Identifying Talent, Institutionalizing Diversity: Race and Philanthropy in Post-Civil Rights America
by Jiannbin Lee Shiao
Duke University Press, 2005
257 pp., $24.95
Examine America’s largest foundations and you’ll discover a paradox. On the one hand, a number of these foundations carry out “diversity initiatives” in order to ensure that racial and gender mixes occur in their executive suites. On the other hand, examine the intellectual breadth of these foundations’ program officers and management and you’ll find a surprising lack of diversity in their ideas and behavior. It’s rare to find a political conservative, a devout Jew, or an evangelical Christian among the leaders of large foundations.
Whether CEOs of large establishment groups such as the San Francisco Foundation or the Ford Foundation are white or black, male or female, they present themselves as pasty grey people who have long shed any passions or quirks that would make them interesting. Consequently, many people have quit listening to them. It’s been decades, for example, since the president of a major foundation has written an article or given a speech of large national importance.
Only in the area of spreading “diversity” are foundations enjoying anything near the impact on public life that they achieved during their heyday of the 1950s and ‘60s. University of Oregon sociologist Jiannbin Lee Shiao’s new book, Identifying Talent, Institutionalizing Diversity, traces the success of these initiatives over the past 30 years.
The book is an enthusiastic defense of such policies, but the reader of this tendentious volume must conclude that Shiao has no evidence that these initiatives strengthened the foundations that undertook them or improved their grantmaking—the primary reason any foundation exists.
When judging the performance of any foundation, the historian should first ask: what grants did the foundation make? Were the grants helpful or wasteful? In his chapters on the San Francisco Foundation and the Cleveland Foundation, Shiao fails to address these questions entirely. Instead, he provides the reader with some vague details about how these foundations tried to improve San Francisco and Cleveland. His greater interest lies in the race and gender of the people the foundations hired. He pays no attention to the projects these hires supervised. Without this information, readers have no way of knowing whether affirmative action policies improved or weakened these two organizations.
When Shiao does bother to pay attention to grantmaking, as he does with the Ford Foundation’s “Gray Areas” poverty-fighting project in the 1960s, and its programs to promote population control in India, he isn’t thorough. In both cases, Shiao ignores important primary documents. Ford, to its credit, commissioned political scientists Peter Marris and Martin Rein to evaluate the Gray Areas program. Their book, Dilemmas of Social Reform (1968; revised, 1973), remains the best work about the program. Other scholars, including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Stephan Thernstrom, Joseph F. Helfgot, and Russell F. Murphy, also produced worthwhile evaluations of individual Gray Areas programs. Shiao cites none of these authors.
Nor in his discussion of population programs does he mention Oskar Harkavy’s memoir Curbing Population Growth (1995), a firsthand account of Ford’s population programs written by someone who worked at Ford for 35 years. Given that these analyses of Ford’s activities are neither obscure nor unavailable, one can only conclude that Shiao’s analysis of Ford is, at best, incomplete.
Shiao misses a golden opportunity to discuss the relationship between diversity initiatives and their impact on programs and grantmaking when he ignores the single best case study of the past 40 years. The Ford Foundation has had three presidents since the mid-1960s: McGeorge Bundy, a white male (1966-1979), Franklin Thomas, an African-American male (1979-1992), and Susan Berresford, a white female (1992-present). If race and gender are as important to foundations as Shiao claims they are, then we would expect substantial shifts in grantmaking towards blacks in the Thomas era and women in the Berresford era.
This hasn’t happened. While Ford has always been interested in improving the lives of blacks and women, its shift toward supporting feminist causes occurred around 1975—late in the Bundy era. Its spending on African Americans (when measured in constant dollars) probably peaked around 1970, also during the Bundy era.
Of course, there have been institutional changes at Ford over the past 40 years as the foundation discarded old programs and created new ones. Had Shiao bothered to look closer, however, he would have discovered no evidence to suggest these changes were related to the race or gender of the people in charge.
Like far too many professors these days, Shiao is a bad writer. For example, at one point he argues, “When non-White grantees become trustees, they develop a racially autonomous perspective that is transcendent over the White trustee perspective and retain a significant part of the grantee orientation to external relations.” (Translation: “Put minorities who have received grants on the board, and they might have some new ideas.”) But a few paragraphs later, he warns that these new trustees soon become “Outsider-insiders” who are “largely isolated behind organization boundaries and [come] to possess practically the same expectations of outsiders as other insiders.” (Translation: “And after cashing substantial trustee paychecks for a few years, even former radicals won’t rock the boat.”)
Should foundations be more diverse? Of course they should. They should be more intellectually diverse, instead of insisting that their program officers believe in a reflexive liberalism that often fails to meet the challenges of our time. Foundations would also be more interesting, and possibly effective, if they occasionally hired an “unqualified” oddball to hand out grants, rather than rigidly insist that their hires be professionals trained in the nuances of nonprofit management.
It’s what foundations do, not whom they hire, that truly matters.
Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is the author of By Their Bootstraps and the Foundation Builders.