The philanthropic sector is in agreement that diversity, equity, and inclusion are central to any social mission, but what does that look like in practice—especially within our own hallways and cubicles? While there’s consensus that our field has work to do in better representing and serving our diverse population, putting intentions into practice can be complicated and difficult.

Earlier this year, the D5 Coalition, a recently completed five-year initiative to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in philanthropy, released its annual State of the Work report outlining the movement’s progress and challenges. While D5’s creation five years ago, and the growing number of social-sector institutions who partnered with it over the years, are testament to the importance philanthropy places on diversity, equity, and inclusion, its latest report found that we still have a way to go. For example, people of color are still underrepresented at foundation leadership levels—and the lack of reliable data about the number of women, people of color, LGBT people, and people with disabilities in decision-making positions within foundations presents an ongoing challenge. As D5 Director Kelly Brown stated in the report, “The data itself may not be telling the whole story because many foundations have yet to share information about personnel and grant making.”

Given this, D5 decided to focus its final report on stories of people in philanthropic organizations taking action to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. Brown continued, “These stories can inform strategy, but more importantly they instill hope, inspire courage, and buttress our shared commitment to advance the common good.”

In the spirit of the report, we are sharing our story—stumbles and all—in the hopes that others can learn from our experience as they work toward our shared goals.

Arabella Advisors, which since 2005 has advised foundations and other donors on philanthropic strategy, began a concerted effort five years ago to increase the diversity of our workforce. We made many mistakes in our earliest days. It took time to understand what works and what doesn’t, and recalibrate, and we have come to realize that fully embodying these values is hard, in the same way that any kind of social change is hard.


Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

Leading up to this effort, we were growing rapidly, and we increasingly heard—particularly from junior and mid-level staff—that that our workplace felt disconnected from the people and places we served. At the same time, our clients—current and prospective—were more frequently highlighting how mission-critical diversity, equity, and inclusion is to the social sector. In 2011, we made a commitment to increase the diversity of our workforce.

At first, our efforts were scattershot and disorganized. We drafted a statement of our commitment, but though the sentiment was genuine, we had no coherent strategy to achieve it. We solicited ideas from staff about how to reach more diverse networks and set up a few ad-hoc staff diversity committees comprised of people who believed deeply in the mission. But while they proposed worthy goals, they made limited progress. These ideas and committees weren’t integrated into the organization’s broader strategic plan, and it was difficult to persuade management to accept accountability for goals that that it did not fully understand.

A couple of years into our efforts, we were seeing some positives—for example, broader recruiting networks and relationships with professional associations whose members brought new experiences to our firm—but staff sentiment remained ambivalent. We also heard clients express a desire for more diversity on our project teams. This led the firm’s leadership to pressure the recruitment team to seek more “diversity candidates,” but without a clear strategy for how to do that—or, most crucially, a common understanding of what we meant by diversity—the perspectives and insights we were bringing to the table felt static.

Listening and Learning

Two years into our efforts, we took a step back, acknowledging that we had misjudged the complexity of what it meant to be a diverse firm. Because of a desire to see and demonstrate progress, we had jumped into a series of actions geared at outputs measurable by statistics, without stopping to understand the problem.

We decided to approach diversity, equity, and inclusion as we would other firm-wide strategic issues: by designating people to lead the charge and be accountable, integrating it into our broader goals and infrastructure, and identifying outsiders to fill the gaps in our expertise. A brand-new HR department took responsibility for the firm’s commitment to diversity and set a simple goal for the first year: to develop a long-term vision and strategy for what a diverse, equitable, and inclusive Arabella should look like.

The team began with two important steps focused on learning. First, it reached out to diversity experts and external groups with diversity, equity, and inclusion success stories, including D5, academia, diversity consultants, and competitors. These groups helped us understand that diversity goes beyond demographics and statistics—that it is woven into every aspect of the workplace, from the obvious (recruiting and hiring) to the less obvious (water cooler chatter, happy hour themes, and who leads presentations at all-staff meetings). They also helped us determine where we needed to train staff on issues like unconscious bias and navigating challenging conversations.

Second, the team asked staff members what they were experiencing when it came to the diversity of our workforce and how our workplace supported it. We disseminated an all-staff survey, and interviewed individuals to learn about their experiences inside and outside Arabella. To our surprise, the internal data turned out to be the most enlightening. We hadn’t previously tracked demographic data in a systematic way, and our survey highlighted the extent to which racial and ethnic minorities were underrepresented at the firm—something we could set clear goals to address. We also learned that there was a perception that the firm promoted only dominant and extroverted personalities, and that people with different personalities weren’t heard.

Diversity at an organizational level is much more complex than demographic representation. Organizations must also create an environment in which different voices are heard, different skills and backgrounds are valued and promoted, and everyone feels they can be their authentic selves without professional repercussions. By seeking outside perspective and creating a platform that allowed employees to share their feelings, we discovered that every aspect of our systems, processes, and culture feeds into how diverse, equitable, and inclusive we are.

Initial Progress and Moving Forward

Understanding the problem better means we’ve become better at addressing it. With full backing from our senior leadership and our new CEO, we implemented a number of strategies. In 2015, we set a goal of increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the firm so that it better reflected the general population. A revamped recruiting team identified and cultivated partnerships with organizations that would connect us with candidates from a broader set of backgrounds. We forged a partnership with the DC chapter of the National Black MBA Association, for example, and co-hosted meetings and events for its members. We also affirmed our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our branding, particularly on our recruiting materials, and have heard from several candidates that this was a factor in their decision to apply to Arabella.

Simultaneously, we made a series of internal changes that went hand-in-hand with more expansive recruiting and hiring. We trained hiring managers to understand unconscious bias and how it can generate homogenous candidate pools. Prior to this work, one of our hiring criteria was “cultural fit”—a vague rationale that we now interrogated, realizing it was an umbrella under which people could lump biases. Our recruiters no longer allowed hiring teams to turn down a candidate because they were “not a cultural fit.” We also had external experts do intensive, full-day trainings with every member of our staff about what constituted an equitable and inclusive environment, including sessions on issues such as microaggressions and power in the workplace. We identified a cohort of staff from across the firm to serve as inclusion leaders, tasked with working on an ongoing basis with leadership, HR, and their peers on changing internal culture, processes, and models to better integrate these values.

Through these measures, we have begun to see progress on several fronts. For example, in 2015, we increased the racial and ethnic diversity of the firm by 32 percent, broadening and deepening the perspectives we bring to our work with clients and to our daily interactions with each other. And we formed a cohort of inclusion leaders—a cross-section of staff spanning the firm’s teams and regional offices—tasked with drawing on their experiences to drive the firm’s work on diversity and inclusion. In addition to helping us identify a number of other ways in which staff have felt disconnected, the inclusion leaders have led the development of a multi-pronged strategy to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion into the firm’s culture, recruiting and hiring, and client relationships. While we address the issues this cohort raises at the leadership level, staff members now drive trainings and events, as well as the broad direction of our efforts on this front.

Through these efforts, we have become better at incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion values into our work with clients. One of our project teams, for example, was able to help a major client uncover implicit bias and blind spots in their giving strategy; this resulted in a new set of criteria for their grant making that is enabling them to reach more vulnerable populations. Living these values by being better partners to our clients is deeply satisfying.

We all have a role to play in making our field more diverse, equitable, and inclusive—both in how we treat the people who work there and in how we think about the work we do. It is a tough journey that takes time, facing hard truths, and learning from mistakes, but the change we want to see in the world needs to start in our own hallways. 

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