Shifting Organizational Culture and Exploring Personal Narrative to Advance Racial Equity

A field-building experience where executives deepen their commitments to internal organizational change processes

The Presidents’ Forum on Racial Equity in Philanthropy (the Forum) creates intimate spaces where foundation presidents and chief executive officers (CEOs) can grapple with difficult racial equity leadership dilemmas and, through facilitated peer-to-peer conversations, seek innovative solutions. 

Over the past two years, the powerful learning arc of the Presidents’ Forum emerged, with greater focus on self and organization, harnessing the power of place and story, of commitment, and of individual and organizational pain and growth around what is undeniably one of the toughest challenges of our times – creating an equitable world.

A set of twelve themes has emerged as a result of the collective series of Presidents’ Forum gatherings. This blog post will explore the first three themes.

Theme 1: The commitment to racial equity is deeply connected to personal and not just professional values

One of the earliest themes to emerge from the Presidents’ Forum was around personal commitment. Presidents engage in dialogue around alignment between personal and professional values, noting that misalignment between said values may hinder progress in personal and/or professional development. Values give us a sense of purpose, and sometimes, direction. Values become actionable when they are evidenced through our behaviors.

Embracing leadership begins with a sense of “who I am”, and the Presidents’ Forum convenings – both in-person and virtual – offer a space for foundation leaders to explore “who they are”. They examine their values, and consider which values may be missing or not recognized. Sometimes we don’t recognize our own values until we are faced with a situation that forces us to recognize them. 

An obvious example of this occurred nearly one year ago, during a global health pandemic, when George Floyd became the latest in a long line of unarmed Black Americans killed senselessly and tragically by police. Shortly thereafter dozens of foundation leaders stepped up to announce significant changes in the way they delivered resources to communities most impacted by racial injustice. We witnessed much of the sector grappling with how to effectively pivot to a more inclusive and equitable grantmaking strategy, and steps taken to dismantle historical inequities and racist practices.

Theme 2: Sharing personal racial narratives, often left untold, is important

When asked at what point in their lives they realized their own race and ethnicity, many White foundation CEOs shared that it was late in life if at all when they reflected on their whiteness and its privilege. Conversely, 100% of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) foundation CEOs recognized their racial identity at a very young age. 

U.S. culture is too often unkind to BIPOC children, raising the risk that these children learn to be unkind to themselves and each other. If we are to fully recognize our own humanity, and that of the communities that the sector tries to support, within and across racial and ethnic differences, we need to first understand our own stories.

Theme 3: Both dismantling and reimagining organizational culture feel risky

Cultural norms emerge from lived experiences, and we need to attend carefully to how our institutional culture may be creating conditions of “in” and “out” or “up” and “down” in foundation relationships. One participant pointed out the struggle between working internally and externally at the same time: 

“The question is how to sequence them – we’re on our internal DEI journey, and we’re sort of on our external journey. Do we do them in the same proportion? At the same time?”

In 2020, 75 foundation CEOs grappled with these questions and more, bringing with them their candid fears and hopes for philanthropy, and requests for more effective strategies and approaches to centering racial equity within their organizations.

To the extent that philanthropy is seen as unresponsive to the needs of the moment, change will be delayed. We are hopeful that these tough and necessary conversations will continue over the year ahead and bring about needed change. The events of 2020 showed us that the sector can practice business as unusual rather than business as usual. By telling their stories and exploring their cultures, foundation leaders have a special opportunity to continue to embrace change together.

Sara Padilla is the project manager for the Presidents’ Forum on Racial Equity in Philanthropy, a program led by Keecha Harris and Associates in partnership with the Institute for Strategic and Equitable Development. This is the first in a four-part blog series on issues, strategies, challenges, and opportunities for advancing the sector toward more equitable and inclusive grantmaking. The series will illustrate the themes that have emerged since the inception of the Presidents’ Forum on Racial Equity in Philanthropy in 2018. 

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