Q&A with Fred Ali on Race, Diversity and Cultural Competence

The Weingart Foundation has increasingly highlighted issues related to race, diversity and cultural competence. For example, as part of the Foundation’s announcement regarding our full and long-term commitment to equity, we explicitly identify race and ethnicity—in addition to poverty—as critical factors impacting communities facing the greatest obstacles to opportunity. In addition, last year the Foundation added questions about diversity as well as cultural competence to our grant application.

Our president and CEO, Fred Ali, recently sat down with Hellen Hong, executive director of Southern California Region of First Place for Youth, a Weingart nonprofit partner. Hellen asked Fred some of the questions her peers—current and future Weingart grantees—may have about why Weingart is elevating the issues of race, diversity, and cultural competence and what the Foundation’s commitment to equity means for them.

Hellen: Recently the Weingart Foundation announced a commitment to advancing social and economic equity in the Foundation’s FY 2017 Program Plan. The Foundation explicitly talks about focusing on communities that face the greatest obstacles—including those that stem from race and ethnicity. Was it intentional on your part to not address race explicitly before? And if not, why is it priority now?

Fred: Weingart has a long history of working in underserved communities in Los Angeles and Southern California—and that often means poor communities of color. In the past, many foundations, including the Weingart Foundation, were careful about directly talking about race and ethnicity, but we just reached a point where it was important for us to more explicitly talk about issues of race, and call it out. Many of the disparities we see in human services, education, and the criminal justice system run across ethnic and racial lines, and we need to recognize it, ask ourselves why that’s the case, and hopefully do something about it.

As we considered the indicators of nonprofit organizational effectiveness, diversity and cultural competence quickly made that list.

Hellen: It was an important step that Weingart named it, and that you put yourself out there, addressing the systems issues as opposed to just addressing the symptoms.

Fred: For various reasons, foundations are often reluctant to do that. Sometimes it’s a question of legitimacy, which for Weingart meant that if we were going to raise race and ethnicity explicitly, we wanted to make sure that we had some credibility in doing so. One of the things that we have done over the last number of years is to be very strategic and intentional about building diversity within our own staff and board. When you do that, it changes the kinds of conversations that you have within the institution and enables you to engage with the issue.

Hellen: That’s a powerful statement in the sense that you’re actually practicing what you’re calling the community to do. Can you talk a little bit more about how the diversification of your board and staff has impacted your practice and your day-to-day operations at Weingart?

Fred: Speaking broadly, organizations are able to strengthen themselves and achieve greater effectiveness by inviting differences, not just similarities. It changes and broadens the conversations, and creates different perspectives. And often times it leads to more thoughtful, creative problem solving. Because our staff and board is so diverse, and because all of our staff comes directly out of the nonprofit sector, it enriches our strategy discussions and improves our analysis of issues and opportunities that nonprofits are addressing. All that, hopefully, leads to better practice in the field.

Hellen: Last year you added questions to the grant application about diversity and cultural competence. What do you hope will come out of elevating these issues for nonprofits?

Fred: As we considered the indicators of nonprofit organizational effectiveness, diversity and cultural competence quickly made that list. Significantly, if we did not have a diverse staff and board, this may not have been the case. What we’re primarily hoping to do is prompt organizations to ask themselves how do diversity and cultural competence lead them to being more effective organizations? If they accept our premise that these issues are priorities, then it’s important that they ask where they are in terms of building a diverse staff and board. Even deeper, how are they making sure it’s not just diversity, but that they also have cultural competency? They need people from a cultural and linguistic standpoint who are able to work and communicate effectively with the people they serve. What are they doing strategically to make sure their staff is culturally competent and able to deliver the best possible programs?

We need to face our blinds spots—our privilege and prejudice—in an honest and open way and look for solutions. We also need to empower with our resources a lot of great nonprofits doing the hard work in the field.

Hellen: What has the response been from the nonprofit community? It’s a new way of thinking and you’ve also rolled out some changes to the application process.

Fred: It’s still early, as we’ve been at it for only about a year or so. I would say, however, that the response has been very positive. This may be somewhat of a skewed sampling because most organizations we are funding work in the area of human services and already identify diversity and cultural competence as being important.

