By Mary Ellen Capek | Mar. 28, 2013
Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, has sparked a national conversation on how women can make real and lasting progress toward professional equality. Citing a wealth of essential research on gender and gender roles, Sandberg advocates effectively that women take charge of what they can change themselves and more aggressively advance their own—and other women’s—opportunities in the workplace.
The same holds for the philanthropic community: Sandberg’s ideas can inspire individuals to push organizations and foundations toward a “deeper” diversity. However, as Sandberg herself acknowledges, to achieve that goal, organizations themselves must “lean in” and confront the various means by which their collective cultures get in the way.
This isn’t a simple matter of filling quotas or checking off boxes. A truly inclusive environment requires action on almost every level of the organizational structure. From expanding networking circles to new groups and populations, to instituting office policies that make for a more sensitive workplace, to strategies that help everyone in an organization “bring their best selves to work,” the culture changes must be comprehensive and can often challenge norms that would previously “go without saying.”
Recognizing landmines on the path toward inclusion is an essential step in the process. Leadership can learn to foster an open culture that makes employees more comfortable expressing themselves, even in sensitive situations. And organizational policy must reflect that mindset with explicit support.
Thankfully, among the strongest believers in the philanthropic community’s need for a “lean in” philosophy are leading philanthropic organizations themselves. That’s why, more and more, philanthropies of all types are working together to create a culture in which all groups can comfortably and productively take part in their work. The experience of foundations active in the D5 Coalition can provide some illuminating examples for those “lean-in” organizations reading and thinking about Sandberg’s book.
For example, when the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) launched a multi-year diversity effort in 2008, it worked with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, the Foundation Center, and Capek & Associates to develop a “norm index” survey, individual board and staff interviews, and small group work to promote an in-depth look at its organizational culture and grantmaking. All organizations have habits and traditions that “go without saying,” but these unspoken assumptions easily become “trip wires” that make it difficult for many in any organization to thrive.
In the case of the RBF, once these concerns were named and highlighted, they were much easier to eliminate—or at least make more explicit—and the foundation was able to ease the way for more people at all levels of the organization to “cover” less and fit in more comfortably. In short, it helped tweak the organizational culture so that more people at all levels of the organization were better able to do their best work.
Another example: Surdna Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest family foundations, was faced with the pending departure of three of its non-family trustees, and it knew its old search process would exclude many diverse replacement candidates who could greatly advance Surdna’s cause. The foundation worked with Isaacon, Miller, a firm that specializes in leadership diversification for nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, to find the right candidates.
With the firm’s help, Surdna completed a rigorous search process in which it greatly widened its normal circle of contacts. The result: three new qualified and capable female trustees from various backgrounds whom Surdna would have never found using its traditional search processes. By opening these vacancies to a wider circle of participation, the entire foundation will benefit from its trustees’ new perspectives and can set forth on a far more inclusive path under their leadership.
These are the types of effort required for organizations to “lean in” and dedicate themselves to real change. And it’s catching on. Of America’s 35 regional grantmaker associations, almost half have formally committed to the D5 Coalition’s agenda to grow philanthropy’s diversity, equity, and inclusion. Groups such as Michigan’s Peer Action Learning Network and the Council of Foundations—both D5 partners—provide training to organizations and individuals promoting diversity and excellence among charitable leaders. By 2015, the coalition hopes to align new philanthropic leadership hires with the American population as a whole.
Collectively, the philanthropic community has begun a significant culture shift that will make its work far better serve today’s population. At its core, that is the intention of every sincere philanthropist. Whereas Sandberg hopes to inspire her audience to better themselves, our profession works to make the world better for others. If we can get each group to “lean in” toward each other, then maybe we’ll be more likely to meet in the middle.