DEI Work is Governance Work

Jim Canales and Barbara Hostetter

As with many of our foundation peers, the Barr Foundation has been grappling with what 2020 demands of us. This year has brought a global pandemic with devastating health and economic impacts as well as the fraying of civil discourse and public trust in government and democracy. Simultaneously, our country is facing a long overdue national reckoning with systemic racism and anti-Blackness. At Barr, this is all leading us to ask ourselves some fundamental questions: How do we best live out our values? How do we advance our philanthropic mission in this context? In order to meet this moment, what needs to change in what we do and how we do it?

These questions have been at the center of each of the four (virtual) trustee meetings we have held since mid-March. And our discussions have led us to affirm three principles to guide Barr’s work at this moment and for the years ahead:

  • We must be unequivocal about our foundation’s commitment to racial equity.
  • We must view this as a long-term commitment.
  • We must expand our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) with a focus on anti-racism.

It was also clear to us that Barr will need to significantly expand our grantmaking in the years ahead — both through augmented investments in our core programs and to support new efforts that explicitly advance racial equity.

Since we published on Barr’s blog about these commitments, several of our foundation peers asked what it took for our board to embrace these directions. It’s an important question because, for our board to get to the point of being able to make these decisions, we need to look back to “the before times,” before 2020, and to what, for us has been an intentional journey many years in the making. As the two of us — partners as a board chair and a foundation president — reflect on that journey, and on the critical conditions that have enabled our progress, we share three lessons that may be useful to others as well:

First, ensure your board reflects diversity of voices, perspectives, and life experiences.

In philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, we often focus our discussions about board diversity on demographic characteristics, and those are absolutely essential. Indeed for Barr, the decision to broaden our board beyond its co-founders was linked to an express commitment to greater diversity of race, ethnicity, and gender.

We are still a small board today, with seven directors, three of whom are family members. Our board today consists of a majority of women and 43% people of color. But beyond that, our trustees bring varied life experiences and perspectives to our deliberations, from trustees who have worked directly on anti-gang violence initiatives to leading a community development corporation focused on Latino communities, to chairing a city-wide racial equity fund.

These diverse backgrounds and networks enrich board deliberations and keep us grounded in the opportunities, needs, and concerns within the varied communities we aim to support. It also means our board members bring a certain credibility, authority, and voice that can speak directly to this moment we are in. As one tangible illustration, we share this heartfelt and powerful letter by one of Barr’s trustees, Lee Pelton, following the murder of George Floyd.

Importantly, we have also been intentional about building a board whose members actually don’t share a deep history together. We recognize that, while pre-existing relationships can make board members feel more comfortable with each other more quickly, they can also lead to insular thinking and even inhibit open dialogue, where new ideas and expansiveness should be the goals.

Second, don’t delegate diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

For over two years now, our organization has been on a journey to more deeply understand the ways in which diversity, equity, and inclusion plays out in our work, both in regard to our internal culture and our grantmaking strategies and priorities. Over this time, we have developed shared vocabulary, assessed our intercultural competencies (both individually and as an organization), deepened our understanding of structural racism and anti-Blackness and how they manifest in our society (and in institutions like ours), and applied our learning to various facets of our work.

At every step of this journey, the two of us have been personally engaged. As president, Jim has served as an active member of Barr’s internal DEI working group, and as board chair, Barbara has participated in all of our trainings, retreats, and all-staff work sessions. We have done this not only because we seek to learn and grow ourselves, but because we believe this work simply does not work when it is treated as something for the staff to do on their own, and for leadership merely to be informed about and affirm. Leadership’s active sponsorship of and direct engagement with this work is vital and necessary. It demonstrates institutional buy-in and commitment, and it leads to stronger relationships, more open discussions, and a better workplace.

While proud of our progress, we have much more to learn and to do. And our trustees know that this continuing, shared work is the essential work for our institution to undertake at this time.

Third, commit to authenticity, vulnerability, and to engaging in challenging and uncomfortable conversations.

One of the early findings in our work on DEI was that our “culture of politeness” was a barrier to open, honest, and difficult — but essential — conversations. The power dynamics of the two of us being in these discussions didn’t make it any easier.

To our staff’s credit, they did not shy away from pushing these harder conversations — even with us in the room. And I hope we too played a role by demonstrating curiosity, probing for more detail when warranted, and allowing our own vulnerability and uncertainty to be expressed and seen by all. As challenging and difficult as some of the discussions have been, we are becoming a better organization because of them.

Engaging in DEI as a foundation requires that our staff and board confront their own privilege, and interrogate the power we hold as gatekeepers to the foundation’s resources. We also must consider what organizational practices may work against our commitments to equity. Requiring grant seekers to have a minimum annual budget size as a precondition for support is one example of the types of practices we are taking a close look at. And all of this is just a start, as we explore who benefits and who is marginalized by our grantmaking, and by our choices of vendors, consultants, or researchers.

We share these reflections in an effort to encourage others to do the same. There is certainly much for all of us to learn from each other, and there is a great deal of work still to be done.

What is eminently clear to us, however, is that absent the active engagement of foundation board members and leadership in DEI work, change will not take hold in our institutions. Let’s be sure to seize this moment to make it otherwise.