At the staff level, most organizations are eager for the conversations and interested to know what others are doing. In some cases we’ve had executive directors thanking us for asking the questions about board diversity, because that seems to be the bigger challenge and where you get the most conversation. Often it’s the executive directors who feel strongly that these are hallmarks of effectiveness but are not sure their board does. Or their board agrees but is not sure how to recruit diverse individuals.

Oftentimes people default to a way of thinking that can be problematic. They say to us, “Well, you’re constantly asking us to develop a board that raises resources, but how can we have a diverse board and also one that will also help us with our fundraising?” That’s the worst kind of stereotyping and it often creeps into the discussion. Sometime those discussions evolve into how the Foundation can be helpful with examples or resources. For instance, there’s the African American Board Leadership Institute, which can be helpful to organizations that want to expand African American participation on their board. We’ve also had a couple incidents where organizations have pushed back and said, “We don’t get the point here. We don’t see how diversity or cultural competence has anything to do with effectiveness. Our staff doesn’t have problems relating to those served.” In those instances, we just have to agree to disagree.

Hellen: Part of this movement building is for nonprofits, but there’s also a value in this for the philanthropic sector. How would you assess the philanthropic field in terms of diversity and cultural competence?

Fred: I would say in general, a lot more work needs to be done. You can look at the ranks of program officers sector-wide and see more diversity than before. But when you get into the senior management level, and when you look at boards, I think we’ve got more work to do. I think that sometimes these are difficult discussions for foundations to have. They have to look at their own prejudices and blind spots, and they have to examine their own position of privilege. Discussions about the power imbalance get into a lot of other interesting places that are healthy for foundations to explore. You have to be honest in assessing yourself and your own organization in regards to diversity and cultural competency before asking it of others. I will say, however, that California is a bit further along in this regard than other states.

Hellen: How would you like to see it improved?

Fred: I would like grant review processes to have more emphasis on diversity and cultural competence. If organizations working in communities of color have no staff of color, you start raising questions about the long-term ability of that organization to remain effective. I am also reminded that when we speak of diversity and equity, we need to remember the disabled community. Raising tough questions within your own institution, and then raising the question among grantees is a way to increase diversity and effectiveness in the field.

There is a moral imperative here. Too often people of color, women, disabled people, people who identify as LGBTQ, have been left out of positions and that’s simply not right. On moral grounds we should oppose that. But I think there’s also an argument to be made on economic grounds. Study after study, especially in the for-profit sector, indicate that diverse organizations and companies are more innovative, profitable, and effective. We need to pay attention to that because on economic grounds alone there’s reason to improve our practices in this regard.

If you’re going to build civil society and address inequities, then you need to build nonprofit infrastructure. It’s about a long-term commitment and understanding that change won’t happen overnight.

Hellen: I would add there is a social imperative too, as we both know. This conversation can be difficult both in the boardroom and on a day-to-day basis. Talking about race and diversity can make people feel uncomfortable. Did you have any concerns about announcing your intentions to increase emphasis in this area?

Fred: One thing I didn’t think about as much as I should have before we starting emphasizing this in our grant review process, is that most of our staff are people of color, and that they would be placed in situations where they are raising questions about race and cultural differences in environments that aren’t always particularly diverse. This can be uncomfortable for the person raising the issue. Sometimes our staff thinks they’re getting the answers people think we want to hear. How do you have that discussion in a way that’s authentic and useful to grantees? Our staff has spent time talking about this, doing role-playing, and consulting others in the field who’ve have this experience. It’s a learning journey, and we are making some headway.

Hellen: What was the most surprising response?

Fred: It’s not surprising, but in fact gratifying, how thrilled people are that we have announced our intentions in this area. I have heard over and over again that people expect The California Endowment or the Liberty Hill Foundation to be talking about equity, race, or cultural competence. So they are happy that this is coming from the Weingart Foundation, one of the oldest foundations in the community. People think that for us to step out about equity and raise questions about race, it will make others pay attention. That was good to hear because if we can be leaders in this area we’re happy to take this on.

Hellen: One of the things I wanted to touch on was that you talk about using the equity lens to address systemic barriers to opportunity. How you do think this approach can be used to address issues like institutional racism?

