Award-winning journalist and author Pamela Newkirk observes in her 2019 book Diversity Inc., organizational efforts to improve diversity within their own four walls largely fall flat because they fail to get to the root of the problem: Leaders are not actively changing the behaviors that uphold long-standing barriers to success that face people of color.
And in the case of philanthropy, this undermines an institution’s ability to effectively meet the needs of the people it seeks to serve. In advance of her PEAK2021 Online keynote, Newkirk spoke with PEAK’s Jesse Rhodes about the disparities she sees in the philanthropic sector and what leaders of funder organizations can do to effectively align the values they articulate on paper with their real-world practices.
You make the observation in your book that diversity training in a corporate context isn’t effective despite major investments of time and money. In what ways do you see this same behavior occurring in philanthropic institutions?
The go-to strategy for combating the lack of diversity is diversity training. It may make those institutional leaders feel like they’re doing something, but it’s not an intervention. The research on diversity training pretty conclusively shows that not only doesn’t it help increase diversity, but it oftentimes triggers a backlash. There was one study out of Harvard that showed that five years after mandatory training, the percentage of African-Americans and Asians in management went down. If the goal is to increase diversity, these institutions need to look at other strategies.
If you really want to effectuate change, you do it by exposing people to more diverse peers. I encourage institutions to move away from efforts to change hearts and minds through canned exercises and instead make interventions. Hire people from diverse backgrounds. People will learn through exposure to different people that we’re more the same than different. And I think that people believe the stereotypes of other people more than the reality because they haven’t had experience with diverse populations.
And funding institutions specifically are not under the same level of public scrutiny as publicly held entities, so there’s no fire under them to initiate change.
Right. And it’s really unfortunate that these foundations and philanthropic organizations that are so committed to changing society for the better are not looking internally at how they are perpetuating inequality. Turning the spotlight on their own behavior and how it is contributing to the homogeneity that we find in every influential field. And there’s really no excuse, particularly for institutions that are embedded in these incredibly diverse cities, to not have more diversity – on the board, in leadership.
So, given the dynamics currently at play, how can we change within these institutions?
It requires committed leadership, intention, and the will to change. We have seen over the past year how institutions have turned on a dime recognizing their failure to adopt diversity into their operations. We’ve seen a staggering number of people of color being hired to highly visible positions. It shows you that this is not a function of needing more time to diversity. It’s a question of whether leaders really want diversity. And this lack of diversity is illustrating the extent to which we have normalized injustice. We have normalized the exclusion of 40 percent of the population from these spaces.
And as you look at the philanthropic community, do you see ways in which these institutions act that ultimately do more harm than good?
Their failure to diversify has a tremendous impact on their work. How do you serve a diverse population effectively when you yourself are not diverse? When you don’t even understand these different populations and the way they operate? And I mean, you need diversity just to be part of your brain trust, just so you have more information that you can adapt depending on the communities that you intend to serve. In not having diversity, you’re not as smart because it is the dynamic interplay of different ways of thinking that makes an organization brilliant. Study after study shows that with greater diversity it not only affects your bottom line, but it helps you see blind spots that you just wouldn’t otherwise see.
There was a lot of progress made in the 1960s and 70s and then, at the expense of my getting political, the Reagan administration obliterated a lot of that progress. Based on the patterns you have observed, do you see any of that growth coming back?
We can only hope. Under the Johnson administration, there was a true commitment to bringing more African Americans into the main of American life through access to employment and decent housing. And we saw tremendous progress. We saw the disparities between Blacks and whites begin to close. And then we had an administration under Reagan, where he pretty much wiped out all of the programs and the initiatives that had created this boom in progress for African Americans and other people of color.
So, you were concerned about your question being political – but this is a political issue. Every decision is a willful decision. And doing nothing is a willful decision. It’s a question of what you want the society to look like and what you want your workplace to look like – what your view of fairness and justice look like. Because when institutions fail to diversify, they are pretty much showing what they want their world to look like. That’s political.
Are there success stories that you see in the nonprofit sector?
I love what the Ford Foundation is doing. It has made equality its central mission and everything it does has to be filtered through the prism of equality. That’s profound. That can make a huge difference. Diversity cannot be something an organization does on the side. It has to be folded into the core of its operations. It has to inform every decision that’s made; whether it’s your board, your leadership team, who you’re funding, or who you’re not funding.
If there is one piece of advice that you would give to a philanthropic leader so they can get closer to matching the values they state on paper with their practices, what would that be?
Do an honest assessment of diversity in your organization now, looking at where people are clustered by race, where people are underrepresented based on race, and looking at ways to intervene in that simple matter of what I would argue is injustice. And looking for actual strategies, actual interventions, and not just more studies. This issue has been studied to death. And so it’s time to actually come up with strategies for interventions. I outlined some of those in the book. I look at Coca-Cola and how it, after a landmark discrimination settlement made tremendous strides on diversity over the course of five years. But like I said, we’re not lacking in strategies, we’re lacking in will, intention and committed leadership.
Any parting thoughts you would like to leave with our community?
Like Nike says: Just do it.