Back in May, the NoVo Foundation, the largest grantmaker supporting women’s rights groups in the United States—particularly women and girls of color—sent shockwaves through the field when it announced it was ending multi-year funding, reviewing every one of its current grants and laying off a full program team amid the pandemic.
Afterward, a small group of consultants and trustees convened over a shared concern about the announcement, its impact on grantees and staff, and trustees’ lack of transparency.
That initial group, all of whom are white, determined that the NoVo Foundation’s announcement wasn’t an isolated incident, but endemic of larger problems across philanthropy—namely, that foundation trustees tend to operate in a frustratingly opaque manner and are rarely held accountable for decisions affecting vulnerable populations. Moreover, they observed that foundation leadership and staff often don’t see eye-to-eye on critical issues, echoing a recent Inside Philanthropy survey that found only 50% of responding foundation staff felt their board members were “very much” or “completely” committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, compared to 90% of their colleagues on staff.
The group decided to act, and the result is Trustee Accountability: A Call to Action for Foundation Trustees. The initiative includes a list of specific action items trustees can pledge to uphold to bring greater accountability and equity in philanthropy. Individuals can sign the pledge online, post the Call to Action PDF on their organization’s website, and share stories documenting examples of “positive shifts in how trustees exercise power and make decisions.”
While a larger group has shaped the nascent initiative, the core team includes consultants Mike Allison, Susan Colson, Susan Mooney, and Paula Morris; Karie Brown, consultant and board chair of Hidden Leaf Foundation; and Paul Haible, executive director of the Peace Development Fund. The pledge currently has around 100 signatories, at least 20 of whom are trustees or donors.
“There has been a lot of focus on organized philanthropy in recent months and on how foundations are or are not responding to the demands of the moment,” the core organizing team shared with Inside Philanthropy, via email. “But those often speak of foundations generally—we wanted to add voice to that but also particularly to highlight that the power to make real change immediately and over time sits firmly in the hands of foundation board members. How decisions are made and by whom in foundation board rooms has profound consequences particularly for BIPOC communities.”
Alexandra Toma, a signatory and Compton Foundation board member agreed, telling Inside Philanthropy, “Without leadership and a commitment from those who have positional power, change is nearly impossible—or, because I’m an optimist, it’s very, very difficult.”
Transforming culture and practices
The idea of unaccountable foundation trustees, immune from the impact of their decision-making, is not a new one. Ideas for reform have run the gamut, but as things currently stand, “there are actually very few structural mechanisms to support accountability for the impact of decisions made by trustees,” the all-volunteer team behind Trustee Accountability told me.
“The best hope right now for transformation is for trustees to hold themselves and each other accountable,” the team stated. “We hope that this initiative can contribute to pushing them to do that and to sharing positive examples when it happens.”
The initiative aims to “catalyze trustees to transform the culture and practices in their foundations, including inviting those most impacted to inform strategy and funding decisions.” The team also hopes “trustees will advocate for legal and other structural changes that increase and diversify investments in BIPOC communities and solutions in both immediate and long-term ways rather than amassing and protecting resources for decades.”
“This is a volunteer effort, and it is gaining traction,” the team wrote. “We are inspired by the many phenomenal BIPOC leaders who are speaking out, despite substantial barriers in moving systemic and culture change.” The team cited the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s latest newsletter about organizations stepping up to fill NoVo’s void and a piece by Ray Holgado’s experience of anti-Blackness at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
The team mentioned other initiatives and organizations that are working toward greater accountability, including the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, ABFE, Justice Funders, the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, CHANGE Philanthropy, Neighborhood Funders Group and Exponent Philanthropy.
While these organizations are doing important work, it is clear, the team wrote, “that any effort to transform philanthropy is doomed to failure if the trustees that hold the power and the purse strings are not actively engaged in transforming themselves and their institutions.”
Laying out an equity roadmap
When implemented, organizers say the Trustee Accountability’s Call to Action and its to-do list “will help shore up a philanthropic sector that prioritizes racial equity and the liberation of all people.”
Some of these recommendations will sound familiar, like “getting unrestricted funds distributed swiftly in the short term,” considering participatory grantmaking, bringing BIPOC leaders on board, and ramping up funding for BIPOC women and girls’ organizations, “given NoVo trustees’ apparent divestment in Black leadership at a critical historical moment.” The document also encourages trustees to support the Movement for Black Lives’ demands for COVID-19 and their “new vision of public safety.”
“Giving differently is a good start, but it is not enough,” reads the call to action statement. “This moment calls for adaptive leadership and practices for true accountability, rather than quick fixes.”
The call to action asks trustees to “take responsibility for how we are upholding white supremacy, regardless of the purity of our intentions.” This involves recognizing “the privilege, power and responsibility we hold, deepen[ing] our own practice of anti-racist leadership so that white supremacy culture is not perpetuated” and taking responsibility for “our own continued learning, rather than be educated by BIPOC staff.”
Initiative organizers also call for structural reforms across the sector. For example, it asks trustees to “advocate to increase payout levels for foundations and donor-advised funds and challenge the warehousing of wealth for future generations when those funds are needed now.”
“White folks need to stand up”
The San Francisco-based Compton Foundation is a relatively small, progressive funder that has traditionally focused on issues like climate change, progressive foreign policy, and reproductive rights and justice.
In November of 2019, the board announced that it will be spending out the foundation’s assets and closing the doors by the end of 2027. Board member Alexandra Toma told me Compton’s decision to spend out was a recognition of “the need to move resources out of the control of unelected trustees, even though the foundation has long had family and non-family members of the board.”
The foundation’s Board President Vanessa Davenport and Treasurer Emilie Cortes are also Trustee Accountability signatories. Toma told me that their collective participation “is a continuation of a longstanding commitment by Compton and me personally to do everything in our power to dismantle racism in the philanthropic sector (and, yes, overall!). So this was a natural next step.”
As to why philanthropy needed the Trustee Accountability project at this specific moment in time, Toma said, “As the events of 2020 continue to unfold, the importance of supporting the leadership of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) organizers—and particularly BIPOC women and LGBTQ people—becomes clearer and clearer. And yet, the progressive philanthropic dollars needed to sustain BIPOC organizing are still overwhelmingly controlled by white people and institutions.”
Trustees, Toma said, “are rarely held accountable for their actions, how they make decisions, and what the impacts are on the communities they purport to serve. White folks need to stand up and do the work!”
Additional signatories include Nathan Cummings Foundation Board Chair Jaimie Mayer, plus trustees at the Hill-Snowdon Foundation and Kolibri Foundation.
As for the foundation that catalyzed the initiative in the first place, Trustee Accountability organizers reached out to the NoVo Foundation for clarity around what grantees can expect in the future. They remain in communication with the foundation, since, to date, “many organizations are reporting to us that they do not know the NoVo trustees’ plans moving forward.”