Today, President Obama will address the most diverse Congress in American history, with a record 101 women, 45 African-Americans, 31 Latinos, and 7 openly LGBT members across both houses. Against a backdrop of heated partisanship and record-low productivity, some have wondered if and how the new faces might finally change the discourse—and the level of effectiveness—here in Washington. Will adding more Latino members reshape the immigration reform debate? Will additional women lead to more family-friendly policies? Will these fresh perspectives solve problems differently and soften the gridlock?
In the philanthropic community, we’ve been asking the same questions: Are there tangible benefits to increased board and staff diversity for philanthropic organizations?
Many in the field of philanthropy, relying on strong anecdotal evidence, think so. D5, a five-year, collaborative effort of major philanthropic institutions was created to encourage and support philanthropists to build a more diverse and inclusive philanthropic sector.
Yet we still lack reliable research that shows what we sense intuitively. One of the most critical steps in building a body of research around diversity—whatever the sector—is collecting objective data on the demographic makeup of both organizations and communities benefiting from philanthropic investments. This can be relatively straightforward in the private sector as organizations can compare organizational diversity to things like profit margins and staff turnover (McMahon, A.M. 2011). In the public sector, the diversity of teachers and administrators can be compared to students’ scores on standardized test and graduation rates (Pitts and Wise 2010).
In the philanthropic sector, similar data is hard to come by. First, foundations do not report their demographic information and are not required to do so. Second, there is a normative perspective that “if you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation,” meaning that each foundation pursues specific goals that are unique to their organization. Accordingly, most studies on diversity in the philanthropic space have been subjective and inconclusive. For example, researchers have analyzed the relationship between the board diversity of foundations and the number organizational accomplishments reported by staff. But these data are collected from staff members who likely have varying definitions of the subjective “accomplishments”, and it is unclear whether these results would apply across organizations.
Although research has been inconclusive to date, studying philanthropic data is not merely about acquiring new data. There must be an acknowledgment of research in the area of group decision-making. There is a general consensus in this literature that breakthrough innovations most often come from diverse groups of people that bring a variety of perspectives to bear on a given issue, not from “genius” individuals (Hill, Linda et al. 2010). To better substantiate this, we would need to develop creative yet rigorously designed studies that compare more homogenous environments with more heterogeneous ones based on shared understandings of what “successful” outcomes mean.
This kind of research, which also requires that foundations be more transparent about their demographic characteristics, can help us determine definitively whether to prioritize diversity for purely moral reasons or embrace diversity for its practical, performance-based impacts.
As we mark President Obama’s second term, let’s commit to finding out just how valuable diversity is to the philanthropic institutions that drive our country forward. If you are a scholar, researcher, or practitioner, you can find more concrete suggestions about potential research to conduct in a longer article on D5’s website. Consider what role you might play in helping us understand the power of diversity in philanthropy.