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Rethinking Diverse Foundation Leadership

By Lande Ajose

In liberal California, diverse philanthropic leadership may not appear to be much of a conversation. After all, a quick look at many of our leading foundations—James Irvine Foundation, The California Endowment, the California HealthCare Foundation—as well as some notable community foundations—California Community Foundation, The San Francisco Foundation and the East Bay Community Foundation—would suggest that the issue of diversifying leadership is a thing of the past. Yet according to a recent national report by the Council on Foundations, only 20% of new foundation CEOs are from diverse backgrounds. So what gives?

A few recent publications show that the issue of diversifying the leadership tier is alive and well.  The Council report summarized a fall 2009 convening in which executive search consultants and philanthropic leaders lamented the field’s lack of diversity and mused about whether there were actual career pathways to becoming a foundation leader, and how to tread such a path. Also last fall, Vincent Robinson of The 360 Group suggested in Responsive Philanthropy that the quest for “celebrity leaders” means there is an infinitesimally small pool of candidates to choose from. A key issue it seems is that foundations’ boards, which are notorious for their lack of diversity, prefer to look outside of philanthropy for their next leader, and even then, only to those individuals who have held similar executive positions. Conclusion? As Robinson says, the pool is infinitesimally small.

Even so, pointing to the leaders of many of our California foundations reflects a narrow understanding of leadership. While leadership is often focused on the individual, it is most often carried out by a select group that includes the board and senior leadership team, and that is where diversity is woefully lacking. Diversifying the entire leadership infrastructure of foundations is the critical next step in creating philanthropic institutions worthy of the causes they are serving.

Foundations need increased pathways, not only for diverse leaders interested in CEO positions, but also for the next generation of board and senior leadership team members. Yet the impetus for this panoply of diversity needs to come from a deeper place: it needs to come from the field’s acknowledgement that the work we are doing in our respective organizations is best served by having a multiplicity of leaders who can think differently about our social problems because their relationship to those problems is different. It means recognizing that a diverse leadership infrastructure is essential to the achievement of mission.