Earlier this month, I called on the philanthropic sector to start putting our weight behind bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. I’d like to share how we at the Johnson Center are reflecting on our own work, our role in the sector, and how we will work differently going forward. We welcome your thoughts on this.
For context, the Johnson Center is part of the College of Community and Public Service at Grand Valley State University. Although we are an academic center, we are not a degree-granting department. Our mission is to understand, strengthen, and advance philanthropy. We provide competency-based professional development for both nonprofit and foundation staff, conduct research and evaluation, and provide tools to make data and knowledge more accessible and usable by organizations and individuals in the sector. While we receive important support from the university, the largest part of our funding comes from grants and contracts for services and registration fees for our courses and workshops.
Individually and collectively, at the Johnson Center and at GVSU, we take the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) very seriously, and recent events have caused us to dig even deeper to examine how we can do better. We all play a role — implicit or explicit — in systems that must be changed, and we all have a responsibility to change them.
Here are a few of the steps we’ve already taken at the Johnson Center:
- Three years ago, we convened an internal DEI committee to help deepen our understanding of our own culture and what we need to do to create a more inclusive workplace. This includes developing shared norms about how we work together, sharpening our communication skills, clarifying our recruitment and on-boarding processes, and reflecting on how our personal identities shape how we “show up” in the world. The ongoing work of this committee will support the staff as we seek to bring these skills and mindsets to our work in community.
- We are revising our professional development offerings to make sure that DEI is woven into them — not just a topic we touch on. For example, we recently offered our Financial Analysis in Grantmaking professional development course. We began the course with a discussion of how “standard” financial due diligence impacts smaller organizations and particularly those led by people of color.
- Our data team has been analyzing data to help highlight the economic status of people of color in Grand Rapids and Kent County. Recent examples include the Latinx Data Report, which specifically details Latinx responses to the VoiceKent 2017 and VoiceGR 2016 surveys; and the Economic Inclusion in Grand Rapids Data Update, which was produced with underwriting from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and looks at trends in housing, employment, and poverty within 17 census tracts in the city. We hosted, along with Kellogg foundation staff, a community café very recently to share that work with the community partners and talk about the follow-on work that begins this fall in the same neighborhoods.
- We’ve tried to be creative about providing support for nonprofits that don’t have the resources to pay for services. Some examples: Foundations sometimes pay for services for their grantees; we worked with the City of Grand Rapids to provide training and support for neighborhood associations; and we offer free programs as often as possible, including a monthly Lunch and Learn series. We’re developing plans to continue offering nonprofit clinics and short consultations on key topics available for free or at very low cost to participants.
- Our Scholar in Residence for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Juan Olivarez, collaborated with a broad group of government and philanthropic organizations to develop a proposal for promoting more inclusive growth in Grand Rapids. While the initial proposal was not funded, the group committed to continuing to work together to better coordinate and improve the ways in which economic growth happens in the city. This includes working with regional partners to highlight the impact of inclusive growth collaborations in other localities and to offer guidance and inspiration on implementing inclusive strategies for prosperity.
- We’re developing competency models for both foundation program staff and nonprofit leaders. Our goal is to have our professional development offerings build the core competencies needed to be effective in these roles. Research suggests that doing competency-based hiring and training leads to a more diverse workforce and longer retention. For both roles, DEI competencies are central. We’re currently looking for support to help build out all of the curriculum and develop a credentialing process.
- We are partners with the Equitable Evaluation Initiative, working to implement evaluation practices that promote equity and to share the framework more broadly in the sector.
Work we plan to pursue in the near future includes:
- We are developing a proposal for a Philanthropy Fellowship program that will develop more diverse leadership in the sector. We need leaders who understand and have networks in both the foundation and nonprofit parts of the sector.
- Our Ecosystem for Nonprofit Leadership work will help to build a more diverse pool of nonprofit board members and more inclusive boardrooms. We’re partnering with more than 20 local organizations on this community-wide effort to improve governance.
- We are piloting a forum for funder/community organization dialogues. These dialogues are meant to help build trust and understanding among the key actors in the philanthropic ecosystem.
- We will continue to provide data about the status of nonprofits, especially those led by people of color, to inform policy and practice.
It is our responsibility to continuously strive to do more and do better. As GVSU President Philomena Mantella said in an email to the university community,
“As a historically white institution, we must teach what it means to be more than allies in thought but truly partners in action. For some this may mean holding accountable those who commit violence, peacefully working on cultural and institutional changes, engaging in self-education, sharing your knowledge with others, and above all, honoring the voices of those who are rightly aggrieved.
The Grand Valley mission of shaping lives, professions and societies is a direct invitation for us to be engaged. We are steadfast in our commitment to making certain this work is embedded throughout the university and elevated as we forge ahead.”
We at the Johnson Center are committed to continuing this work with intentionality, humility, and persistence. I welcome your counsel on how we can play a role in supporting a healthy philanthropic sector that contributes to thriving, inclusive communities.