Many organizations with a mission to support underserved populations are striving to better reflect the communities they’re meant to serve. They’re on a journey towards a more inclusive culture, and open to change. How can they address the dynamics of power and privilege to close the leadership gap among their senior Board and Executive ranks? Ashlee Davis, Senior Diversity and Inclusion Manager for AllianceBernstein, offers firsthand advice on unconscious bias and learning to value different backgrounds and perspectives.
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According to Race to Lead, research that the Building Movement Project published in 2016 and then revisited in 2019, women of color are less likely than White women, White men and men of color to attain leadership positions at nonprofits and particularly large nonprofits. Women of color were also most likely to say that both race and gender have had negative impacts on their career advancement. However, albeit slowly, we are starting to see some progress across the industry.
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Today, we are going to hear some insights and advice firsthand from a practitioner on race, gender, and closing the gap in nonprofit and philanthropic leadership. Hi, everyone, and welcome to Inspired Investing. I'm your host, Clare Golla, head of Endowment and Foundation Advisory Services at Bernstine. This is the podcast where we strive to connect and share insights with listeners like you who are engaged in the nonprofit and broader philanthropy sector or who just want to learn more.
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Today, I'm very excited to be joined by Ashlee Davis, senior diversity and inclusion manager for AllianceBernstein. Ashley, thank you so much for being here. Thank you. Clare, great to be here with you. Ashlee, you've been interacting with leadership of key institutions across sectors throughout your entire career. You've been with the Obama administration. You've been in a leadership role at Cargill and now with AB, you are, among other things, the lead on diversity, equity and inclusion strategies and community partnerships in key markets really for us across the country.
01:36 - 01:50
Can you just walk us through briefly the types of nonprofits and associations and other philanthropic entities that you've engaged with over the years? Sure, I'd be happy to. So about 15, actually closer to 20 years ago, almost
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But during my time in Pittsburgh, I had an opportunity to start working with a company, organization, rather, nonprofit by the name of 8+Schools. And their focus is around equity in education in the city, which was fantastic opportunity for me being a Pitt student at the time.
02:09 - 02:48
From there, you know, I've worked with organizations in the nonprofit space and foundations ranging from the Center for Civic Leadership, University Legal Services in Washington, DC, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the True Colors Fund, which is founded and led by Cyndi Lauper, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which focuses on Heirs Property, which is a very important issue that impacts African Americans quite disproportionately, as you think about land rights and property issues, specifically in the southeast, but also nationally.
02:49 - 03:17
But, Clare, as I step back and I think about that thread that connects all of the energy that I kind of think about, a little bit of sweat equity here, it's not anything about a feather in my hat at all. It's really all centered around the fact that there are a lot of organizations around the country, that are interested in doing the right thing, but always are looking for people to come in with different perspectives and, quite frankly, different vantage points.
03:17 - 03:40
And it's been quite a wonderful opportunity. That's fantastic. I'm curious, Ashlee, to get your take on this. So both the nonprofit sector and philanthropy really more broadly have always been biased towards White, male, cisgender, sort of the old club of leadership that we would think about. And there's this irony that many of us have been aware of for a long time, that in so many organizations they have a mission, right,
03:40 - 04:12
to support underserved or underrepresented communities and create social change. And yet in the board and executive ranks, there's very little representation of either the communities they're meant to serve or the values that they're really claiming as an institution. So a lot of your work involves exploring unconscious bias, encouraging really inclusive cultures where different backgrounds and perspectives are valued, as you just mentioned. So how do you see the politics of identity and dynamics of power and privilege really coming into play specifically in the nonprofit sector?
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There couldn't be a better time to have this conversation, Clare, one, because it's not something that you can check a box and we move, likely many of us have heard that, you can't check a box and do this and then set it down and say, well, I've done that. Right. It's not like doing your taxes once a year and then it's done until the next time the year rolls around. This is cultural competency that we're talking about.
