Ruth LaToison Ifill was named vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Council on Foundations in May, succeeding Floyd Mills. A military spouse, LaToison Ifill previously served as the manager of national career development services for veterans and military family members for Goodwill Industries International, where she also spearheaded initiatives to improve organizational understanding of and engagement with diversity and inclusion issues internally and in program implementation.
PND spoke with LaToison Ifill about the ways in which the council is working with member foundations to promote DEI across the sector and support systems change; the importance of data and intersectionality to that work; and the impact funders can have on the racial leadership gap at nonprofits.
Philanthropy News Digest: The position of vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion was created in 2016 "to advance the council's work to promote inclusiveness as a fundamental operating principle in philanthropic organizations." How has philanthropy's approach to DEI changed over the last two years? And do you feel there's a greater sense of urgency now given the current political environment?
Ruth LaToison Ifill: I think the biggest change is that there is now a very robust ecosystem of philanthropic organizations and philanthropy-serving organizations that are working to drive diversity in the field in a myriad of ways. The council, specifically, has been partnering with, but also is being held accountable by, its member organizations. Together, we are demonstrating leadership and developing a diverse talent pipeline in philanthropy through our Career Pathways program, which has already seen great success and graduated sixty-one people of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and beliefs, 87 percent of whom have gone on to take senior and executive appointments at foundations. At the same time, the council's board is more diverse than it's ever been, which has led us to be more vocal and strategic in our internal efforts and in the services we deliver to our members.
We engage with over a thousand philanthropic organizations, and we are seeing incremental changes in the way our members are doing business. More and more of our members are focusing on racial equity and on the LGBTQ community in ways they were not before. So, we are seeing the sector change, but there's still much work that needs to be done, and we're collaborating with the sector and our partners to accomplish that work.
I hate to give credit to the current political environment, and I want to be fair to the previous administration, which was instrumental in raising DEI up as an issue. But the council had already been actively working to make the world a more inclusive place and highlighting the importance of respecting people regardless of which group they belong to or how they identify — and that became even more important as we saw people whom we love and care about being disparaged. We need to respond to that, of course, but our work on these issues started well before the current environment and only has become more urgent.
PND: What has the council been doing to support foundations' efforts to advance DEI in the field? And what is your number-one priority for that work over the next year or so?
RLI: It's about advancing the work and "inching" our members forward. The philanthropic sector is a big ship with a lot of moving parts and a complicated ecosystem of different types of organizations led by different kinds of people. We first need to demonstrate the cultural humility needed to do the hard work of expanding our perspective and understanding marginalized populations; there are leaders in this space who are already doing work that we can learn from. Philanthropy must be intentional about listening and learning, and that's a process that takes time. We at the council want to be a part of our members' process of learning and broadening their perspectives.
My priorities in this new role are intersectionality and data. Sometimes we can get stuck on the one issue we care about most or the one issue that gets the most attention, but I firmly believe this is not a zero-sum game. We really want people to see the importance of focusing on multiple communities and of paying attention to the data about how local communities are affected. For example, if you're a foundation and immigration is a major issue in your community, the data you are collecting about the impact of your work in that community should help you respond. Paying attention to the data specific to each community is how we want foundations to approach this work: to look at the focus on their giving, the composition of their boards, their staff, and then determine when and where they need to make changes in order to more closely align their work with their mission.
PND: While at Goodwill Industries, you oversaw the organization's efforts to develop a culture of learning and diversity. What were the greatest challenges you encountered in that work? And are there lessons you learned there that you feel apply to the work you'll be doing for the council?
RLI: I learned at Goodwill that it's all about data. Any DEI professional will tell you that "diversity, equity, and inclusion" has to be a part of the effectiveness of every team, program, or service. Data is what helps to keep you relevant, innovative, and morally responsible. By focusing on impact data — not just the number of people served but how their lives were improved — you can help make the best case for DEI. If you're in the diversity space and trying to effect change, gathering, analyzing, and using data to outline your next steps is critical. That's true for any type of foundation, whether it's a community foundation, a large family or private foundation, or a large corporate giving program.
Goodwill has a data analytics initiative that's going to be integrated from retail all the way to mission services and workforce development. Paying attention to data that shows who you serve and how equitably marginalized communities are served — that's what helps steer the ship in a more holistic and intersectional direction. Most people, innately, want to do good, but without impact data you don't know how or where you need to make changes to do good in a meaningful way. And data helps you tell the story. You can say you're committed to diversity and inclusivity, but if you don't have data from your board and HR team, if you don't have data on recruiting and on the kinds of organizations you're giving money to, and on the populations those grantees are serving, and how equitably or inequitably they are receiving services, you're going to find it hard to make change.
At the council, the Grantmaker Salary and Benefits Survey looks at a lot of data, particularly at the CEO level, and last year we parsed out some of that data in our diversity report, State of Change: An Analysis of Women and People of Color in the Philanthropic Sector. One of the things we'll be working on is how to take this analysis to the next level: how do we get more information from the sector, to make informed and meaningful impact for populations that have been historically marginalized in our sector?
PND: Are there specific aspects of DEI work that foundations should be paying more attention to?
RLI: I think one blind spot is intersectionality. As I said, this is not a zero-sum game. We can't stop paying attention to people because we want to talk about issues. When foundations look closely at their impact data, they'll find that their passion for people and communities requires them to recognize that certain populations are more negatively affected than others by many of the problems philanthropy is trying to solve. You can't try to improve a local community's access to food and water without intersectionality. You can't say you care about dismantling systems that perpetuate poverty and then ignore the fact that communities of color often are displaced to areas without access to healthy food or cultural amenities or decent public transportation. Issues like poverty, food access, and race are inextricably linked. In the same vein, if you want to improve the overall mental health of youth in America, you can't ignore research that shows which populations are the most affected; you have to talk about LGBTQ youth, who are more prone to commit suicide at unacceptably higher rates. If certain populations are disproportionately impacted by an issue philanthropy is responding to, philanthropy has to care about intersectionality; you have to target your efforts to those populations.
PND: For the most part, private foundations are created by people deeply embedded in and rewarded by existing economic and power arrangements. Does that fact complicate their ability to address structural racism and drive real systems change in society?
RLI: It certainly has the potential to influence the lenses that donors and philanthropic leaders apply to their work, but there are organizations like the Meyer and W.K. Kellogg foundations that are taking the lead in this area. It's the responsibility of each philanthropic organization to think carefully about how their funding model addresses structural racism, and it's our responsibility at the council to pay attention and respond. There are people committed to holding organizations accountable around the impact their dollars can and should be making in communities, and some of the work we're doing with our Inclusive Economic Prosperity events reflects that. It's not lost on those of us at the council, or our partners, or the attendees at our Inclusive Economic Prosperity events, how racial and economic disparities are inextricably connected. We have to start somewhere, though, so the council will continue the work to hold people accountable, and we'll do what we can to ensure that racial equity is highlighted as we work to address economic issues, with the ultimate goal of creating more equity as we create more opportunities for wealth.
Given the wealth that foundations control and the prosperity that many philanthropic leaders have been afforded, foundations must pay attention to the way their grantmaking affects racial and economic inequities. The Building Movement Project's Race to Lead report series about the racial leadership gap in the nonprofit sector talks about how philanthropy, through grantmaking, affects how nonprofits select their leaders and board members: patterns of how they give and to whom they give affect the diversity of the leadership in the sector. Which is why private foundations, corporate foundations, and community foundations all have a responsibility to pay attention to how their actions affect existing power dynamics.
— Kyoko Uchida