Mapping the Path from DEI Efforts to Mission Stagnation

While many diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts are well-meaning and intended to solve problems of injustice and racism, their implementation often has resulted in unintended consequences, keeping some charitable organizations from focusing on their missions. There’s no question – our society faces challenges when it comes to discrimination and racism.

Unfortunately, the approach taken by many major institutions who have pursued DEI protocols is pulling charitable organizations apart rather than bringing them together. Within the charitable sector specifically, large grantmaking foundations and charities have zoomed in on identity classifications to demonstrate they care about problems some face in our society.

This has led nonprofits to focus on meeting diversity quotas, based on immutable physical characteristics, and on trainings for staff and leadership that emphasize the divisions within organizations and charities they support. The result – as a nonprofit leader recently told The Intercept: “Staff were ignoring the mission and focusing only on themselves, using a moment of public awakening to smuggle through standard grievances cloaked in the language of social justice.”

This article exposed that “most of the foundation-backed organizations that make up the backbone of the [Democratic] party’s ideological infrastructure were still spending their time locked in virtual retreats, Slack wars and healing sessions, grappling with tensions over hierarchy, patriarchy, race, gender and power.”

Even environmental groups are shifting away from their missions as they focus on identity politics. A Politico investigation found Greenpeace USA is “divided by tension between senior management and its younger workers over race and gender issues.”

While we may not agree with the missions of all organizations, America’s civil society depends on the health of our nonprofit sector. When organizations are spinning their wheels in internal debates focused on identity categories rather than meeting their goals, our communities pay the price.

As nonprofits figure out how to move forward with positive social change, it is instructive to look back at how the current DEI movement developed within the sector.

How Did We Get Here?

Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Mike Gonzalez has written tomes on the history of how the nonprofit sector began boxing individuals into groups based on physical characteristics. Following race riots between 1965 and 1971, identity politics were enshrined in civil society. One leader of this “balkanization” was President Kennedy’s national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, who stepped up to lead the Ford Foundation in 1966. Bundy’s approach was what historian Karen Ferguson described as “developmental separatism.”

According to Gonzalez:

The theory held that only after a period of ethnic separation could assimilation take place at some time in the future. One could say that [Bundy and other foundation executives] invented modern identity politics.

Already in 1969, the Ford Foundation was making “grant proposals directed at increasing the group identity and power of minorities.” Via large grants, the foundation created the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

They also midwifed racial preferences. Key passages of Justice Harry Blackmun’s frequently quoted concurring opinion in Regents of University of California v. Bakke, the 1978 Supreme Court case that cemented racial preferences in college admissions, were lifted almost verbatim from a 1977 essay Bundy wrote for The Atlantic. It was Bundy who wrote: “To get past racism, we must here take account of race. There is no other present way.


Following the efforts of the Ford Foundation, in 1977, the federal government adopted the racial categories in the Office of Management and Budget’s Policy Directive No. 15. In his book, “The Plot to Change America: How Identity Politics is Dividing the Land of the Free,” Gonzalez says, “The government acted under pressure from ethnic affinity organizations that had no ties to the grassroots—and were in fact often acting against grassroots interests and desires—but were responsive to Ford Foundation officers seeking temporary ‘developmental separatism.’”

There is a clear path from the Ford Foundation’s historical role in creating categories that box individuals into their identities based solely on immutable characteristics to the challenges facing nonprofits today. With the racial reckoning post-George Floyd, attention has again moved to what divides individuals in our society rather than how to solve the real challenges facing many communities.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Institutionalizing DEI quota systems has made it difficult for organizations in every corner of civil society to meet their varied missions and leverage the talents of unique individuals that comprise their staff, leadership, funders and grantees. But the nonprofit sector has a chance to pick a different path. Organizations can move forward in meeting their missions by embracing the holistic diversity of viewpoint, experience and perspectives rather than focusing on race, gender or other physical categories.

One former nonprofit leader spoke to The Intercept about conversations among progressives on how to push back against the internal battles, “saying that a letter — akin to the ‘Harper’s letter’ — was being drafted and organized, ‘documenting how people are using race or gender, or some combination of issues, as weapons and using it to distract from the mission of many organizations or to fight internal battles, the kind of stuff that you’ve seen, while legitimizing the work that needs to be done in different institutions and across society on race and gender.’”

True Diversity: An Alternative Approach

Philanthropy Roundtable’s equality-based True Diversity initiative has grown out of concerns about the approach of some diversity, equity and inclusion practices within the charitable sector. Rather than focus on simply checking specific boxes for race, gender and other immutable characteristics, True Diversity provides organizations with a more thoughtful and holistic framework for embracing diversity that values each unique individual and all of the complex differences between people.

In the coming months and years, the True Diversity initiative will work to highlight the value of the individual and empower charitable organizations with the freedom and flexibility to advance their missions and help those in need.