04:39 - 05:14
This is a lifelong journey. So long as we are breathing air through our lungs, right, we are going to be on this lifelong journey to be both present and aware of how we show up in this world. And nonprofits and foundations are finding not just that they can have very beautiful and purposeful mission statements and value statements, but they also have to show that same purpose in their own executive board space, staff, development, retention, their donors, their funders, but also the communities they serve are holding them accountable.
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And there's nothing wrong with that, right, because we are stronger as a result of that accountability. But there's also another key component of it, that all of this is a journey, not a destination.
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You can't feel exhausted by the fact that you haven't gotten there over the last 365 days. Let me make sure you feel very comfortable hearing this from me. Just hear this from me.
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This has been a tough year for everyone. We just got through the toughest year of many of our lives and we got through it not simply by snapping our fingers and getting to December, but through resilience, through learning and unlearning, through being both courageous and brave, but also through sometimes getting back up and dusting ourselves off, but also being very aware that we can no longer call ourselves colorblind, but rather color brave.
06:11 - 06:41
And so those are the types of dynamics that we have to be aware of because power and privilege are not dirty words. What do you mean by that? Privilege is not something we can run away from. Look, I am a Black lesbian from the South raised by two blue-collar workers that did not have, did not have and still don't have a college degree. And yet and still, I'm incredibly privileged. So who am I to run away from that privilege in 2021? I have to be aware of it.
06:41 - 07:05
We have to be bold and the more we want to run away from it, the more that boomerang comes right back at us. And so we have to stand in that space and say that we're going to do this tough work. Thank you. That's, there's a lot to unpack there, I think, especially as with the word privilege, I think about the boards of directors of organizations that we work with.
07:05 - 07:28
And so many boards are asking, they're asking us for advice on how do we create more representation on our board of directors and in our leadership that is reflective of our values around diversity and equity, inclusion, or that is reflective of and really hears the voices of the communities that we are supporting.
07:29 - 07:56
Can you tell us about the consultative work that you've been doing with AB clients around unconscious bias? Sure. And I'll tell you a quick, simple story here. A father and his son are involved in a horrific car crash. And the man died at the scene. But when the child arrived at the hospital and was rushed into the operating room, the surgeon pulled away and said, I can't operate on this boy. He's my son.
07:58 - 08:21
Well, how can that be? There's a lot of different answers that this could be, and likely your mind is turning. It usually takes two and a half to three minutes for people to land on the answer. And the answer is that the surgeon is the boy's mom. And why is it that it takes us two and a half to three minutes to get there? Because unconscious bias is in all of us.
08:21 - 08:41
It doesn't care who we are, what we look like, where we come from, how we were raised. If you are breathing, then you have bias. That means you have to be both conscious of it and moving away and towards it. And the only way for you to actually get beyond your own bias is to work it like a muscle.
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So our consultation offers three prongs, right? We look at cultural competency, that lifelong journey. We want to make sure that before we get started, that you understand that this isn't something where you're going to be able to say after 60 minutes, it's done, and put it in a box. You can put it in the car or I can hang my hat on it.
09:01 - 09:28
It's taken care of. Two, that you have a commitment to the work ahead, that, yes, you can feel exhausted. Yes, you can feel fatigue, but you will not stop and that you will be as serious about this, as committed as you are about your financial commitments, that you will be committed to this space. And thirdly, very important, that you will extend grace both to yourself and to those around you, because we all have this, right.
09:28 - 09:57
If you're breathing, you have bias. But also, Clare, there's a space here where we all have to realize that we all commit micro-aggressions. We're going to put our foot in our mouths. We're going to say and do things that are wrong. But some of us are taking up too much oxygen in the space and in the room. So we need to step aside and step away and be willing to take a different role in society. And that may just be because we have so much power and privilege and it's just time for us to step aside.
