Leading By Example: Addressing Racial Equity Through Incremental Change

This post originated on the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy Blog


Editor’s note: This blog post is the fourth in a series of guest features on NCRP’s exciting new resource, Power Moves: Your essential philanthropy assessment guide for equity and justice.

The toolkit builds on NCRP’s research from its innovative Philamplify initiative, which assessed a dozen foundations, including the William Penn Foundation in 2013-2014. NCRP’s history with the foundation dates back over 20 years.

In 1995-1996, at the request of the William Penn Foundation, NCRP conducted an evaluation of its responsiveness to low-income and other disenfranchised groups in the greater Philadelphia region.

To “lead by example” is a fundamental principle within philanthropy. However, the power dynamic inherent to the funder-grantee relationship can sometimes lead to a lack of self-reflection or self-discipline among funders. A funder wishing to advance a best practice may require the practice from its grantees but forgo the difficult work of implementing the practice for itself.

This can be especially true when it comes to practices that are designed to tackle issues of race, including both the racial composition of staff and leadership and also the unique barriers communities of color face in accessing the benefits of certain grant-funded programs.

Notable responses have come from across philanthropy, with headlines trumpeting restructured paradigms and transformative approaches to philanthropic giving. These efforts are inspiring, but for institutions where incremental change is the more feasible option, a different model is needed.

At the William Penn Foundation, we have leveraged existing business processes to implement incremental change.

Our approach starts with internal practices and opens up the possibilities for new dialogue with grantees and other key stakeholders, reflecting our desire to model best practices before pursuing external changes on the part of the grantee community.

Additionally, our leadership works on a consensus basis, making decisions thoughtfully and deliberately after significant consideration, which is why an incremental approach often works well for us.

The William Penn Foundation is a 73-year-old private family foundation located in Philadelphia, a city with a richness of racial diversity, but also a legacy of racial conflict and structural inequity. Our institution can proudly lay claim to a longstanding commitment to racial justice.

Over the decades our grants have included support for the early workforce development efforts of civil rights leaders Grace and Rev. Leon Sullivan, community outreach led by Black Power advocate Father Paul Washington, implementation of a $10 million Minorities in Higher Education grantmaking program, and even support for NCRP’s groundbreaking survey of racial and ethnic disparity in corporate giving.

Over the decades, our grant strategies and guidelines evolved to address the symptoms of Philadelphia’s declining population and urban decay.

Solutions for the root causes of racial phenomena like white flight felt beyond the capabilities of our grantmaking and fell outside our core strategies.

We moved away from racially explicit language toward a broader focus on “low-income,” “disinvested” and “underserved” populations.

As a consequence, a number of our stakeholders perceived a change in institutional priorities, as documented in NCRP’s Philamplify assessment of our foundation in 2014. Specifically, stakeholders shared their concerns with the de-emphasis of racial equity. As one participant observed:

“I haven’t heard [equity] be a part of the William Penn Foundation conversation. In terms of promoting equity, I don’t see it as a priority for giving. Some of the projects they fund do have equity goals. I don’t think they challenge themselves to forge new partnerships to bring in new populations, new perspectives, to embrace diversity in all its meanings.”

In the context of a national conversation on racial injustice, these observations made it clear that we faced an important opportunity to reinvigorate our strategies and clarify our decades-long commitment to racial equity.

And with the renaissance of Philadelphia’s downtown now largely accomplished, we are able to shift our focus toward more equitable, community-based reinvestment.

These changes are part of the essential and ongoing work of strategy refinement, and involve everything from a renewed focus on inclusive community engagement processes in our funding for public spaces, to the prioritization of under-represented communities of color in our funding for outdoor access.

The Philamplify assessment also raised the importance of minimizing disruption and projecting stability in both internal operations and external grantmaking. With this in mind, staff and leadership leveraged existing, internal business practices to introduce important changes in how we address racial equity.

For example, facing a number of open positions, a few motivated staff engaged with human resources and foundation leadership to develop a hiring statement that explicitly values racial diversity and shares our aspirations for an inclusive workplace and our goals for racial equity.

Integrating this statement into our website and position descriptions helps ensure that applicants see and reflect these same values.

In a parallel process, the foundation board’s Governance Committee also made diversity one of its priorities in the recruitment of new public board members to ensure the board’s public membership better reflects the racial diversity of the communities we serve.

The foundation also now has an internal Racial Equity Working Group, which started organically as a self-organized group of staff working on racial equity-related projects, meeting regularly on an informal basis to share learning and leverage one another’s efforts.

Already the group has used this forum to source ideas for everything from staff training needs to new grantmaking opportunities.

In recognition of its importance as an on-going resource to the foundation, the activities and responsibilities of the working group have been memorialized in a charter using a process modeled on our board committees.

The process of developing a formal working group charter helped to codify institutional values and expectations around racial equity and raise the visibility of this important work across the organization.

Under the auspices of the Racial Equity Working Group, we also collected and published our diversity data as part of a larger, voluntary data transparency initiative implemented through GuideStar.

GuideStar has long been essential to our core business processes. Staff responsible for maintaining our profile were able to add the collection of our diversity data to the regular update process.

This new component required additional conversations at the leadership level, but associating the effort with familiar practices helped smooth the way. With our data published, we are in position to share our experience and encourage others to follow suit.

With these incremental changes to our own recruitment, hiring and data sharing, we are better equipped to work with our grantees to undertake similar practices.

Considering that William Penn Foundation funding underwrites almost 100 local nonprofit hiring decisions every year, our aspirations fall nothing short of partnering with grantees to help shape the future of an entire sector.

Dramatic gestures can be inspiring, but empty gestures help no one. At the William Penn Foundation, we found our sweet spot by building momentum from the ground up and by introducing new practices from the inside out.

Crafting a diversity statement, pulling together a working group and publishing your demographic data are three great first steps.

We have learned that our strongest strategies come from our greatest experience. It is our expectation that the learning we gain from these incremental and pilot efforts will be harvested to inform the future refinement of our grantmaking goals and strategies, and the improvement of our own business practices.

For our family foundation and others like us, these incremental approaches can result in practices that are more internally sustainable and position our institutions to impact the field in meaningful and lasting ways.


Nathan Boon is program officer with the William Penn Foundation. Follow @WilliamPennFdn and @NCRP on Twitter, and join the conversation using #PowerMovesEquity.

Download your free copy of Power Moves: My essential philanthropy assessment guide for equity and justice now. To request a copy of The William Penn Foundation and the Disenfranchised, 1992-1994 evaluation cited in the editor’s note, please email Caitlin Duffy at cduffy@ncrp.org.

Nathan Boon

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