Let’s get one thing straight. I don’t really spend a lot of time worrying about those that have already made it clear that they don’t care about diversity in nonprofits. But I do have beef with those in the nonprofit world who profess to care about diversity, yet refuse to do anything about it. Actions speak louder than words. Outcomes matter much more than intentions. Which is why everyone in the nonprofit sector who does care about diversity should be pretty upset with the foundation folks in Florida right now.

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

Florida’s governor signed legislation last week aimed at curtailing how much state and local governments can do to regulate foundations and their diversity practices.

Drafted with help from the Alliance for Charitable Reform, the law prohibits Florida government officials from requiring that foundations disclose the race, religion, gender, income level, sexual orientation, or certain other characteristics of their employees and board members, as well as those of their grant recipients.

Foundations that are supposed to be all about diverse practices are opposed to sharing the proof behind their hiring and grantmaking outcomes that would reflect that. What’s the point of developing diversity policies if you don’t track your progress? Foundation president Emmett Carson asserts that “the new law calls into question what had heretofore been accepted about the virtue and value of transparency as promoted by key organizations that set standards for foundations: the Council on Foundations, Foundation Center, and Independent Sector.”

  • For example, the Council on Foundations, which represents about 2,000 foundations, states: “In carrying out their philanthropic activities, our members embrace both the letter and spirit of the law. Our members seek diversity and inclusiveness in order to reflect the communities they serve and to ensure that a range of perspectives contribute to the common good and the development of their mission in a changing society.”
  • Similarly, the Foundation Center, a research organization that collects information on grant makers, states: “Transparency and accountability are key to earning the public trust.”
  • And Independent Sector, which represents charities and foundations, advises “open and timely sharing of financial, governance, and program information.”

If Emmett’s right that these “words lose all meaning unless these organizations speak forcefully to the dangers inherent in the Florida law,” then where are the voices of the Council on Foundations, Foundation Center, and Independent Sector in speaking out against this legislation? To be clear, I agree with Emmett that “government should not be in the business of deciding who sits on foundation boards or which nonprofit organizations receive grants based on demographics.” But we have to also realize that:

…the idea that government is prohibited from requesting diversity data as it relates to board composition, staffing, and nonprofit grantees undermines the promise that foundations have made to the American public that they are committed to diversity, inclusiveness, accountability, and transparency in their operations.

There’s no way that it’s beneficial for foundations to spend their time trying to figure out how to avoid being transparent about diversity. Indeed, officials at the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy (NCRP) say the Florida law “takes institutional philanthropy in the wrong direction” and that the grantmakers involved in the advocacy to get this law passed could have spent that time and human capital on issues of real concern to the nonprofit sector.

This law and efforts to pass it demonstrate that foundation priorities are misguided and myopic. There are high resource and opportunity costs associated with the law’s passage – time, money and human capital that could have been spent in better ways was instead squandered to promote this irrelevant legislative effort. Grantmakers who funded this effort could, for example, have boosted grantees’ operational reserves or expanded programs to serve those most disadvantaged in our communities. Funder associations could have spent their time educating their members about how to better meet community needs, lobbying for better financial regulation to protect foundation assets from future threats or building member capacity. This is particularly relevant because foundation assets have taken a serious hit and continue to feel the effects of the recession. Protecting philanthropic assets would seem to be a significantly higher priority than preemptively blocking sunshine legislation.

What’s becoming clearer to me is that all foundations are not created equal, and many of them could care less about being accountable to walk their diversity talk. But for the foundation leaders that truly do care about diversity in their profession, the Florida legislation should come as a huge slap in the face. Especially for people like David Waldman, Vice President of Human Resources and Administration for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), who recently shared his experiences with RWJF to change ”the culture of the Foundation to make diversity much more a part of the fabric of who we are as a working community”:

Whatever we have done, successful or not, we have not let our intentional focus on diversity diminish. It has remained unwavering through leadership transitions, high-profile attention to other work, and other potential distractions. We never stopped paying attention. We may not have done things in the “right order” (we just published our broad-based diversity statement on our website this year), but we have created a culture where diversity is part of the ongoing discussion at all levels of our work.

High profile infrastructure groups like the Council on Foundations, Foundation Center, and Independent Sector have been encouraging foundations to adopt diversity policies and statements for years now. RWJF is just one example of an organization that’s heeded its advice. So why aren’t these organizations speaking out about this nonsense going down in Florida? Why did the reputable members of the Florida Philanthropic Network like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bank of America, Wachovia, and the Jesse Ball duPont Fund attach their names to this harmful advocacy effort?

I’ve got more questions than answers to what’s happening in philanthropy these days. For now, what we have is an ill-advised piece of legislation with no public opposition to it from within the philanthropic community save for foundation watchdog NCRP and the fearless Emmett Carson.

But then, Orson Aguilar, executive director of the Greenlining Institute, a California group that has backed legislation in the state to compel foundations to disclose information about their diversity practices, may have put it best.

“They must be really ashamed of their diversity practices if they have gone a step forward in creating regulation that basically gives them the right to discriminate.”