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Key Insights on Diversity and Racial Equity in Leanly Staffed Foundations

Photo by Anthony Shkraba from Pexels

Exponent Philanthropy is proud to launch, Mind the Gap: Exploring the Role of Diversity and Racial Equity in Leanly Staffed Foundations – 2021 Edition. This publication shares our research on leanly staffed foundation demographics, and how lean funders see racial equity relate to their work.

The intentional inclusion of diverse perspectives leads to better decision making, more equitable outcomes, and a greater philanthropic impact. We are committed to a culture that advances these principles and practices within our organization and across our community.

Mind the Gap is focused explicitly on racial equity in philanthropy. We encourage lean funders to use this report, and accompanying guide, to consider how their foundations could be perpetuating racial inequities, and begin correcting them. Below are other key findings.

Foundation board demographics

  • White people make up 60% of the U.S. population and 90% of foundation boards.
  • Of foundations participating in Exponent Philanthropy’s 2020 Foundation Operations and Management Survey, 72% say they have no board members of color; that is, they have boards entirely made up of people who identify as White.
  • As overall board size increases, the number of Black board members also tends to increase.

Foundation staff demographics

  • Nearly three-fourths (74%) of participating staffed foundations have no paid staff members of color; that is, they have staff entirely comprised of people who identify as White. This trend is true for CEOs, too: Of participating foundations with full-time CEOs, 11% have someone in that role who identifies as a member of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community.
  • The relevance of racial equity to a foundation’s mission is clearly related to staff demographics:
    • Foundations reporting that racial equity is very relevant to their mission have a greater percentage of BIPOC males and Black females on staff.
    • Foundations reporting that racial equity is not relevant to their mission have a higher percentage of White male staff than those indicating that racial equity is somewhat or very relevant.

Relevance of racial equity to lean foundations’ mission

Exponent Philanthropy’s 2021 Foundation Operations and Management Report defines racial equity as:

The systematic fair treatment of people of all races that results in equitable opportunities and outcomes for everyone.

According to that report, racial equity is increasingly relevant to leanly staffed foundations’ missions:

  • In 2020, a greater percentage of foundations said racial equity was somewhat or very relevant to their mission compared to the previous year (73% in 2020 versus 65% in 2019).
  • Foundations that said racial equity is very relevant to their mission are more likely to implement all racial equity practices compared to those that said racial equity is somewhat or not relevant to their mission.

Grantmaking for racial equity

Advancing diversity, equity and inclusion is key component of catalytic philanthropy. Lean funders are well positioned to nurture and support leaders of color as well as small, dynamic grassroots organizations. Lean funders also are in a good position to engage grantees and members of the community in decision making. Exponent Philanthropy’s data shows that:

  • Funders that said racial equity is somewhat or very relevant to their mission are more likely to engage in catalytic philanthropic practices.
  • Foundations that said racial equity is critical to their mission tended to fund the following populations more frequently:
    • Economically disadvantaged
    • Ethnic or racial minorities
    • Immigrants, migrants or refugees
    • The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning, intersex and ally community

Reflection: A key ingredient

Racial equity is an essential part of philanthropy. Nearly three in four members of the Exponent Philanthropy community see racial equity as somewhat or very relevant to their foundation’s mission, but only one in four members have any BIPOC representation on their boards or staff.

Supporting racial equity involves listening, showing humility, being curious and committed to continual learning—characteristics lean funders possess in droves. But to act as powerful allies in the movement for racial equity, leanly staffed foundations need to evaluate themselves first.

We encourage you to read the full publication, Mind the Gap: Exploring the Role of Diversity and Racial Equity in Leanly Staffed Foundations – 2021 Edition and use the reflection to guide discussions with your board and staff. As always, we encourage you to connect with and get inspired by your peers in the Exponent Philanthropy community.


Afia Amobeaa-Sakyi, director, equity and inclusion, plays a critical role in shaping and sustaining an inclusive and equitable culture at Exponent Philanthropy, and among our community of lean funders and external stakeholders.

Brendan McCormick, manager, research and education, works with Exponent Philanthropy’s staff, members, and partners to develop resources grounded in research that relate to impact and evaluation and foundation investments. He also leads Exponent Philanthropy’s efforts to learn more about its community of lean funders.

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