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The Path to Innovation and Creativity Runs Through Diversity

Human Services

In her TED talk about philanthropy five years ago, Katherine Fultonof the Monitor Institute presented two sets of words side by side:



Fulton asked, “Which side would you like to be on?”

It is a safe bet that any foundation or philanthropic institution leader would say theywant their organization tobe on the right side: open, big, fast, connected and long-lasting. These qualities spur innovation, impact and durable positive outcomes for communities and nonprofit organizations, the ultimate recipientsof philanthropic investments and the conduits for the change that foundations seek to achieve through their assets.

When modern philanthropy originatedover 100 years ago, the sector’s trailblazers, among them Rockefeller,Carnegie and Ford, never would have seen themselves on the left side of the two word columns. Philanthropy was a reinvention of charity, reflecting a shift from temporary relief for the poor to a search for solutions to the root causes of societal problems. The conversion of private wealth to public assets through philanthropic institutions was, and remains, a radical concept, though the lofty radicalism is easily lost in the day-to-day focus on how to make a good grant; on our drive for performance over impact.

Once considered trailblazers, foundations are now widely regarded as staid institutions—closed systems that are fixed in their ways, risk-averse and slow to adapt to new opportunities and challenges. There are exceptions, of course, and even pockets of open and fast-moving work within otherwise closed foundations, but, as a sector, philanthropy struggles to innovate even as the market surges for articles, books, speeches and conference sessions on philanthropy—catalytic, high-impact, creative and strategic philanthropy among those with recent buzz.

Our sector is closed and yet professes a yearning to be open. In proportion to the potential that it has to change our society and our world, it is small. In contrast to the change that can be ignited by a poignant viral video made with no budget or the outpouring of individual donors that can be harnessed through text messages following a natural disaster in Haiti, it is slow—agonizingly slow. Foundations are fragmented by issues, geography and philosophies, and aredisconnected from government agencies and businesses that often seek to address overlapping issues, which is particularly counter-productive as the boundaries dissolve between these traditional sectors. And we are short-sighted, routinely rewarded for focusing myopically on the priorities mappedout by the tenure of our current leaders, or more commonly, on the deadline for the next docket.

With all of its limitations, or rather and more hopefully, with all of its unmet potential and limitless opportunities, philanthropy is a singularly inspiring, generous and creative part of our society. Its impacts are nothing short of phenomenal, and while some effects are felt around the world, just as impressive are the effects felt on Broad Street.

Within philanthropy, we often talk about how to leverage impacts beyond our assets, yet philanthropy has not even reached impacts that match its collective assets. With philanthropic gifts increasing by 2,500 percent in the past 30 years alone (The Foundation Center n.d.), entrenched poverty rates, education gaps, income inequity, food insecurity andlack of access to healthcare, each a massive societal problem that inspired the largesse of the sector’s trailblazers, seem to only grow ever more acute.

How can we change the trajectory? The study of levers that may increase the impacts of philanthropy is a growing field, but one lever is both obvious and urgent, and does not require more study; it simply requires action.

For philanthropy in 2012, the year in which the Census Bureau announced that white births are no longer the majority in the United States, in which those in favor of equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians reached a majority, and in which immigrant youth may no longer fear deportation to countries they know in name only, one path toward increasing our openness, connections, adaptability and potential for long-lasting impacts is to increase our attention and action on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Foundations spend their money without oversight, and the communities and organizations that receive foundation money have no influence over how the money is spent unless foundations voluntarily ask for input; some do, but most do not. Bringing diverse voices into the philanthropic sector, as leaders, practitioners and donors, does not guarantee oversight, but it will improve our insight into how best to target and leverage these assets.

As our region grows more diverse, Delaware Valley philanthropic organizations must think about how to recognize, embrace and maximize diversity because doing so will enable us to call on the range of talents and experiences that can inform and improve our work. In the Philadelphia region, 36 percent of residents currently do not self-identify as white (Bureau of the Census n.d.). The population of the region is expected to increase from 5.9 million to 6.4 million in 2020 with 97 percent of the total population increase expected to be from non-white residents. The African American population in the region is forecasted to grow 23 percent; the Latino/Hispanic population to grow 64 percent; and the Asian/Pacific Islander to grow 73 percent (Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliancen.d.). If we do not grow with the region and open our philanthropy, we willplace false limits on the potential of our field. In light of the pressing needs in our communities, we cannot settle for such an outcome.

When we achievediversity, equity and inclusion in philanthropy, we will unleash innovation and creativity in our institutions through the infusion of ideas from wide-ranging life experiences, relationships and perspectives on what works in communities. Diversity, equity and inclusion mean ensuring that resources are distributed equitably, and actively seeking to include people who have historically received a smaller share of philanthropic dollars, such as ethnic and racial minorities, women, lesbians and gays, and people with disabilities. It means embracing all people as donors and leaders in our field.

Imagine the energy that we will bring into our work when we make this happen. We just might see the breakthroughs that philanthropy’s trailblazers envisioned so many years ago. 

It is common for foundation leaders to profess a genuine desire to increase the diversity of their organizations, and just as common for foundations to be paralyzed about how to do it, but making progress with diversity is within our control. It is a matter of taking action, and below are just a few ideas that can be put into action today:

  • Be public and explicit about your organization’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion; when it is seen as central to an organization, it lays the groundwork for a culture that will welcome diverse voices.
  • Engage colleagues, trustees, donors, staff, community members and grantees about diversity, equity and inclusion—start by talking about it.
  • Conduct a diversity, equity and inclusion organizational audit and set goals for your organization. Identify the areas in which you could improve and take steps toward progress.
  • Set explicit criteria for search firms charged with finding potential CEOs, high-level staff and trustees to present a diverse pool of candidates.
  • Incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion goals into your strategic plan.
  • Participate in and promote more systematic diversity, equity and inclusion data collection.
  • Increase your grantmaking to diverse communities. Consider a population-focused fund.
  • Check out the D5 Coalition and learn why and how a national coalition of philanthropic institutions has come together to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in philanthropy (D5 Coalition n.d.).

If our philanthropic institutions in the Delaware Valley region take individual and collective action on diversity, equity and inclusion, our region will be at the forefront of a new wave of philanthropy, one that is admired for being open, big, fast, connected and uniquely abled to bring about long-term change. If we do this, we will not only transform our organizations one-by-one, we will transform our entire region. This is the power of philanthropy.

Meghan McVety is a Principal and Co-Founder of Capacity for Change and a Program Coordination Consultant for the D5 Coalition, a five-year effort to expand diversity in foundation leadership, grantmaking, and practices.


D5 Coalition. (n.d.). Accessed October 11, 2012,

Bureau of the Census.(n.d.). Accessed October 18, 2012,

Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.(n.d.).Demographic Trends and Forecasts in the Philadelphia Region Key Findings. Available at

The Foundation Center.(n.d.).FC Stats. Accessed October 18, 2012,

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