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As foundations reimagine themselves, they should give attention to DEI in operations

people sitting around a meeting room with their hands raised

Not every foundation has shifted toward a lens of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), but fortunately, many have. That said, there seems to be a glaring miss amidst all this DEI work, and that is with who gets to participate in it. Our anecdotal evidence and recent survey results reveal that DEI may be improving for most foundations on the programs side of the house, but less so on the operations side.

Last year, the Technology Affinity Group (TAG), a nonprofit organization that promotes the strategic use of technology to advance the goals of the philanthropic sector, found some troubling responses in its 2018 State of Philanthropy Tech survey of those who work in technology-related departments of philanthropic organizations. Forty percent of respondents acknowledged not having any DEI training, nearly 70 percent of IT departments have not been offered training on unconscious bias, and 51 percent of IT departments don’t have DEI programs in place.

Clearly, there is often more DEI training within program teams that are frequently deployed in diverse communities. But DEI training also needs to be emphasized for operations staff to ensure they can fully contribute potential solutions for those we serve.

Some organizations have recognized the lopsided approach and are working to bring balance. The Ford Foundation lives by the Rooney Rule, according to their chief of IT, David Roth. “The top three candidates in every recruitment process must reflect diversity,” Roth said. “And while Ford has done a good job of diversifying its staff in more traditionally thought-of ways—gender, race, ethnicity,” says Roth, “we are actively working to hire from the disability community. This aligns to our point of view that Ford must drive the disruption of inequality.”

The nation has witnessed the humiliation and distress at companies that ensues when a lack of diversity on a technology project leads to an AI or IT blunder. For example, an Apple Watch would not initially work on the skin of African Americans; a Microsoft Uber facial recognition system couldn’t recognize the faces of transgender people; and a Google Photos program erroneously identified black people as gorillas. Is philanthropy unwittingly incurring similar biases in its systems, processes and interfaces by not prioritizing DEI within its operations teams?

Lacking diverse voices at the table who are representative of those that foundations serve can be detrimental, and the consequences of unconscious bias are real. When the people designing systems and solutions or providing vital support unknowingly bring biases to their everyday work, our efforts in philanthropy are negatively impacted. While these operational biases are more subtle, they are also more structural, and therefore, perhaps, even more difficult to dismantle, increasing the importance of addressing them.

Expanding the DEI agenda

By bringing diversity to IT and other operations units, we can close the loop on a vital process many foundations began years ago: ensuring that leadership and staff reflect the communities with which they are partnering in the pursuit of positive societal change. Ultimately, foundations must recognize that the house cannot be divided. When it is, the desired impacts you might envision are at risk. Our work is centered on improving lives and communities. And it’s time for our organizations to live this commitment inside and out with integrity, respect and the innovative mindset that can only come through diverse perspectives.

Reprinted from Inside Philanthropy.


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  • Lisa Avila says:

    April 7, 2023 7:14 pm

    We have been in existant since 1937. More than ever we are serving a community that is very diverse. The biggest challenge we face is gaining the trust and winning over a community in which English is a second language. Communication is so important to learning how we can meet the current needs of our population. Very few of our members do speak a second language. I personally believe we can no longer fall behind in reaching our community. They need to understand us and we definitely need to understand them. The first language we learn is the one where our emotions and empathy lie. If we make the effort to meet them half way and learn basic Spanish or Chinese we can better learn how to serve them. Relavance is important to this organization to continue on with their vital work.

  • Angela Wright says:

    January 25, 2020 8:40 pm

    Amazing. So many people in the world today, think of this in the opposition, not realizing the difference you are making. It's up to us to make the difference for the future of others. Compassion must overrule selfishness. We can survive koodos than the 1930'd. Our nation's are smart and we must engage or fall. Wisely use, conserve and preserve what we havn't destroyed. 2 heads are better than one, shapes and sizes doesn't matter. Tables turn, environments change and future leaders must keep the childlike, nonjudgmental, mindset. Everyone needs to do what that can. Seek opportunities to help. Explore, teach, reach out, test, regulate, for balance in our soils, skies, societies and the homeless societies in the world.