Only A Diversity of Ideas Can Solve This Problem

I had a driveway moment yesterday while listening to my local NPR station.  Seattle Channel’s Political Analyst C. R. Douglas was responding to questions about the Gates Foundation when he said, “It still feels in a lot of ways like a family business. Bill and Melinda and Warren Buffet are the only trustees … At some point, the trustee level of the organization needs to look more representative. And that will help them ultimately, push their mission further.”

I am not intending to comment on the Gates Foundation’s work, simply the fact that a foundation based within a proud democracy can give away $2.6 billion in 2010 with so little democratic oversight.

What’s more, a recent Foundation Center report stated that the Gates Foundation was the top funder in social justice giving in 2009.  Their definition of social justice?  “The granting of philanthropic contributions to nonprofit organizations based in the United States and other countries that work for structural change in order to increase the opportunity of those who are the least well off politically, economically, and socially.”  It concerns me that so much structural change is taking place with so little input from people whose societies are being structurally changed.

But I don’t mean to pick on the Gates Foundation.  They are by no means alone in making significant decisions affecting society with so few people at the table representing the diversity of our local or global society.  A recent Nonprofit Quarterly story noted that it is mostly white men who make foundation decisions.  Women and people of color are under-represented in foundation decision-making.  In 2009, $42.9 billion was given away, mostly to non-profits, with few people at the table who understand the communities these non-profits are trying to serve.

The demographics of foundation boards has a direct impact on social change funding.  Large foundation boards are often made up of successful business people, and these individuals bring a certain mindset in deciding what types of social solutions should be funded.  The New York Times recently published “Distilling the Wisdom of CEOs” in which five essentials for CEO success were described:

  •  Curiosity
  • Confidence
  • Team smarts
  • Simple mindset
  • Fearlessness

Compare this list with a list of principles that Juana Bordas elaborates on in Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age, an interesting book providing new approaches to leadership from Latino, Black, and American Indian communities:

  •  Sankofa: Learn from the past
  • I to We: From individualism to collective identity
  • Mi Casa Es Su Casa: A spirit of generosity
  • A Leader Among Equals: Community conferred leadership
  • Leaders as Guardians of Public Values: Tradition of activism
  • Leaders as Community Stewards: Working for the common good
  • All My Relatives: La Familia, the Village, the Tribe
  • Gracias: Gratitude, Hope, and forgiveness

There isn’t a lot of common ground between what makes a successful CEO and traditional approaches of leaders from communities of color.  Small non-profits working in collaboration with social change projects elsewhere in the world negotiate this space between foundation and indigenous leadership styles, hoping to foster greater understanding of the other along the way.

What to do?

Let’s keep our eye on the big issue.  According to a recent UN report, even if Millennium Development Goal reports are correct and we are on track to halve global poverty rates by 2015, around one billion people will remain mired in extreme poverty.  Dealing with that challenge will require structural change at all levels, including within philanthropy.  It will involve the integration of local knowledge into decision-making processes.  As Dione Alexander wrote in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Many of the inequities that philanthropy seeks to eliminate are rooted in cultural bias—and many of the opportunities for change are rooted in cultural awareness.”

How do we build structure around the space between foundation boards and indigenous NGO work around the world?

Foster Diversity:  We have every reason to believe that foundations understand the need to diversify their leadership.  We can help them by creating channels through which we all (foundations, NGO partners, etc.) can access the local knowledge of leaders from impoverished communities.  I have begun to envision an NGO association dedicated to creating forums in which international NGO leaders come together and share their solutions to their most pressing problems, informing foundations about the projects that would lead to long-term poverty alleviation.  Each discussion would be laced with cultural context that contributes to greater understanding of local conditions and opportunities.  Members could provide strategic advice to foundations (who would in turn fund the association), as well as collaborate with foundations in the development of financial and evaluation tools that work across cultures.  We could change structures that keep poverty in place so much better if the definition of problems needing solutions took place within communities rather than within far away foundations.

On the other hand, some foundations may resist change.

Impose diversity:  We have traditionally imagined elements of society concerning the “common good” as being governed through democratic institutions.  This has become less and less the case as private foundations tackle such common good topics as public education reform, and certainly many development projects elsewhere in the world bypass local democratic institutions entirely.  Our government, however, still plays a role in determining the tax deductibility of foundation assets.  While we can’t govern how wealthy people decide to spend their money, we can ask our government to require foundations to have a certain level of board diversity or advisory councils with certain voting rights.  Forcing the question of diversity among foundation leadership may put the topic higher up on the organizational agenda.

We are taught within our multi-cultural democracy that it is the diversity of our ideas that leads to a better system for all.  We need that diversity of ideas across class, culture, and race if we are going to make a dent in that figure of one billion people living within deep-rooted poverty .  What do you think?

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