our practice to be moving in the right direction, we had to ask ourselves if this change was enough.

As we discussed ways to better serve our diverse communities, we realized we should just start with simply listening to them. We also realized that there were dozens of very small arts organizations in communities of color that we had never supported and did not even have any communication with. We identified thirty organizations that were led by and serving people of color or historically marginalized communities (disability, LGBTQ) that had never applied to us (likely due to their perception of us as disengaged from their communities). We engaged a facilitator to lead listening sessions and prepare a report synthesizing the findings.

Among the things we learned: Many of these groups struggled with access to appropriate affordable space to perform. They were largely volunteer run but that did not mean they were “emerging.” Most had been around for decades. They really wanted help building their capacity, and even seemingly small things were of enormous value — a new website, help with PR, ticketing, even just a vehicle for communicating and sharing with one another. We had also not historically supported these smaller groups because we had minimum grant sizes that were not necessarily appropriate to their budget size or need.

ET What’s next for Bonfils-Stanton Foundation?

GS We had another board retreat this past April focused on both equity and impact investing. Following this meeting, which was informed by what we learned from the listening sessions and other research, including the development of an equity-based “theory of change,” we recommended some specific changes to our grantmaking practices that will extend and deepen our progress toward equity. At our July 2019 board meeting the board approved these changes. Here are some examples of what we will be doing: We realized that without formal intent around capital funding, we had a practice of periodically supporting our largest organizations (which we do not give operating support) with significant multiyear capital grants. Collectively this had added up to a third of our grantmaking capacity, perpetuating inequity by concentrated support in our largest organizations with the greatest access to other philanthropy. In the future we will target capital support to groups of color and those serving other traditionally under-represented communities. Over time this will free up significant resources toward more equitable grantmaking. We also realize we fund a large cohort of smaller, Eurocentric classical music-based organizations. Our goal will be to cut the funding directed to this cohort by 50 percent, either by paring grant amounts or the number of groups supported, or a combination of both. We will look for ways (likely with partners) to invest in systemic solutions for the sort of smaller groups we listened to. This could include investing in affordable facilities for their benefit, capacity building, and some sort of deeper collective investment in a cohort of the most important of these groups. In the arts education space, which we historically have not supported, we are exploring investing in a collective effort to address deep inequity in engagement of young people of color in access to music education in school. Our excellent youth classical/choral music organizations are not reflective of the racial makeup of our community, so we are working with all of them, as well as our local El Sistema program, to create a solution that begins to remove inequity from the system. Given our original founder’s deep love of classical music, this is a way to both honor donor intent and address our equity objectives. We also will look at capping our maximum general operating support amount at a level that will both in the short term and over time free up some support to be redirected to equity efforts.

On the fellowship front, we will continue to advance equity by increasing the fellowship award from $25,000 to $35,000, which will disproportionally impact those from smaller organizations, more likely to be POC, with more limited access to other professional development resources. We will also add an organizational capacity grant to their organizations, on a sliding scale based on budget size, to help offset the impact on the organization of the fellow’s participation in the program.

And while on the impact investing front we are still at an earlier stage of work, we’re eager to see how our investment portfolio, which is 95 percent of our resources, can help communities of color. Can we incorporate basic ESG (environmental, social, and governance) screening into our investments? Can we prioritize equity in the fund managers we choose? Can we find a way to do more PRIs (program-related investments) or investment in affordable housing opportunities that might benefit the arts and artists, organizations, and communities of color? An ad-hoc committee of the board is now exploring these questions.

ET As a foundation president who has been leading equity work from a position of leadership in your organization, what advice would you give to colleagues who are looking to begin addressing issues of racial equity in their own work?

GS You must get ownership from your board of directors. Not everyone understands how racism manifests itself systemically. Many of us assume you’re talking about interpersonal racial bigotry. This may be why they are comfortable talking about diversity and inclusion. Be patient but persistent. This is a long game. Board management is essential, especially if you’re a CEO. You can only advance at the pace that your board is comfortable with, and you are dealing with historical relationships and donor intent as well. You need to be satisfied with incremental progress, as opposed to radical immediate change.

When it comes to interacting with your applicants, take a broad view of organizations. Try to build strong, honest relationships with grantees. Work to break down the power differential between the funder and the applicant. Frankly that can be a problem when you and your staff are not reflective of the racial profile of the community and the groups you are serving. So, your commitment to understanding and undoing racism and inequity needs to be deep and ongoing.

And I know that this sounds basic, but it’s true: give multiyear general operating support. Provide risk capital to support both artistic and administrative/operating risk. This is necessary so that new efforts can be tried without their failure harming the organization so seriously that they can’t recover. And we need to stop looking at our grant size as a percent of operating budget as a yardstick.

ET Gary, it has been inspiring hearing of your successes and of your work to come.

GS We’re grateful to have the GIA community to share it with.