After attending the 2015 Policy Link Equity summit, RPA Associate Donita Volkwijn spoke to our staff about the conference experience and led a discussion on diversity in philanthropy. We’ve asked her to share some of her thoughts here.
I have been in the philanthropic sector for four years. During that time I have come to learn the value of effective, strategic grantmaking and the benefit that philanthropic dollars can bring into the lives of the underserved. When I look around the philanthropic world, however, I find that those in a position to make grants tend not to be as diverse as the people to whom the grants are being made. When I go on site visits with donors, often to organizations that serve largely minority populations, I stand alone as the only person whose skin color is reflected in the community being served. I see the eyes of those who would benefit from a donor’s largesse dart to my face and then to those who sit beside me and I know that my presence alone speaks volumes. As a result, I sit up a little bit straighter, project my voice a little bit louder, and try to make my presence count as much as it can.
Philanthropy has long been an area of well-meaning people making decisions for those who need support that is otherwise missing in their lives. But as is often the case in the macro and micro sense, the underserved are very rarely invited to the table at which their lives are being discussed. Part of the reason for this exclusion is perhaps due to the relatively homogenous face of philanthropy. How do program officers, advisors, donors know that a perspective is missing when they’ve only ever had the tools to view issues from the same angle? Philanthropy has to diversify its membership in order to be able to access a more three-dimensional viewpoint.
People of color in the philanthropic world are in a unique position to change the perspective through which the communities we serve are seen. To that end, we need to enhance our profile, by stepping up and becoming leaders, educating ourselves on issue areas, and generally finding our voices. We cannot allow ourselves to assimilate so completely that our perspective narrows, but we also cannot allow ourselves to remain separate, marginalized, and silent. Philanthropy, however, has to meet us halfway. We can prepare ourselves as leaders, as visionaries and pioneers, but if philanthropy doesn’t carve out the space for us to grow, our glorious voices will remain unheard. I look forward to the day that I sit in a room surrounded by funders and program officers so diverse that the eyes of those who are being served cannot land on any one particular person.