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Philanthropy Massachusetts’ Road Towards Equity

Post date: 
February 18th, 2020
Article Type: 
Philanthropy MA Blog Post

Reflections from CEO Jeff Poulos on Philanthropy Massachusetts’ Road Towards Equity

When I stepped into the role of CEO at Philanthropy Massachusetts in 2010 (then known as Associated Grant Makers), diversity was a hot topic in the field of philanthropy and Philanthropy Massachusetts was among the few regional associations around the country leaning into the work in an intentional and multi-layered way. Philanthropy MA had founded The Diversity Fellows program, which provided opportunities for early- to mid-career professionals to transition into philanthropy through a fellowship at a foundation and a 10-month learning collaborative. Soon after my arrival, we formed a Diversity Advisory Committee from our board and membership at Philanthropy Massachusetts to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work in our region, and in my early tenure, I was one of two regional association representatives in the country to serve on the initial leadership advisory council for the D5 Coalition, a network of funders and other philanthropy-serving organizations (PSOs) to advance DEI in the field. Meanwhile, Philanthropy Massachusetts continued to offer trainings, workshops, networking, and convenings advancing DEI practices and leadership through its Grantmakers of Color network and others partnerships on programming.

But it seemed like our work, while admirable in some respects, was still missing the mark – internally at our own organization; for the sector; and perhaps more importantly, for people living in our communities in the Commonwealth.

Last year, Philanthropy Massachusetts launched a new strategic direction with five goals. One of these goals is to be a membership organizations that leads. By this we mean to identify strategies, trends, and initiatives in the region where we should step out front by bringing in expertise, offering programming, and giving voice and visibility where we see a void and need for leadership. To us at Philanthropy Massachusetts there was no more obvious an area where this was needed than on issues of DEI. Thus, in 2019, the board of directors agreed to prioritize DEI as central to our work.

What does it mean to make DEI central to our work – work that we see is necessary both for our organization and for philanthropy in Massachusetts? And how would we ensure that we didn’t repeat the missteps of our past? First, we recognized that we need to take a multi-pronged approach, looking internally and externally, that this work is complicated, and that we are in it for the marathon, not the sprint. This isn’t about a training here and there, nor is it to be relegated to a committee, nor will we say 2020 is the year of DEI work and then move on to something else. We are talking about systemic change for our organization and for the sector.

What does this change look like? Last week, Philanthropy Massachusetts held an equity retreat for its board and staff to begin our own understanding of what it would take to do this work well. With the insightful and substantial help of skilled facilitator Angela Park (AP Consulting), the board and staff spent the morning grappling with equity from individual points of view to systemic structures, core concepts of understanding equity and justice, as well as diversity, group identity, power dynamics and inclusion and belonging. Further, we began to articulate our rationale for making this a priority and what it was going to take to get there. In the afternoon, the staff had a working session with Angela as we drafted the beginnings of a workplan. Here are some of the early elements to the work we are looking to move forward:

Internal Focus at Philanthropy Massachusetts

  • Review and Revise Policies/Practices within our own organization.
  • Ensure that our hiring and vendor-selection processes have an equity lens
  • Review our board governance practices
  • Apply the same review and principles to our personnel policies and benefits
  • Review and adapt language and applications with our communications (website, social media, and printed materials)
  • Build a strong, inclusive and equitable culture

External Focus for Philanthropic Sector in Massachusetts

  • Work with our members and leaders in the philanthropic sector to further advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the sector across Massachusetts
  • Speak to why this work is important
  • Ensure that our programming reflects and advances our values and enables others in the sector opportunities to progress as well

This isn’t meant to be our comprehensive plan. This is our start. We’ve run some road races to this point, but consider this is more like mile one of our Boston Marathon.

The retreat day for me was exhausting and invigorating. I’ve been down the road of DEI before, ending in feelings of frustration or a resounding ‘meh’.  (By the way, I recognize that DEI is a term that is oft-overused now and has seemingly come to mean nothing by trying to be everything. It’s lost its specificity. Being more specific is part of our work going forward – so forgive me for using DEI in the present until we find a better way to speak about what we mean.)  But call me naïve or overly optimistic (although at 55 and over two decades of engaging on some level in this work, I don’t know that anyone would every call me either). What I do know is that I want to be part of an equitable and just society, and I want to help my small part of the world get there. I feel like we are on a better path. Our board and staff are committed to this work, and I hope we engage you, our members, as well. I encourage you to reach out to me, to ask me questions, to challenge me, and to join me on this journey.


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