09:57 - 10:29
That's so helpful. And here's what's really crazy, Ashlee. I have been in conversations with you before where you've shared that story, and even this time, talk about needing to work these muscles a little bit more, this time, I still didn't think of the surgeon as being a mom. I thought to myself, oh, I'm clever. The boy must have two dads. Like, I didn't even...and then when you said, it's his mom, I'm like, no, you've got to be kidding me. That's wild. It is really interesting, our unconscious bias.
10:29 - 10:46
So thank you for sharing that. And the idea of cultural competency, commitment to the work ahead, extending grace to ourselves. We're sharing that with some of the boards in the leadership of organizations that we're working with because the work is hard.
10:46 - 11:06
Right. And it isn't just about, go, just grab a bunch of people who look different. And that's not, that's not building, right, cultural competency. That's not building a true inclusive, a true inclusive organization. So... I want to shift it to this trend.
11:06 - 11:33
We're starting to see more women of color moving into key C-suite roles at influential foundations and influential not-for-profits really across the country. I'm thinking about right here in my backyard in Chicago, we have women of color who are now at the helm at the Chicago Community Trust, at Forefront, which is our Regional Association of Grantmakers, the Chicago Foundation for Women, which I will say has been a little bit ahead of the curve there for a while.
11:33 - 11:52
The Komen Foundation. I mean, the list goes on and on. Right. It's really quite extraordinary. And so I'm curious, in your role as a strategic advisor meeting with Bernstein's nonprofit and foundation clients, do you sense an increasing readiness or openness to change? And really, why now?
11:55 - 12:12
Yes, Clare, there's certainly, the readiness is there, the energy and excitement is there, and I think that's incredible and all, and I just want to, I want to acknowledge that there's, there are always some naysayers there
12:12 - 12:44
that will say, well, we've been doing this for 15 years, and 10 years, and eight years. You just got into this last year, last summer, or six months ago. And I just want to to acknowledge very quickly, because many of us have likely heard this growing up, that just because someone's been doing it longer than you doesn't mean they're doing it better than you. Doesn't mean they're doing it with the same level of intention. And then also doesn't mean they're willing to make the right measure, actually take the right measure actions here.
12:44 - 13:13
You shouldn't look around you and go, well, man, I feel rather sheepish here that everyone's been in the game here for 10 years, but rather feel energized about the type of intentional action you're going to put into this work so that you continue to make put points on the board and get right into the game. Right. I mean, that is exactly the type of energy you want to have here. But I digress. And I'll come back to your point here, your question rather, and answer.
13:13 - 13:28
Yes, there's readiness, but there's also measured caution. There's caution in the air because nonprofits and foundations remain... There's concern for obvious reasons with how their funders will respond.
13:28 - 14:06
And I can understand that, in fact, I serve on a number of local and a few national boards myself and have had conversations with leadership both in my board capacity and in some spaces with boards that I'm not a member of myself and have walked them through, not just the current state, but the future state of giving, of philanthropy so that they can understand that this is a multigenerational world that we're living in and that we should be very thoughtful about what it takes to engage not just your current funders, but future funders as well and clients as well.
14:07 - 14:25
Secondly, I think it's important to think about what does it truly mean when you're saying that you want to both develop, promote, and retain women leaders at the highest ranks of your organization? Is your organization ready to make that meaningful change?
14:25 - 14:53
And at times a lot of organizations can say that, but when they realize the real investment that that takes, whether it's cultural assessments or at times realizing that your managers might not be as trained as they need to be, or quite frankly, that your organization needs to do some soul searching about both the origins of where you started versus where along the way you got a little bit lost in the wilderness and need to have a reckoning about where you want to be in the future.
14:54 - 14:55
All of that takes time.
14:55 - 15:30
And I think of last year around Memorial Day, and I'd like to think, I'd like to use the analogy of, I believe a lot of our peers were hitting the snooze button on their alarm clock as it relates to a lot of really important issues. And right around Memorial Day with both murder of George Floyd, and when we think about that of Christian Cooper, and what took place in Central Park, a lot of us found ourselves unable to hit that snooze button anymore.
