Reflections: Engaging Donors in our Racial Equity Efforts

Tom Griffith, vice president of development, tells us about his department's efforts to learn best practices for how to discuss racial equity with donors and create a welcoming environment for donors of color.

Reflections: Our Personal & Professional Efforts Toward Racial Equity is a monthly blog. Each month, a member of our staff will reflect on what they are doing both personally and professionally to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in our work. View more


During a racial equity training I attended earlier this year, I was asked to share a story from when I first realized racial inequality was an issue in America. One of the times that I recalled was from 2nd grade when I asked my friend Fernando why the teachers called his older brother Harvey when his name was Javier. He replied that it sounded more American. For background, I grew up in a very small town in Central Illinois and Fernando’s family was one of a very few residents who were not white. As I grew older and went out-of-town for high school and then to the University of Illinois for college, my perspective on diversity grew. In the Navy, I was stationed in Washington DC and that understanding grew more; there were so many new foods to try, cultures to explore and ideologies to consider.  However, the discussion of equity and inclusion was not present for me then like it is today.

As part of the Community Foundation’s on-going work on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), I participated in two national learning cohorts this year. The first, which posed the question above about when I first realized racial inequality was an issue in America, was entitled Courageous Conversations and was led by one of our partners in philanthropy, 21/64, along with the Nantucket Project. During six sessions over May and June, philanthropic, financial and estate planning advisors developed skills for having courageous conversations about race. The skills covered included listening, storytelling, feedback, and facilitation. We considered the following questions: What am I inheriting? Who am I? What do I want to do about it? Together this group discussed ways that we can change our narrative and how storytelling and conversation are powerful tools in doing that for ourselves and in our work with other people.

The second cohort lasted from January to July of this year and was led by Community Wealth Partners. This was a group of community foundations from across the country that came together to consider how to engage donors with the racial equity grantmaking work that each are doing in their regions. I worked with Monica Merante, senior director philanthropic services, and Katrina Crocker, vice president, communications, to develop initial plans for how to approach donors about supporting racial equity and to identify initial places our organization may need to adjust its processes to create a welcoming environment for donors of color. This resulted in the creation of an equity communications guide, bringing current donors of color to the forefront in our events and publications, engaging in open-ended conversations with donors about racial equity, and the development of a cross-departmental process to identify organizations in our community led by people of color.

These two cohorts and the work that the whole Community Foundation team is doing on DEI will help us build racial equity into all aspects of our work, transforming our community impact for decades to come. Now, when I think about Javier feeling the pressure to change and assimilate to fit a more “American” mold, I more fully recognize that we all must work together to activate change within the systems that applied that pressure in the first place. Ultimately, this crucial work will allow us to live up to our vision of Central New York as a vibrant community with opportunity – and full inclusion– for everyone.

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