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Lessons from the field about advancing racial equity inside foundations

I’m excited and honored to kick off a series of blog posts about Irvine’s work to advance racial equity in our grantmaking and how we operate, particularly around the following organizational priorities:

  • IMPACT – address structural racism and embed racial equity in our grantmaking
  • PEOPLE – embody racial equity in our culture, talent recruitment, and professional development
  • ORGANIZATION – integrate racial equity into our systems, policies, procedures, and practices

Why am I kicking off this new series? I joined the Foundation in November 2019 in a new role focused on identifying new opportunities for impact and building cross-sector relationships. Seven months into my tenure, amid the racial reckoning across the U.S. that followed the murder of George Floyd, I was asked to help facilitate a 18-month internal effort to create shared vocabulary for board and staff around racial equity, build the organizational muscle to talk about the four levels of racism (individual, interpersonal, institutional, and structural), learn about the impact of structural racism on communities of color, and pilot and strengthen racial equity grantmaking.

In 2021, our Vice President of Program Implementation, Charles Fields, shared his reflections on this initial period of internal alignment on Irvine’s blog, and last year he published a piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that include my and several colleagues’ perspectives (including a board member’s) about the Foundation’s learning process. 

In 2022, Irvine’s board approved a case statement that articulated the Foundation’s beliefs and long-term commitments to advance racial equity. This was an important milestone in the organization’s journey.  

Since then, our board and staff have focused on implementing our commitments to racial equity through a variety of efforts, such as developing racial equity principles and goals for our grantmaking portfolio, reviewing our operational policies and procedures to address unintended bias, integrating an equity competency into our talent advancement system, and refreshing the mission and structure of our staff-led Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee.  

We are also working to develop a shared framework and internal infrastructure to strengthen collaboration between our Leadership Team, DEI Committee, and ongoing organizational learning, professional development, culture-building, and staff engagement activities. This will enable departments and staff workgroups to better understand and work together to implement our DEI and racial equity efforts. 

I’m writing today to share a piece I coauthored for the Center for Effective Philanthropy about how different foundations are structuring their internal racial equity efforts. My coauthor is Monisha Kapila, the founder and former Co-CEO of ProInspire, a nonprofit that works with individual leaders and organizations (including Irvine) to advance racial equity and justice through training, coaching, and other resources. 

Monisha and I interviewed several funders that made public organizational commitments to racial equity to understand how each had strengthened leadership, built staff capacity at all levels, increased accountability, continued learning, and shaped culture to operationalize their efforts. This research is helping inform how Irvine will operationalize our racial equity commitments in the years ahead. 

We hope that other organizations find value in what we learned, and, similarly, future posts to Irvine’s blog will share specific lessons, updates, and tools related to our work. (Irvine’s blog has already been a great place to hear personal perspectives on racial equity from our staff, such as this Black History and Futures Month post by Kriztina Palone, a Senior Program Officer.) 

We know that Irvine and the philanthropic sector have a long way to go to address deep and persistent racial inequities in our institutions and society at large, and we would love to hear from others doing this important work.