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PEAK Grantmaking

Black Grant Directors’ Roundtable: Lessons from a career in philanthropy

Five grants management leaders offer on-the-ground testimony to the challenges of Black professionals in the sector – from the complexities of practicing DEI to the ways race has affected perceptions of their leadership, to the realities of code-switching your way through the white-dominant workplace.

We offer our gratitude for the generosity and candor of Nicole Howe Buggs, Chief Administrative Officer and Corporate Secretary at the Carnegie Corporation of New York; Ify Mora, Director, Program Operations at Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, and PEAK Grantmaking board member; Miyesha Perry, Director of Grants Management at the Kenneth Rainin Foundation; and Timothy Robinson, AVP – Operations and Grants Administration at the Lumina Foundation, and PEAK Grantmaking board member; and Susan Hairston, Susan Hairston Consulting.

Organizations tend to take for granted those in positions of formal authority (usually white people, often men, but particularly white women, in the context of grants management) as the standard referent to formal authority and voice. What is a core lesson in leadership you have learned about your voice: How is it valued and heard, and how race has affected perceptions of your leadership?

Ify Mora: Early in my career, I felt I needed to work extra hard to prove I am informed and credible, and that my ideas were worth listening to. I struggled with how to be assertive enough to be heard without coming across as ‘pushy and abrasive,’ as someone once said to me. Feedback like that motivated me to focus on developing better ways to communicate and advocate for my ideas so as not to be experienced so negatively.

But, what I’ve learned over time and in talking with women of color with similar experiences, is that it isn’t just about me improving my communication skills. My race, gender, and age, taken together, also influence the way my voice is heard, despite my actual work contributions and job title. I’ve learned to be particularly thoughtful about how I show up as a leader and have more sensitivity to how to express my opinions differently based on the environment I’m in, so that it can be heard most effectively.

There are limits to how much we can change other’s perceptions and biases. In the realm of what we can control and change, however, I’ve tried really hard to model a different approach, one that signals to those I work with that I do care about their voices and want to hear different perspectives. I also try to speak up when I feel like others’ voices may not have been heard.

Nicole Howe Buggs: My voice must incorporate and represent those who have not always been represented at the leadership table. That has manifested what I have always been taught: I have to be thoughtful about how I carry myself as a person of color, as I represent more than just myself.

“My voice must incorporate and represent those who have not always been represented at the leadership table. That has manifested what I have always been taught: I have to be thoughtful about how I carry myself as a person of color, as I represent more than just myself.” – Nicole Howe-Buggs

Susan Hairston: Gender and race are often the first thing folks experience when they encounter me in my leadership role. Being comfortable in my own skin and with my knowledge base has grown more important as my sphere of responsibility has increased. I started out very naïve, expecting people to judge me on face value, not realizing all of the baggage that goes along with what “face value” means to different people. For women and Black people, it’s typically to expect “less than.” Fortunately, I am blessed with a naturally joyful constitution that has served me well in disarming a challenge to my expertise, a standard response to blackness.

Timothy Robinson: I have never felt like I did not have a voice. I’m never shy to express my opinion. My opinion may or may not bear out in the final decision in the way that I think it should. But I’ve never felt like I was not heard because of the color of my skin. In fact, I think that because of either my age or my experience, people did listen. I try to approach my work thoughtfully and deliberately, so that if I’m going to say something, people take it seriously.

If you’re feeling discounted, particularly when you’re new to an organization, my advice is to first understand how decisions are made and how the organization runs, before you jump in with a bunch of opinions and thoughts about how things should change. Don’t sit back and make a judgment without having knowledge of the process. Instead, consider the thought that goes into making difficult decisions. There are clearly instances where racism is a part of that decision making, and I hope I’m not part of any organization that is part of that.

Miyesha Perry: Early in my management career, I had a performance review with my direct supervisor, one of the most supportive leaders I’ve worked with, and was told that, “some of your colleagues feel like you’re too direct.” When I asked her to tease that out a bit more, she really couldn’t.

I’m not aware of any instance where a white colleague’s assertiveness has been labeled as “too direct” or viewed as anything less than positive. This was my first experience with feeling that my race was a defining factor in how colleagues perceived my behavior as a leader. It felt like being assertive was really a privilege that can be exercised only by whites. This was both frustrating and disappointing.

Leaders of color must have multi-cultural fluency in the practice of code-switching in order to lead in ways that resonate with their own racial group while also connecting with the dominant ways of working in a predominantly white environment. Can you share a lesson about navigating this workplace dynamic?

Robinson: When I went into the investment business, there was an about-even gender split – perhaps a few more men – but zero Black people. I didn’t see another Black person until my last year. That really bothered me. So I come into philanthropy expecting it to be different, and it wasn’t. That was disappointing to me. But in the end, it’s the connections that you make with the people you surround yourself with and the people that you’re serving. It’s that personal connection that makes it all worthwhile.

Perry: The tools and resources to manage the code-switching that’s required of you are your network and your mentors. Find that network, find your people, and hold on to them: Without them, it’s very challenging and it can be especially socially isolating. I found those spaces in local Blacks in Philanthropy groups, like ABFE and others. If not for them, I would have left philanthropy years ago. With the right opportunity, the right leadership, and your own personal and professional maturity, you will find your voice, which means you won’t have to code-switch as much.

