News and analysis
May 02, 2017

‘Coastal Elite’ Concerns Extend to Foundations, Chronicle Data Shows

In last year’s presidential campaign, candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders railed against the "coastal elites" whom they said dominate government, the financial arena, and the media. Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders didn’t target philanthropy, but they could have.

A first-of-its-kind Chronicle analysis puts data behind the longstanding concern that large foundations are elite, insular, and out of touch with average Americans.

At the 20 wealthiest national foundations, which control $162 billion in assets, plenty of board members have degrees from top private universities, but only a few live in rural or poor parts of the United States. (Community foundations and regional grant makers were not included in the review.)

The Chronicle’s analysis, which examined the education and primary residence of 232 foundation trustees, found that:

  • More trustees have Harvard degrees (52) than live in "flyover" states (51).
  • 52 percent live in the Northeast or California.
  • Only one of the 232 trustees lives in one of the five states with the highest poverty rates.
  • 40 percent have Ivy League degrees.

Such head counts do not always accurately reflect a board’s socioeconomic diversity or the range of perspectives at the table. A degree from Harvard or a home in Palo Alto does not mean someone didn’t grow up poor or is out of touch with the heartland working class. The Hewlett Foundation, for one, says it has trustees with a range of life experiences and an expansive view of the world "not colored by where they pick up their mail," says Patricia House, a Hewlett trustee, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and Michigan State graduate.

Still, champions of diversity worry that the elite background of foundation trustees colors the work of grant makers and weakens their impact. "Given the fact that many of these foundations attempt to address issues affecting working families and the poor, there’s no good excuse for not having significant socioeconomic diversity on their boards," says Albert Ruesga, former president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation. "It’s a cop-out if they don’t, and their missions suffer as a result."

Slow Change

The Chronicle also examined racial, ethnic, and gender diversity on the boards. It found that 72 percent of trustees are white, while 63 percent are male.

Diversity advocates say the numbers are frustratingly low given a half-century of work to boost the numbers of minorities and women in philanthropy.

"It shows how little progress we’ve made," says philanthropy historian Stanley Katz.

This analysis is part of a Chronicle special report on the demographics of boards at America’s largest foundations. It features more data analysis (including demographic breakdowns for each foundation); reporting on racial and gender diversity in philanthropy; commentary from diversity champions; and several stories outlining how foundations make their boards more diverse and inclusive.

Send an e-mail to Drew Lindsay and Rebecca Koenig.