Shoulder to Shoulder: An Enduring Dedication to Equity…

During a meeting the other day, a staff member who has recently joined the Foundation team asked me how I was sure that the Foundation’s efforts to advance diversity, and equity, inclusion would continue beyond my tenure at CFWM. This question got lodged in my mind. For several days, I reflected on what we had accomplished so far in our DEI journey, and what that work will look like moving forward, with a new CEO. I asked myself: Will it look different? Who is leading this work? How is it woven into the fabric of the Foundation’s practices, policies, and culture? How is it visible? Who is accountable and responsible for learning, creating, and supporting new systems? 

It’s been more than two years since this blog started. Back then, after more than a year of planning, the Foundation was embracing its new strategic vision: increasing equity and opportunity for all who live in our region. We were also in the early months of a multi-year global pandemic and, as a nation, in the midst of confronting the acute crisis of racism and social injustice. The Foundation had only recently shifted its grantmaking and scholarship practices to contend with the ramifications of COVID-19. We were also responding to the call for foundations to increase their funding and focus on those who would be most impacted by the pandemic, including people of color, the elderly, and those living in or close to poverty. 

We had contracted with a consultant the previous January to assist in a review of our internal culture, systems, policies, and practices. The onset of COVID delayed the start date for that work, so when I posted that first blog entry, the consultants were just beginning their efforts with us to identify what needed overhauling, adjusting, and dismantling. With their help, we would develop a plan to do just that – correct anything we were doing that contributed to systems of inequity. From the beginning, we made a commitment to be transparent and share the journey. Here’s one line from that first post that stands out to me in particular:  

“I imagine this journey ahead for the Foundation will be long and difficult at times, yet surely it will also be infused with insight, inspiration, and hope.” 

Wow. That’s quite an understatement! I had no idea at that time what “long” or “difficult” might mean. I do now. Or at least I have a much better sense of what that means for an organization and for the individuals who make up that organization. I naively thought the process would be linear and, like other goal-oriented work, temporal with a finish line at which we could arrive. And if we had good intentions, expert guidance, and sufficient energy to push hard enough, we would “get there.” Looking back at that statement, it’s clear I wasn’t sufficiently prepared to lead this work. While I had an inkling that was the case, I tried to line up the expertise we needed to support us. As it turns out, it wasn’t enough support or the type we needed. We jumped into the inventory and analysis before doing adequate prep work – things like setting group agreements, defining terms, skill development and conflict resolution training, to name a few. 

Many articles, videos and books on leading DEI work warned that mistakes will be made and collateral damage is unavoidable. I agree. But minimizing it with an appropriate level of preparation and adequate expertise to support the group is critical to keeping that damage to a minimum. On the other hand, processing slowly and carefully can feel like yet another delay tactic. I see now there is a middle ground (isn’t hindsight a great teacher?). Good intentions are not nearly enough. From my experience, having the right expert guide/s for yourself and for your organization, careful preparation, skill development and expectation setting helps to set an urgent pace without incurring too damaging a wake. 

I’m grateful for the question and the reflection it prompted. It helped solidify, for me, the ways to know this work will continue long after my departure. 

1. Our staff. We have hired folks who are deeply committed and many are highly experienced in DEI efforts. They hold diversity, inclusion and equity at the center of their work, whether that work is accounting, scholarship awarding, fundraising, grantmaking, human resources, or technology. They have committed to working differently than we have in the past to help promote equity faster. They have shown over and over again a commitment to learning, to remaining attentive, adjusting, and persisting in the face of difficulties and challenges.  

2. Our Trustees, all of whom dove into deep reflection and examination in 2019 to develop our new vision to advance equity and opportunity for all. They unanimously endorsed that vision with specific strategic priorities, including advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in workplaces and institutions, starting with our own as one of those five pillars. Over the last year, they have worked with staff and the Distribution Committee to develop a clear and detailed commitment statement that prioritizes racial equity to guide the work of the Foundation, and they adopted a new grantmaking policy designed to ensure that no grants will be made to organizations engaged in hateful and discriminatory activities. They continue to lift up equity in conversations and training and are working closely with a national search firm to find a new President and CEO with expertise in and a rock-solid commitment to DEI. You can see how the commitment to equity runs through the entire prospectus and is included in the skills and expertise necessary for an ideal candidate. 

3. We have new practices and policies that are emerging, including a three-year Diversity Equity and Inclusion action plan to consistently create and review new systems and build inclusive and equitable skills and practices internally. This plan will be carried forward by each department at the organization with the support of our new partner, Conditioning Leaders. They will work with our Trustees to continue their equitable governance journey, and with the VP for each Department to ensure that each team has access to the knowledge and resource development needed to continue to advance DEI. 

4. Our competitive grantmaking and scholarships are now prioritizing racial equity. This work includes funding and our commitment to engaging a diverse group of grant and scholarship reviewers, offering a variety of perspectives as they evaluate applications, make investment recommendations, and ensure our grantmaking is equitable. 

5. Our partnerships and networks. We are learning from others by providing them with support, as they support us. We have launched a new partnership with the Barr Foundation to study and pilot more equitable philanthropic practices in 2023. The new Massachusetts Community Foundation Partnership, a statewide coalition of community foundations, is focusing on equity training and convening, and the Western MA Funders Network has been devoting time for peer learning about more equitable practices that support nonprofits. We have also partnered with the Western Mass Economic Development Council to participate in a year-long peer learning cohort via CFLeads Equity Network.  

6. We aspire for our DEI work to be transformative, and to be transformative it must be continuous. We know we must continue to listen, to engage in deep conversations, and in introspection and self-review in order to harness the principles needed to enhance our policies and practices. Our trustees and staff understand that this work is ongoing, and they are each committed to sustaining our momentum and to honoring with integrity our path toward more equitable and just progress. 

The list goes on.  As a team, we are learning to resolve conflict, build new systems, repair relationships. We are learning to spot “insight, inspiration, and hope” and this fuels us, too.  

We all know from history that there are pivotal moments when the tide turns. And unfortunately, we also know that this particular work has seen its share of ebbs after powerful flows. How can we ensure that we don’t take two steps back with every step forward? For the Foundation, our answer continues to evolve. Right now, equity is a lens through which we strive to examine all our work, our commitments are public, we are pacing ourselves and pressing forward, and we are staying open to learn from and partner with others. Since this work is being led in so many different dimensions by staff, volunteers, donors and partners–and not any single person—it will persist. And yet, we also know that we will continue to need help. As the Foundation moves through its leadership transition in the months ahead, I encourage you to join us, hold us accountable, support us and press forward with us – shoulder to shoulder.