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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Does philanthropy need to be more woke?

In a 1967 address, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged the progress America had made in civil rights but that the fight for equality was entering into a new phase. According to King, although the battles to end legal segregation were won, the movement had entered “a struggle for genuine equality on all levels,” and it would be a “much more difficult struggle.”

Our nation has made tremendous leaps forward, but we are still fighting for equality more than 50 years later. We all carry the responsibility of treating each other with dignity and respect and must continue to work toward a society where every person can enjoy the blessings of life, liberty, and opportunity.

Unfortunately, today’s social-justice movement is not fighting for everyone to be treated equally but rather for special treatment of some by prioritizing equity over equality. Those who advocate for greater equity as a remedy to past historical injustices are considered “woke” — or aware of social- and racial-justice issues affecting black and brown Americans. In recent years, social media has allowed woke individuals to threaten and “cancel” those who do not support, follow, or fund social-justice causes by making them a target of repudiation, harassment, and reputational assassination.

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After making its mark on private industry, the woke dogma is now taking root in the charitable sector. Social-justice philanthropy is no longer considered a choice but an imperative for donors.

Advocates of woke philanthropy view equity as attention to demographic representation in leadership and staffing, shifts in mission, and viewing all work through a racial lens. The problem with these diversity and equity efforts is when you limit racial and gender diversity with little consideration for the other dimensions that make one person different from another — such as his or her economic background, lived experience, and viewpoints — you ignore valuable dimensions that can make organizations more effective.

If a charity or foundation voluntarily chooses to fill leadership positions with diverse, qualified individuals to help those they serve more effectively, they should do it by all means. However, these considerations, and these considerations alone, are not a one-size-fits-all key to success. Advocates who would sacrifice effectiveness for demographic diversity, should consider the actual impact on the people served by these charitable organizations. Good intentions divorced from the mission, and ultimately progress, can lead to harmful outcomes. Woke philanthropy’s current approach to mandating diversity, equity, and inclusion policies fails to recognize this.

After analyzing hundreds of studies on corporate boards as well as the effects of gender and racial diversity on groups, Northwestern University psychology professor Alice Eagley concluded in a 2016 article for the Journal of Social Issues that there is “no adequate scientific basis” for the claim that gender and racial diversity improve a group’s performance or outcomes. According to Eagley, the outcomes are mixed at best: “Some studies show positive associations of diversity to these outcomes, and some show negative associations.”

We often hear that the board and staff of charitable institutions should reflect the communities they serve. But what is more important is that they care about the communities they serve and get results. There could be an argument for greater racial and gender diversity in organizations that serve diverse populations. A large national organization like the Salvation Army operates in many different communities. Hiring staff and leadership who are qualified, understand the local needs, and are committed to the organization’s mission, as well as reflect the communities they serve, could strengthen their outreach and impact.

Conversely, organizations serving a specific group of people or narrowly defined racial, ethnic, or religious goals may do well to have individuals who share similar demographics. For example, should a philanthropic organization with a nearly all-female board, such as the Ms. Foundation, diversify its leadership to meet the equity standard even if it exclusively serves the needs of women? Or would a charity started by an ex-offender that offers jobs programs and career counseling to other formerly incarcerated individuals be any less worthy if the founder is a white man serving a black population?

Progress is not forcing all nonprofit organizations to have the same percentages of races and gender or dictating which groups donors should fund. Instead, we should support allowing organizations the freedom to do what delivers the best results. What makes for a thriving, voluntary charitable sector (and ultimately, stronger communities) is a diversity of organizations with their wide-ranging missions, programs, areas of interest, approaches, and cultures.

Diversity is a hallmark of the philanthropic world if we consider the breadth of organizations people support, the causes they champion, and the communities they serve. A discussion of the programs and strategies that can continue the work of strengthening equality should not start or end with treating anyone with discrimination.

Patrice Onwuka is an adjunct senior fellow at The Philanthropy Roundtable and a senior policy analyst at Independent Women’s Forum.

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