To advance diversity among foundation staffs, the Minnesota Council on Foundations is taking action to give people of color a foot in the door.


This story is from the annual D5 State of the Work report.

The Minnesota Council on Foundations (MCF), whose 182 grantmaking members distributed more than $1 billion in 2014, or about three-fourths of the foundation giving in the state, is a trailblazer in the movement to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in philanthropy. More than two decades ago it first developed a Diversity Framework that called on foundations to consider diversity across all of their many roles — as grantmakers, employers, economic entities, and community citizens. MCF has continued to be a thought and action leader on the subject, conducting research and providing resources that serve the field.

MCF’s most recent initiative to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion tackles the under-representation of people of color among foundation leaders. It is building a pipeline of talented professionals who can, in time, rise to executive positions. Diverse leadership that more fully reflects the nation’s diversity can help foundations fulfill their missions to have positive community impact. Or as the president of MCF Trista Harris puts it, “The idea is that the people closest to the problems are the people closest to the solutions.”

Two decades of survey data collected by MCF helped the organization recognize the need for more diverse leaders in philanthropy. Starting in 1995, MCF asked its members to report the demographics of their staffs. Member surveys were done roughly every five years, with the last survey administered in 2010. Over the years, MCF’s Working Toward Diversity reports highlighted challenges and blind spots in the philanthropic world — and the reports themselves spurred change. Twenty-six foundations answered both the 1995 and 2000 survey, for example. In the first, 46 percent reported “no position” on diversity. Five years later, that was down to 12 percent.

“Our concern was: how do you move from describing the problem to doing something about it?”

The 2010 report highlighted the dearth of diverse leaders in the field: for example, although Asian Americans represented 3.2 percent of all Minnesota workers, they occupied none of the chief executive suites in philanthropies. Latinos, at 3.1 percent of the population, also lagged in representation as executives (1.9 percent) and board members (1.8 percent).

While Harris says the experience of producing the surveys was useful and “a push to our member organizations that we all need to pay attention to these issues,” the reports also had enough limitations to lead MCF to discontinue the survey series after 2011. “MCF was concerned that surveying foundations was producing a rosier picture than was warranted where diversity was concerned,” says Harris, who is black. “The most diverse foundations were the most likely to respond.”


But in halting “Working Toward Diversity,” MCF has hardly turned its back on data. “Data collection in the field is critical, and it is even more important as philanthropy gets up to speed, and big data becomes a vital decision-making tool,” Harris says. MCF is working to build a new database encompassing information about its members, and as it does so, its goal is to incorporate diversity data, so that it has such information about all of its members, not just the ones that respond to a periodic survey.

MCF was also concerned that by focusing its resources on the survey and reporting, it may have been taking too detached a role. “Our concern,” says Harris, “was: how do you move from describing the problem to doing something about it?” After long conversations at the board level about MCF’s responsibility and role, in 2013 MCF, in partnership with the Bush Foundation, launched the Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellowship Program. This program trains members of underrepresented groups for careers in philanthropy, with a focus on racial diversity. The fellows make $60,000 annually for three years, plus generous benefits, and they get comprehensive coaching on how to be a grantmaker in the 21st century. Member foundations give MCF a grant to pay the fellows’ salaries; they are placed in those foundations but employed by MCF. There were four fellows in the 2014 cohort, six in the 2015 cohort, and there will be eight in the cohort that will start work in 2016.

MCF was expecting applicants to the program to be fairly green, maybe just out of graduate school (though it does require five years of work experience). “Instead, we got experienced professionals who recognized that this would be a great way to get a foot in the door,” Harris says. “It is usually a closed door — a closed network.” The presumption is not necessarily that fellows will be hired by the foundation they work for but that they will gain contacts and exposure at philanthropies throughout Minnesota. Two fellows from the first two cohorts were hired before their fellowship had run its course.

“It is usually a closed door — a closed network.”

During the fellowship, attention is given to readying these minority staffers for the long haul. “It’s hard being a person of color, being in a position of authority and relative privilege, and thinking your organization is not doing enough to effect change,” Harris says. “We’ve talked to the fellows a lot about how you have to take care of yourself, so you can do this for the long run. One strategy is to develop majority group allies. This work shouldn’t only be on the backs of members of minority groups.”

The context for MCF’s work is a state that’s not as forward thinking on race as it likes to think it is. Minnesota is proud of its progressive tradition, but it has some of the biggest gaps in equity between white and minority populations with respect to lifespan, education, and incarceration. A 2005 report by the Brookings Institution, Itasca Project, and Living Cities titled “Mind the Gap: Reducing Disparities to Improve Regional Competitiveness in the Twin Cities” helped to prod the community into action. “There were more and more conversations about the systemic problems here—how people don’t succeed because the system is set up for them not to be successful,” Harris says.

Is there broad acceptance of that truth? “If you go by what you read in the comments section of online newspapers, the challenges are as great as ever, but in the boardrooms of foundations, we are truly making progress,” Harris says. From a pragmatic angle, local industry is recognizing that they won’t have the workforce they need if the inequities go unaddressed. And by creating a pipeline of leaders equipped to tackle issues of equity and inclusion with fresh perspectives, the Minnesota Council of Foundations is shifting from analysis of the problem to a more active, vigorous intervention.

Authored by Chris Shea

Read more stories from the movement to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in D5’s State of the Work report.