Building Leadership Diversity: A Call to Action for Philanthropy

Philanthropy can lead the way to opportunity for young men and boys of color by supporting diverse leadership.

Earlier this year President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative to help boys and young men of color achieve their full potential in the face of trying circumstances. With the support of philanthropy, business, government, and faith leaders, the president hopes to help these young Americans make informed choices, develop resiliency, overcome obstacles, and achieve their dreams.

The initiative is rooted in the president’s engagement with promising high-school students in his adopted hometown of Chicago, where students commonly face adversity just walking to school. This is not just a new government program; it is a call to action to make sure the doorway to opportunity is open for those who are working every day to walk through it.

As the daughter of an African-American man who lives five blocks from where my parents grew up in Chicago, five blocks from the First Family, and five blocks from where 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot last year while standing with friends after completing her final exams, I confront the urgency of action every time I walk out my front door.

The field of philanthropy must answer, and it must start with leadership. Investing in leaders who reflect the communities that philanthropy serves and bringing perspectives to the table that are rooted in life experiences—experiences similar to those of people they seek to help—can help philanthropists more effectively advance the common good.

Robert Ross, president and CEO of The California Endowment, is one such leader. Ross grew up in a housing project in the Bronx before attending an Ivy League institution. The road that he has traveled is paved with experiences that inform and enhance his position as a leader.

Those experiences led him last year to help launch the Executives’ Alliance to Expand Opportunity for Boys and Men of Color. Like My Brother’s Keeper, this alliance of leaders from 26 foundations is committed to improving outcomes for a population that in too many cases is involved in alarming rates of violence and incarceration. The alliance is committed to “creating structures and pathways to opportunity and inclusion” for young men and boys of color, which will in turn help all of our communities. The leadership behind this alliance would have been hard to muster without the efforts of organizations such as the Association of Black Foundation Executives and other affinity groups that, for the past 40 years, have nurtured this leadership and promoted practices that allow for effective and authentic inclusion in philanthropy.

Another promising example is The Institute for Black Male Achievement (IMBA), which seeks to strengthen organizational capacity so that the field is positioned to address the long-standing systemic barriers that have denied young men and boys the opportunity to succeed. IBMA is partnering with the Social Impact Exchange to help funders leverage resources to help young men and boys of color across the country.

During his remarks at the My Brother’s Keeper launch event, boys and young men of color surrounded the president. Each represented the promise and potential that the initiative hopes to unlock. The faces were familiar to the president, and he noted that although he might not have faced the same low odds and heartbreaking statistics, growing up in a home without a father led to many poor choices. As he said, “I could see myself in these young men.”

More importantly, they should see themselves in him. If philanthropy is going to achieve its collective mission to advance the common good, it can start by ensuring that the people we work to help see themselves in us.

As D5 develops and promotes tools, resources, and support for foundations and organizations to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, we highlight examples from across the sector of successful approaches toward cultivating diverse leaders. Just a few examples include:

  • The Association of Black Foundation Executives’ Connecting Leaders Fellowship is designed to sharpen the skills and strengthen the leadership capacity of foundation staff, donors, and trustees who are committed to assisting Black communities through philanthropy.
  • The Emerging Practitioners of Philanthropy established the People of Color Network to widen the leadership pipeline and create opportunities for skills development and personal growth of young people of color in foundations and other philanthropic institutions.
  • The Proteus Fund’s Diversity Fellowship identifies, recruits, and cultivates emerging practitioners of color who represent the next generation of philanthropic leaders.
  • The San Francisco Foundation’s Multicultural Fellowship Program aims to cultivate the next generation of community leaders to reflect the diversity of its region.

This work is hard, but it’s not optional, and we do not have to do it alone. The efforts outlined here work to strengthen the common good with models, guidance, and networks that catalyze our individual actions and that contribute to a growing commitment to ensuring that philanthropy reflects, is responsive to, and attracts all of our communities.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


  • E. Bomani Johnson's avatar

    BY E. Bomani Johnson

    ON May 27, 2014 08:24 PM

    Awesome job Kelly!!! Thanks for providing an historical look at all of the philanthropic efforts to raise the level of achievement for boys and men of color! MBK may be the highest profile, but it has a legacy of work - challenges and successes - to build upon.

  • BY Angela Dye

    ON May 29, 2014 05:17 AM

    This is a great discussion! I want to add two points to strengthen our thinking on the matter and to hopefully identify additional resources.  1) Let us not forget the distinctive nature of women of color in the need to diversify our approach to leadership and pathways to leadership.  Many of the programs/initiatives mentioned in this article focused on men of color.  The womanist movement draws attention to the shortcomings of focusing specifically on race or  specifically on gender. In those constructs, black women are over looked (or incidentally included).  Typically, black men receive resources/ opportunities when race is the focus and white women receive resources/ opportunities when gender is the focus.  Again, this comment is not made to detract from the message of this article. It is made to enhance it.  2) As a black woman (lol I bet that you did not see that coming), I have spent half of my career in traditional education roles.  The second half was geared toward non traditional education roles which positioned me as a social entrepreneur. While it is clear that social innovation is my passion,  I am distinctly aware that it is not my training. I was trained to teach and to manage school operations. Although there is overlap, there is a difference.  As a result, I am constantly looking  for opportunities to help strengthen my skills  as an entrepreneur. When I read about programs outlined in  this article,  I find myself wishing that philanthropists  would recognize the dynamic dimensions of leadership/entrepreneurship with women of color.  Please do share if you know of any resources/opportunities.   I promise to pay it forward!  smile Thanks and continue to prosper in all of your endeavors.  

    http://www.pbsdevelopment. com

  • BY Steph Routh

    ON June 3, 2014 03:06 PM

    Thank you very much for this thoughtful article and for your work. It was a pleasure to meet a member of Youth Guidance’s staff at the recent Nonprofit Technology Conference in DC and amazing to learn of the organization’s growth.

Leave a Comment


Please enter the word you see in the image below:


SSIR reserves the right to remove comments it deems offensive or inappropriate.