Opinion
March 05, 2015

Foundations Must Promote a ‘Diversity Dividend’ at Green Groups


Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities are strong supporters of environmental rights.

The 50 foundations that give the most to environmental groups shelled out more than $1 billion to green organizations in 2012. One might wonder: What exactly is the makeup of the boards and top leaders of those foundations who are making vital decisions about what organizations to support?

Last year, we learned the answer from a study conducted by Dorceta Taylor, a professor of environmental justice at the University of Michigan. Green 2.0, a new campaign dedicated to increasing racial diversity at mainstream environmental groups, released the most comprehensive report on the makeup of those foundation boards and senior staff members.

We learned that, of the organizations that responded to the survey, 87 percent of board members are white, and senior staff members are 88 percent white. The diversity of the boards of the grant recipients is even more imbalanced: On average, they are 95-percent white. Yet 40 percent of America’s population isn’t white.

Do the math. Most green foundations give diversity almost zero importance.

The "green ceiling" is hitting people of color hard and has for decades. There are three big reasons why today’s situation is unacceptable.

First, everyone at foundations should be alarmed if our operations do not look like the country we live in. Our missions and grantees claim the moral high ground: We are working toward a better world. But we cannot be colorblind.

As Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, has noted: "The environmental community should be the leading edge, not the trailing edge, of diversity efforts."

Second, increased diversity will help those groups win environmental battles.

Latinos and blacks routinely tell pollsters they strongly support efforts to promote clean air and water and measures to fend off climate change. Simply put, they are the people who can be activated to make a difference. That should come as no surprise, since the health consequences of environmental disasters fall hardest on communities of color. With leaders at the helm who have expertise in reaching those communities, the environmental movement could experience a dramatic boost.

Third, the lack of diverse faces on environmental boards and in executive leadership means a missed opportunity to build alliances with influential organizations already run by leaders of color. These are people who know how to conduct environmental outreach in their communities and bring a wealth of knowledge to the green nonprofits.

Now making change requires just that: change. A good first step is transparency. For the first time, a system now exists to collect standardized, transparent diversity data from all foundations and advocacy organizations. But we need everyone to participate.

Dr. Ross, as a foundation chief executive, is pleased to participate in the groundbreaking effort to routinely track and make transparent diversity data, created by Green 2.0, GuideStar, and D5, the Diversity in Philanthropy Coalition. Green 2.0’s campaign will bring a special focus on getting participation from the largest mainstream environmental grant makers and others. As Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, so aptly said at a recent Green 2.0 forum in Washington: "We know that we measure what we value, so let’s measure this. Let’s give [diversity] the value that we say it has."

It is the responsibility of foundation leaders to adopt the best hiring practices. The management consultancy McKinsey & Company recently unveiled a study of 366 companies that showed that companies with women and people of color in their management produced stronger financial results than those that did not. If there is a "diversity dividend" for corporate America, why can’t there be one for foundations and nonprofits?

Let’s get down to the business of making change in foundation workplaces and boardrooms, building inclusive work cultures, and being partners in gathering the data that is needed to get us there. Foundations, and the green organizations they support, are better off when they are more inclusive as well. Let’s at a minimum pledge to share our data.

Robert Raben is the founder of Green 2.0. Robert Ross is chief executive of the California Endowment and co-chairman of D5 Coalition.