“What are we doing for our early-career folks? We’re losing talented, smart people because they are not being supported. They don’t feel safe. They don’t feel heard.” – Miyesha Perry

Howe Buggs: I grew up in a Caribbean family in a predominantly white neighborhood where I didn’t have many opportunities for diverse interactions. The lesson for me was twofold: Stop trying to be what others expect, and endeavor not to make the same assumptions about people based on how they look. I found the confidence to be unapologetically me, even if I do not sound or behave the way others expect. I also learned to focus my time and energy on figuring out the best way to connect and communicate with the person or group by getting to know them, not by relying on assumptions based on their race, gender, orientation, or disability.

Hairston: Everyone needs to be culturally fluent to thrive in their workplace. Culture is not transparent to newcomers who don’t know what they don’t know. Often, people who have been in a workplace for a long time are not transparent, even though most genuinely believe they are. Blind spots can be rampant on both sides!

Authenticity is everything – to a point. Cultural awareness and competency – knowing the definitions of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, failure and success, spoken and unspoken hierarchies, pitfalls, and opportunities – are gained over time, and go hand-in-hand with, or sometimes even trump, authenticity.

If you are a pioneer or a change agent, expect the challenge, embrace it, and practice self-care at all costs.

Mora: When I was younger, I used to resent the fact that I always had to navigate different cultures – be it white-dominant culture, African-American culture, or others. I didn’t like always having to figure out how to assimilate into other cultural environments, especially when others had no interest in learning about my own culture.

Over time, I learned to accept code-switching as my reality, and appreciate it as an asset. I believe my lived experience navigating different cultural identities – including, as a Nigerian-American with a Cuban husband and a Nigerian/Cuban/American family – is ultimately what allows me to be able to work with people of different backgrounds and work styles and learn from them. I think this skill is critical to being successful in the work we do to drive change within our organizations.

Code-switching, which allows us to easily navigate different cultural environments, is becoming a more valuable skill in our profession than it has ever been. This is because so many of us in grants management are now being tasked as organizational development change agents, working with people with varied lived experiences across functional teams, in order to roll out changes to systems and processes that support our foundation’s grantmaking.

Most leadership theory implicitly or explicitly claims to be identity-neutral, disregarding insights on race. The current sense of diversity, equity, and inclusion in philanthropy suggests that organizations need to balance some degree of color-blindness and color consciousness. Can you share your experience with this paradox?

Howe Buggs: For years, it has felt as if organizations were sending mixed signals, wanting to appear as if they are addressing the issue of diversity while simultaneously wanting to be neutral in order to appear fair and balanced. Foundations may hire a few people of color, in the hopes that greater diversity among staff will automatically lead to better and more equitable decisions and informed thinking. But more work is required. They must also provide the environment and culture to discuss bias. You need to have authentic conversations, asking them what they think, what they need, and what could be done better. You must foster an environment of trust where tough conversations can take place, and give people a voice. To leverage insights, you cannot simply hire people or invite them to an event. You have to incorporate mechanisms and facilitate forums to invite true feedback and input.

Mora: To paraphrase Dr. ML Black: It can be riskier to not bring your full self into your work than to do so. As I reflect on the paradox of balancing some degree of color-blindness and color consciousness within philanthropy, I keep coming back to that comment from Dr. Black’s keynote at a recent Technology Association of Grantmakers conference. As a Black Nigerian-American woman, it has not always felt “safe” or prudent careerwise to be my full self as a leader.

For the early part of my childhood, I lived in an all-white neighborhood where my family was the only family of color. My parents, both born and raised in Nigeria, worked hard to instill a sense of belonging and pride in our cultural heritage. But the environment around me did not embrace that difference, so I learned early on how to “play the game.” I learned from feedback in the formative years of my career that I will always need to navigate the “angry Black woman” stereotype. The reality is that tamping down my expressiveness and enthusiasm for my ideas can be effective because it can be experienced by others as aggressive or “having an attitude.”

“While it may not always feel ‘safe’ to do so, I think the more we, as leaders within our institutions, can bring our full selves into our work and share the different perspectives we have given our lived experiences, the more effectively we can advocate for more inclusivity, be stronger allies, better manage conflict, and be a model for others.” – Ify Mora

Robinson: One lesson that I’ve learned over the last 30-plus years in nonprofits, primarily as a board volunteer, has been to setting the intention to make a difference and create a different experience. When I started volunteering, I was, in most cases, one of the youngest people on the board, and the only person of color. It bothered me that there weren’t more people of color on those boards. And my observation was that the reason why I was at the table was twofold: My financial background, which is always sought-after, and my legal background, which was also helpful. Plus, as a person of color, I was able to check that box for an organization. It was a great experience for me personally, but there was an absence of other people who looked like me.

Perry: There is no such thing as identity-neutral. As a sector and as leaders, we can work to minimize unconscious bias. However, the reality is that racial identity, especially as a Black person, is undeniable and affects every area of our experiences – professionally, educationally, mentally, physically, financially, and socially. Pretending that it doesn’t matter only serves to continue the many microaggressions that exist daily in the culture of philanthropy, foundations, and our sector. I have learned to name the elephant in the room and I try to educate others when I can. That means discomfort for many, but that’s okay. Someone has to begin the conversation and do the work.

“Color-blindness and color consciousness can also be expressed in terms of visibility and invisibility, or valued and devalued. When are these frameworks helpful or harmful and, most importantly, to whom and how?” – Susan Hairston