15:30 - 16:00
And we had to wake up and whether we knew what the answer was or not, we said, look, wherever I sit, I want to be a part of something that is going to move the needle forward. And that is an exciting awareness, but also a very heavy responsibility. And so this conversation, these conversations that we're having on nonprofits and foundation clients is not a one-size-fits-all. That we absolutely do more listening than talking in the beginning because we need to know where they are on their journey and where they want to be.
16:01 - 16:35
Not every organization has the same aspirations and also not the same goals. But also, let's be very honest that in the end, not just because it's March and not just because we're both proud women, but every indicator tells us that the future is female. So as to cultural competency and awareness of boards that are primarily run by men become more aware of how profitable and successful their organizations can be with women at the helm, boardrooms and C-suites will continue to diversify.
16:35 - 17:09
And I'm hopeful that we recognize that it's not enough that women alone succeed. If that success, if that success doesn't include women of color, women with disabilities, and trans women, the future is female and fierce, but only if it includes all of us. Then, Clare, then I believe it's unstoppable. That's amazing, thanks, Ashlee. And I couldn't agree more, but it's interesting to see headlines around stepping into power, right.
17:09 - 17:36
Especially as an outsider, in particular, a woman of color. So, for instance, the Chronicle of Philanthropy just published an article, The Challenges of Being a Woman Leader of Color. Right. They cite the struggle to advance while noting that landing the top spot often opens the door to a whole new set of problems. So what are some of the key steps, Ashlee, if you were to give advice to a not-for-profit or a foundation board of directors?
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What are some key steps that the organization can take to support a woman to lead, a woman of color, a woman of LGBTQ trans? What can a board do to help that woman elegantly and effectively step into her power?
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Here's where I would say first and foremost, if you already have women of color, you have women of color in your organization, no matter where they are in your organization, whether they are a mid-level, director level, support staff.
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If they are in your organization already, engage them, listen to them, ask them what it's like to work and be a member of your organization, ask them what it's like and listen and be prepared for those answers.
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And at times and I will just offer this space, it may be better, if you want these honest answers, to hire outside organizations to welcome that space in that conversation in a way that allows them to feel very comfortable sharing that feedback, because you might not like all that you hear. Right.
18:58 - 19:34
And that's OK, because in the end, you want to be stronger, but don't accept that feedback at the same time that you're saying, well, yeah, but that's, she's only saying that because of X. If that's the way you're responding to it already, then don't ask for it because you're not ready for it, then you're not ready to receive it because that person's lived experience and what they're sharing with you, one, it takes trust for someone to be willing to share with you, and two, if you can't receive it, then you again, you lose that trust in buckets and it can't be earned back quickly.
19:35 - 20:07
Secondly, if you don't have women of color in your organization at the time, currently, don't believe right away that what you can do is simply look to bring one person in and solve all of your issues and put all of that on their shoulders. Don't do that because that puts too much weight and responsibility on that person to not only just do their job, but to also represent the race and gender and sector and demographics of millions and billions of people.
20:07 - 20:33
It's not fair. Right, you know who wants to be that person. Right. It's just not fair. But it is a unique opportunity for them to come in should they so choose, and open up their network to you, because once they have that warm, welcoming sense of belonging, which, by the way, takes time, they then will be the best word of mouth for you.
20:34 - 21:05
So how can nonprofits broaden their board recruitment and staff hiring to attract talented candidates from among underrepresented groups? We hear that question a lot. I encourage you to engage with your local chambers of commerce authentically, ask and listen and come often to hear not just, not to tell them what you need, but rather to listen to what they have going on, because they will point you in the direction of those women leaders, women leaders of color that are poised to help bring you to the next level.
21:05 - 21:34
Also, look around you and find both the historically black colleges and universities, and Hispanic serving institutions, HSIs, that are near you and even within arm's reach of you. There are so many institutions right. Many of us know my alma mater, my law school, which I will always big up in every instance. But also, I also encourage you to go beyond that space, right? If you're in Nashville, I grew up down the street from Tennessee State University.
