Corporate Philanthropy Is Sabotaging Diversity

I know that the title of this post is a bit inflammatory. But I hope you will stick with me as I explore this issue and what we should do to improve the state of inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. Feedback is always welcome.

Recently I was on a call for a non-profit board where I argued against a proposed initiative to expand the board to allow for more diverse and inclusive members. This organization had expanded the board a few years prior with the same argument, but no increase in diversity resulted. The status quo remained with the same diversity bias resulting even though several members continued to raise this issue as a concern. Leadership at this non-profit acknowledged the issue and expressed support to improve inclusion, yet the needle has barely budged.

It dawned on me that I have seen this type of behavior before. Years ago I was involved in a selection process for another non-profit where decisions were being made not based on the most qualified candidates but some candidates, due to their leadership roles at large (potential donor) corporations, were placed at the front of the line. The justification for this override of the selection process was that the organization needed to make sure there was a positive perception, really a quid pro quo, for future fundraising appeals.

As corporations make donations to non-profits, there is an expectation that corporate leaders will be given access to these non-profits. This is especially true with non-profits that are considered locally influential. In today's environment, there is an expectation that corporate leaders will commit to community engagement and involvement. After all, conventional wisdom is that a corporate leader who cannot list any volunteer boards does not care about the community, and no matter what their CSR accomplishments are, there is no leadership buy-in without visible volunteerism.

The challenge is that these behaviors, on both sides of the equation, continue to exacerbate the problem that we all know too well. There is not enough diversity on non-profit boards even though these same boards, and their nominating committees, continue to seek opportunities to improve their DEI metrics. Some of this is wrapped in the theory that these are the "most qualified" candidates for these boards. But if there are not any opportunities for diverse candidates to gain the experience and leadership of serving on these boards, how will we ever have any improvement in the diversity and inclusion numbers at major non-profits?

Corporate Leaders Should Lead By Abdicating Leadership

Sanjay Parekh

Sanjay Parekh