Why a racial equity audit might make sense for your foundation

Written by: Leticia Alcantar

Date: January 03, 2017

Many of us are still reeling from last month’s election results. Some of us reacted with deep feelings of fear, sadness, demoralization and hopelessness. Now there are many questions and musings about which way forward.

Two things are clear from the election: The first is that foundations and grantmaking vehicles are not clearly understood by the general public. Second, now more than ever, race and racial equity are the defining issues of our time – particularly as they relate to philanthropy.

What can philanthropy do to actualize its commitment to issues of justice and fairness? One option is a racial equity audit.

A racial equity audit can be a powerful leadership tool to uncover, recognize and change inequities that are internal to your institution. This in turn could heighten effectiveness in challenging racial inequities external to your institution on the road to challenging other discrimination-based inequities more broadly in your work.

Lighthouse Philanthropy Advisors, where I work, recently conducted a racial equity audit for Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA). GIA is a national membership organization of arts and culture funders that highlights issues that impact, improve and strengthen arts philanthropy.

Since 2008, GIA has been elevating racial equity and social justice as a critical issue affecting the field. In 2013, its board approved a motion to make racial equity an organizational priority, and in the spring of 2015, GIA released its Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy Statement of Purpose, which was a culmination of four years of work, discussion and commitment.

GIA sought to “walk its talk” by undergoing an internal (hiring practices, human resource policies) and external (member programs, board composition) audit to set benchmarks and long-term plans to operationalize its commitment to racial equity.

Our goal was to provide GIA’s staff and board members with a basic roadmap for making concrete and doable changes that would move both the organization and the field forward to advance racial equity, while maintaining the collaboration and cohesion of key stakeholders.

We began the process by establishing three lines of inquiry that would undergird the audit:

  • Has GIA established racial equity as an organizational priority in internal policy documents? How does it evaluate its racial equity work and monitor progress towards achieving internal racial equity? How is staff/leadership accountable internally and to whom, and how is GIA accountable externally?
  • How is racial equity reflected internally in GIA’s governance, language and communications, policies, culture, operations and practices? How effective are these elements in advancing racial equity internally?
  • How does GIA further racial equity externally among its membership through its communications, programs and practices? What is the quality of those elements and what impact are they having?

To answer these questions, Lighthouse reviewed GIA’s internal equity policies, procedures, and programs, as well as its website and other field-oriented communications. We also conducted two surveys, one targeting stakeholder member institutions and another targeting foundation peer groups working in a variety of sectors unrelated to arts and culture. We interviewed a diverse set of representatives of GIA staff, board, funders, learning group members and “un-connected member organizations.”

We then prepared a detailed summary report, including an analysis of key themes, recommendations for incorporating action steps into administrative and programmatic areas, and a compilation of racial equity programs of similar organizations.

What does it take to undertake an effective audit?

  • A willingness to open the organization to outside scrutiny – the ability to bare its soul.
  • The ability to both take decisive leadership and take direction from its constituency.
  • A deep commitment from the organizational leadership to take this work on over the long haul because cultural and systemic change takes time.

Has your foundation undergone a racial equity audit? Tell us about it in the comments.

Leticia Alcantar is a partner at Lighthouse Philanthropy Advisors.

Image from JPhotoStyle.com, used under Creative Commons license.