21:34 - 22:04
There's tons in the Midwest along the coastal spaces, but there's also Hispanic serving institutions as well. There are 1890s universities as well, which have served traditionally indigenous people as well and serve as a great space for us to engage, a space where, again, we have a very dismal representation of, indigenous representation in the space. And so that space is there.
22:04 - 22:38
But there are also organizations, there's Executive Leadership Council, ELC. There is the, excuse me, there's also the Talenthub. There are organizations that eat, breathe, and do this type of work every single day. They're just waiting for you to pick up the phone, pick up the e-mail and reach out to them. But you also have us as a partner. All of these partners that we're sharing today are partners of ours. And so we're, whoever is a partner of Bernstein. We believe family is a capital F and that is a capital F, meaning family is family. Right.
22:38 - 23:11
And so we all know what that means. It means that introductions should be more than willing to make. Once you have that leadership in this space. Right. And you have women you have women of color in your organization, and let's say they are coming in at a director or VP level, ensure that you are setting them up for success, meaning it doesn't just begin and end in the first 100 days. It shouldn't stop in the first six months. There should be plans in place.
23:11 - 23:19
Too many organizations have what we call the leaky bucket effect. They get great talent in their bucket, but they have holes in their bucket. And then all of a sudden,
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within a few months, they're gone. Because they looked around and realized you sold them a lemon. You weren't just working on them, you were... not just that you were trying to work on them, but rather you weren't willing to work on yourself. You had to show that authentic and real change and do it before they get there. So make sure that that training is taking place before the person walks through the door.
23:44 - 24:08
And don't have it be just because we're welcoming a new leader of color, because that also is going to fall flat. And this all ties back to that cultural competency, that commitment beyond just the moment and that grace, because you're going to slip up, you're going to do something wrong. But are you willing to get back up and say we're committed to this? So, look, we figured out what doesn't work.
24:08 - 24:37
Let's go try it a few more times and find out what does. That's great. Thanks, Ashlee. So I'm going to wrap it up with one last question for you, and that is, how do we maintain positive momentum looking ahead? Allyship. But there's a word before allyship that's been missing here that it's kind of been creepily in the distance here and that's performative allyship, right? I... we've got to get away from performative allyship.
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We have to get beyond being allies in the moment when the cameras are on or when the month is, it's exciting to celebrate. We have to show up for those causes 365 days of the year. As an ally, I need you there more than 30 days of the year. Performative allyship has caused more setbacks than we can count. And it is the reason why we can't really see the true movement we want.
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So in order to have that positive momentum going forward, we have to get rid of the performative allyship and replace it with the allyship that really is centered on the type of action before the type of noun. And by that, I mean, if you call yourself an ally, you must be able to point to what you've done before you can say who you are.
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Allyship must be a verb before it can be a noun. And that's just as simple as it is. We have to show up in those tough moments as well. In fact, those are the very moments where it matters most. That's when our allyship really shines and that's the type of positive momentum forward that we need. It's great. Well, listenA, shlee, thank you so much. Thank you for all of the work you do with our clients and within Bernstein. We appreciate it. And thank you for joining us today.
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Thank you. Thanks for having me, Clare. It's been a pleasure. Likewise. And thank you all for listening.
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If you'd like to learn more on Bernstein's Endowment and Foundation Advisory Services, please see the link to our blogs in this episode's description. If you enjoyed this episode and haven't subscribed to our podcast yet, please go to the iTunes store, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts to subscribe and rate us. Also, please e-mail us with your thoughts, questions, and feedback to insights@Bernstein.com and be sure to find us on Twitter at BernsteinPWM.
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Thanks everyone. Bernstein: Making money meaningful for individuals, families, and foundations for over 50 years. Visit us at Bernstein.com.
- Clare Golla
- Managing Director—Head of Foundation & Institutional Advisory Services