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DEI in philanthropy: Why systemic change is necessary

May 06, 2021
A group of people in an office discuss how to improve DEI in philanthropy.

Although there is already public dialogue about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), it’s important it continues. Systemic redress requires everyone, including philanthropists, to stay committed to a more equitable world. 

Race and income are key characteristics that impact the communities that grantmaking organizations and philanthropists are dedicated to improving.  Race is a factor in determining life and health outcomes, and funding for leaders of color is drastically less than for their white counterparts, even within similar issue areas.

It’s important for grantmakers and philanthropists to reflect on these key characteristics because of their role in driving positive social change. By investing in and supporting communities and leaders most affected by and closest to these experiences, they have the power to change the system and support DEI.

Philanthropy and culture: The call for systemic change

In a widely discussed report on racial equity and philanthropy, the central theme and key takeaway to three years of funding research and data analysis highlights that "what is often missing from philanthropy’s discussions about achieving results is how much successfully changing the world depends on bringing an intentional, explicit, and sustained focus to addressing racial disparities across the problems we are trying to solve.”

Culture is defined and created by the systems, processes, interactions, and norms within groups and institutions. It forms the basis of the industry’s design, which is why it’s crucial to center DEI principles within it. The culture of philanthropy, which guides the interactions between key stakeholders, needs to undergo systemic change to realize philanthropy’s tremendous impact potential.

How to implement systemic DEI change

Systemic change in philanthropy should be at the core of your grantmaking organization. By shifting your mindset and values, your organization will develop new behaviors and funding practices that will equally benefit your grantees. Take steps to foster DEI values in your organization for more equal grantmaking in the future.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you create systemic change within your organization:

  • Examine the data. Use the data you possess about your past grantees to evaluate how well your organization is already applying DEI principles. Examine the demographics of your grantees and consider what the data is telling you about your organization’s systems.
  • Engage key figures in your organization. In order to get to the core of your organization, you must start from the top, such as with your board members. Emphasize the importance of DEI principles and enable them to engage in conversations where they challenge their own assumptions and re-examine the systems you have in place at your organization.
  • Unlearn truths. In order to prioritize DEI, you’ll need to let go of information that you’ve received that is holding back your growth and change. When you think, “this is how we’ve always done it,” stop and evaluate that system. Does it serve your DEI principles? Does it make it difficult for some communities to benefit?
  • Center your grantees. Put aside the belief that your organization knows best by thinking of your grantees as your trusted experts. As they have experience with the problems you’re trying to solve, they are closer to the situation and may have a unique perspective they can offer.

Systemic change in philanthropy is a difficult process that will require you to challenge and re-examine every part of the systems you’ve put in place. However, it’s crucial for you to do this to ensure an equitable grantmaking process. There are many communities that have had unequal access to philanthropy, and to create the positive change you desire, you’ll need to undergo this change to create meaningful impact.

The journey to centering DEI in philanthropy

When it comes to confronting your organization’s biases and adopting DEI principles, highlight a willingness to listen. It takes a great deal of courage to grapple with how you center equity in your grantmaking, and it will be a journey. Keep an open mind and remember that systemic change may mean altering fundamental systems in your organization.

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  • Diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging (DEIB)
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