Fred: We’ve been trying to address institutional racism in this country for a long time. Over the recent election cycle, we’ve had to face the fact that as a nation we are not as far along as we hoped. I think when an institution like the Weingart Foundation raises this issue and says it’s important, it hopefully elevates the discussion, especially among those who have never really engaged in it. We need to face our blinds spots—our privilege and prejudice—in an honest and open way and look for solutions. We also need to empower with our resources a lot of great nonprofits doing the hard work in the field. That is what this work is all about.

We try to do our work in a humble way, recognizing the people who live and work in these communities are the experts. We want to put them in the driver’s seat while using our influence and leadership to get others involved. We understand that we can’t do it alone.

Hellen: What do you see ahead for the Weingart Foundation, in terms of your approach to race, diversity, and cultural competence?

Fred: It’s a learning process. We have committed to increasing our level of community engagement. We’ve made it clear that we don’t want to come in and do equity to communities. Instead, we want to spend time listening to those working in the field, hear what they see as challenges and opportunities, and learn how philanthropy might be helpful. We’re doing lots of listening, and that hopefully can be converted into good program strategies. We’ve been hearing very clearly about the need to bring more resources to nonprofits and to do that in a culturally competent and sensitive way. For example, we are using PRIs [program-related investments] to bring new resources to under-resourced communities and to try to build nonprofits’ infrastructure. We are doubling down on this strategy in communities like South LA as well as in areas around San Bernardino. We believe that building nonprofit infrastructure is a way to tackle some of the disparities and inequities that we see across the areas we fund.

Hellen: You do that by providing unrestricted multi-year funding that gives time and capacity for those organizations and those types of programs to grow.

Fred: We believe that Unrestricted Operating Support is one of the best ways to build organizational effectiveness. It’s somewhat of a risky strategy—there are funders out there that might look at our grantees and question if we are providing our resources to the strongest, most effective organizations. But as a matter of policy we have committed that all resources, programs, and policies will be based on promoting social and economic equity. All of our grantmaking follows a fair amount of due diligence, and in some cases what we’re saying is this is an organization doing really important work but they need to be strengthened. That can be risky because you’re making an investment in an organization that other foundations might not. We see it as a long-term commitment, and you can’t have a short attention span.

Hellen: It has to be particularly so because many of those communities like Southeast LA and South LA don’t always have the same opportunities to receive major investments and resources to build robust and deep organizations.

Fred: Southeast LA and South LA county communities are great examples. These are areas, as you know well, with tremendous need. There are lots of disparities across racial and ethnic lines, and there is limited nonprofit infrastructure in those communities. If you’re going to build civil society and address inequities, then you need to build nonprofit infrastructure. It’s about a long-term commitment and understanding that change won’t happen overnight.

Hellen: Which is why I think it’s really so important that Weingart is taking that risk. Communities need to have that long-term investment. It mirrors the whole conversation around equity.

Fred: We recognize that we occupy a certain leadership space in the philanthropic ecosystem. We try to do our work in a humble way, recognizing the people who live and work in these communities are the experts. We want to put them in the driver’s seat while using our influence and leadership to get others involved. We understand that we can’t do it alone.

Hellen: Systems change is fundamentally the only way we’re going to accomplish major change. In closing, on a tactical level, for the people who are or want to become grantees of Weingart Foundation, are there resources they can read to learn more about this framework and how to incorporate it in their organization?

Fred: There is, deservedly so, a fair amount of skepticism in the field about all the philanthropic talk about equity. Some say, “We hear the words but is anything going to change?” When we decided to publicly embrace equity we knew we couldn’t just say the words. That’s why our message was developed intentionally as an introduction to our Program Plan that begins to lay out our equity agenda. The Program Plan is where current and prospective grantees should go to get a detailed understanding of the framework of Weingart’s commitment to equity. A lot of people told us that this is the first time a foundation was talking about equity with a plan. Having said that, there’s also a rich field of thinking and literature developing around equity that people should look into. For example, we have great respect for PolicyLink, which has been promoting equity as an organizational principle, as well as others.

Hellen: Thank you for making the commitment and for Weingart’s leadership in the field.