“Over the last three to five years, there has been huge growth in this group,” says Unmi Song, president of the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, at one of the meetings of women who run foundations in Chicago.

More Than 20 Women of Color Lead the City’s Foundations

This article ran in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on October 7, 2019. 
By Jim Rendon

Every two or three months, nearly two dozen women gather after work in one of their homes in Chicago. Over takeout and wine, they discuss one another’s challenges or questions, they offer advice and contacts, they talk about issues that are important to them.

It’s a kind of professional networking gathering, but for a unique group — 20 or so women of color who run foundations in Chicago.

“Over the last three to five years, there has been huge growth in this group,” says Unmi Song, president of the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, which has more than $189 million in assets.

Fifteen years ago, when she left her job as a program officer at the Joyce Foundation to take this position, Song didn’t think there would be so many other women of color in leadership positions in Chicago. “It’s a surprise, even to me,” she says.

Despite intensified concerns about the lack of diversity at nonprofits and foundations, Song is right to be surprised. People of color rarely rise to become leaders of philanthropic institutions. The Council on Foundations’ 2018 “Grantmaker Salary and Benefits Report” found that 90 percent of foundation CEOs are white.

Chicago has outpaced the nation in terms of people of color in leadership positions in philanthropy. Forefront, a membership group in Chicago for foundations, nonprofits, and government agencies, says that of its 18 foundation members with assets of more than $100 million, five (28 percent) are run by women of color. None of the large member foundations have men of color at the helm.

“We have a really interesting mix of places people are running, and asset sizes,” says Sharon Bush, executive director of the Grand Victoria Foundation, a $130-million organization that receives proceeds from a casino to finance charities in Illinois. “We’re not just running small places, which is typically how it works.”

For a person of color, taking up racial-equity issues presents challenges that are different than for a white person, says Helene Gayle, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust.

Conversation Around Race and Equity

It’s unclear why trustees at Chicago foundations have promoted so many women of color into positions of leadership.

In part it may be a reaction to the city’s sharp increase in gun violence and to a number of high-profile police-brutality cases in recent years, issues that have brought the city’s historical and continuing racial inequities to the forefront. “The spike in gun violence was a wake-up call to a lot of people,” says Song.

Foundation board members have been an important part of the discussion about ways to curb racial bias in Chicago, says Helene Gayle, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, with assets of $3.2 billion. She is a physician who worked for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 20 years, as well as at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She was CEO of CARE and of the McKinsey Social Initiative before she was recruited to the trust.

“It’s really palpable, this conversation in Chicago around race and equity,” Bush says, “and it is a hot conversation within the philanthropic sector.”

Because of such issues, foundation boards are likely to continue to focus on diversifying their ranks, says Na’ilah Suad Nasir. The scholar of race and education was on the board of the Spencer Foundation, which has assets of more than $530 million, before she was recruited as president in 2017. “There is a discourse about the need for boards to better reflect the populations the foundations serve,” she says. “That is really important.”

Another reason for the surge in leaders of color is a changing of the guard, which is coming about as baby boomers retire. Many have been deliberate in seeking successors who are not white.

Bush, for example, was a senior program officer at the Fry Foundation when she was recruited, in 2013. The director soon promoted her to managing director with the idea that Bush could move into the leadership position. “Her goal was to have a person of color replace her,” Bush says. She took over that role in 2018.

‘Try New Things’

Bush says her colleagues are making a real mark on their institutions.

Under Bush’s leadership, the Grand Victoria Foundation has begun a review of the entire organization, with a focus on what it is doing internally and through its grants do to promote racial equity. It now requires a diverse pool of applicants for job openings, and is seeking a firm owned by people of color to manage its investments. The board has been learning more about racial equity, and Bush is searching for diverse board candidates through her own networks.

The foundation is also reviewing its grant making to ensure that its grants tackle the areas of highest need.

Gayle, of the Chicago Community Trust, says her CEO peers are likely to have have a different perspectives on the world than would someone of a different gender or racial background. They may have closer connections to people living and working in neighborhoods with the greatest challenges, and they may prioritize funding in a different way.

“When you have organizations that are led by folks that have not traditionally been powerholders in their field, you get people willing to try new things, to think differently,” says Nasir, of the Spencer Foundation.

“To call it useful is an understatement,” says Liz Dozier, founder and CEO of Chicago Beyond, about conferring with other women of color who run foundations. “It helps influence the direction of the work we do.”

Safe Space for Questions

The group, which informally calls itself WOC (for women of color, pronounced “woke”) continues to grow. Four new people attended its July meeting, including one who recently started her job and another who will start in January. And it continues to be a source of support, advice, and connections for its members. They can find out whom their peers are contracting with for services, discuss challenging management issues, and have a safe space to ask questions.

They have discussed the challenges of taking up racial-equity issues, something that Gayle says can present different challenges for a person of color than a white person. They also discuss the intersection of race and gender, which carries its own challenges.

Bush says they discuss the expectations that come with being a person of color in leadership. Often these women are expected to be the ones in their organization leading discussions of race and equity, something that can pigeonhole them and leave them feeling like one-dimensional leaders, she says.

“It’s just a chance to meet with a group of colleagues over a meal and have frank and open conversation and get good advice,” says Song.

For Liz Dozier, founder and CEO of Chicago Beyond, which gave out $30 million in grants over the past three years, this group has been an important resource.

She was a high-school principal who left education to start the grant making organization. About six months ago, she was about to release a report but was unfamiliar with how to promote it.

The group spent an entire meeting working on a strategy with her. “To call it useful is an understatement,” says Dozier. “It helps influence the direction of the work we do.”

Having such a close-knit group of women of color in such positions of power makes Gayle feel optimistic about the future of philanthropy in Chicago. “It is high time that we have more diverse leadership,” she says. “I am very hopeful that Chicago can be a real beacon for how to address these issues of equity.”