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Living Our Values: Gauging a Foundation’s Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
November 29, 2018

Mona Jhawar serves as learning and evaluation manager for The California Endowment.

Mona JhawarThe California Endowment (TCE) recently wrapped up our 2016 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Audit, our fourth since 2008. The audit was initially developed at a time when community advocates were pushing the foundation to address issues of structural racism and inequity. As TCE’s grantmaking responded, staff and our CEO were also interested in promoting DEI values across the entire foundation beyond programmatic spaces. Over time, these values became increasingly engrained in TCE’s ethos and the foundation committed to conducting a regular audit as a vehicle with which to determine if and how our DEI values were guiding organizational practice.

Sharing information about our DEI Audit often raises questions about how to launch such an effort. Some colleagues are in the early stages of considering whether they want to carry out an audit of their own. Are we ready? What do we need to have in place to even begin to broach this possibility? Others are interested to hear about how we use the findings from such an assessment. To help answer these questions, this is the first of a two-part blog series to share the lessons we’re learning by using a DEI audit to hold ourselves accountable to our values.

While the audit provides a frame to identify if our DEI values are being expressed throughout the foundation, it also fosters learning. Findings are reviewed and discussed with executive leadership, board, and staff. Reviews provide venues to involve both programmatic and non-programmatic staff in DEI discussions. An audit workgroup typically considers how to take action on findings so that the foundation can continuously improve and also considers how to revise audit goals to ensure forward movement. By sharing findings publicly, we hope our experience and lessons can help to support the field more broadly.

It is, however, no small feat. The audit is a comprehensive process that includes a demographic survey of staff and board, a staff and board survey of DEI attitudes and beliefs, interviews with key foundation leaders, examining available demographic data from grantee partners as well as a review of DEI-related documents gathered in between audits. Having dedicated resources to engage a neutral outsider to carry out the audit in partnership with the foundation is also important to this process. We’ve found it particularly helpful to engage with a consistent trusted partner, Social Policy Research Associates, over each of our audits to capture and candidly reflect where we’re making progress and where we need to work harder to create change.

As your foundation considers your own readiness to engage in such an audit process, we offer the following factors that have facilitated a productive and learning oriented DEI audit effort at TCE:

1. Clarity about the fundamental importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to the Foundation

The expression of our DEI values has evolved over time. When the audit started, several program staff members who focused on DEI and cultural competency developed a guiding statement on Diversity and Inclusiveness. Located within our audit report, it focused heavily on diversity although tweaks were made to the statement over time. A significant shift occurred several years ago when our executive team articulated a comprehensive set of core values that undergirds all our work and leads with a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

2. Interest in reflection and adaptation

The audit is a tool for organizational learning that facilitates continuous improvement. The process relies on having both a growth mindset and clear goals for what we hope to accomplish. Our 13 goals range from board engagement to utilizing accessibility best practices. In addition to examining our own goals, the audit shares how we’re doing with respect to a framework of institutional supports required to build a culture of equity. By comparing the foundation to itself over time we can determine if and where change is occurring. It also allows us to revise goals so that we can continue to push ourselves forward as we improve, or to course correct if we’re not on track. We anticipate updating our goals before our next audit to reflect where we are currently in our DEI journey.

3. Engagement of key leaders, including staff

Our CEO is vocal and clear about the importance of DEI internally and externally, as well as about the significance of conducting the audit itself. Our executive team, board, and CEO all contribute to the audit process and are actively interested in reviewing and discussing its findings.

Staff engagement is critical throughout audit implementation, reflection on findings, and action planning as well. It’s notable that the vast majority of staff at all levels feel comfortable pushing the foundation to stay accountable to DEI internally. However, there is a small, but growing percentage (23%) of staff who report feeling uncomfortable raising DEI concerns in the workplace suggesting an area for greater attention.

4. Capacity to respond to any findings

Findings are not always going to be comfortable. Identifying areas for improvement may put the organization and our leaders in tough places. TCE has historically convened a cross departmental workgroup to consider audit findings and tackle action planning. We considered co-locating the audit workgroup within our executive leadership team to increase the group’s capacity to address audit findings. However, now we are considering whether it would be best situated and aligned within an emerging body that will be specifically focused on bringing racial equity to the center of all our work.

5. Courage and will to repeat

In a sector with limited accountability, choosing to voluntarily and publicly examine foundation practices takes real commitment and courage. It’s always great to hear where we’re doing well but committing to a process that also raises multiple areas where we need to put more attention, requires deep will to repeat on a regular basis. And we do so in recognition that this is long term, ongoing work that, in lieu of having a real finish line, requires us to continuously adapt as our communities evolve.

Conducting our DEI audit regularly has strengthened our sense of where our practice excels—for example in our grantmaking, possessing a strong vision and authorizing environment, and diversity among staff and board. It’s also strengthened our sense of the ways we want to improve such as developing a more widely shared DEI analysis and trainings for all staff as well as continuing to strengthen data collection among our partners. The value of our DEI audit lies equally in considering findings as well as being a springboard for prioritizing action. TCE has been on this road a long time and we’ll keep at it for the foreseeable future. As our understanding of what it takes to pursue diversity, equity, and inclusion internally and externally sharpens, so will the demands on our practice. Our DEI audit will continue to ensure that we hold ourselves to these demands. In my next post, we’ll take a closer look at what we’re learning about operationalizing equity within the foundation.

--Mona Jhawar

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  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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