Foundation Presidents Explore Philanthropy’s Racial Equity Leadership Imperative in March Meeting; June to bring a third experience for CEOs

Attendees of the March 2019 Presidents’ Forum convening, with guest speaker Valerie Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama and a leader in the Obama Foundation.

Attendees of the March 2019 Presidents’ Forum convening, with guest speaker Valerie Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama and a leader in the Obama Foundation.

Birmingham, AL – On March 28-29, Keecha Harris and Associates, Inc. (KHA) convened the second meeting of the Presidents’ Forum on Racial Equity in Philanthropy. This professional development initiative centers racial equity as core to leadership. Foundation CEOs, with aggregate assets of $16 billion, met at the Walton Family Foundation in Washington, D.C. 

Over two days, the group participated in a mix of large- and small-group conversations focused on changes needed in the interactions between the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, support they need as leaders in organizations with large assets and high concentrations of power, effective practices used among their peers, and the need to prioritize racial equity as both a process and an outcome goal in their leadership.

The Presidents’ Forum is a series of in-person leadership development sessions for CEOs of U.S. foundations. Informed by interviews with nearly three dozen foundation executives, the Forum is a constructive space to address issues like talent development, board engagement, and sectoral impact. Eighteen foundations have invested in the Forum, including the Ford, McKnight, Mertz Gilmore, and Mary Reynolds Babcock foundations as well as the California Endowment and Rockefeller Brothers Fund.  

The goal of the March Forum, like the previous session in December 2018, was to create a space where CEOs could grapple with racial equity leadership dilemmas and seek solutions through peer-to-peer conversations. Forum gatherings aim to reduce the gap between the intentions and the actual practices of leaders seeking to effectively address racial disparities in the arts, education, science, environment, health, and other areas. 

The Presidents’ Forum also engages CEOs with thought leaders across sectors. Valerie Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama and a leader in the Obama Foundation, underscored the importance of engaging underrepresented populations. Sarah Jones, award-winning playwright and performer, presented characters from her thought-provoking piece on philanthropy, The Foundation, that was commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

According to Harris, “Foundation leaders often feel singular within their organizations, wedged between the ‘pull forward of the staff and the pushback of the board.’” She said attendees found the intimate peer discussions and real-time problem solving extremely useful and very difficult to find in almost any other venue.

According to Harris, four core themes emerged during the convening:

  • Push forward versus pull back: The balance between satisfying staff desire to move ahead on racial equity with the board’s hesitation on pursuing the issue.  

  • Self versus the organization: The occasional struggle between one’s own personal development and commitment to racial equity and the specific strategy of the organization. 

  • Racial equity versus DEI: The debate among and within foundations to use a specific racial equity frame or a broader (and at times more accepted) diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) frame.

  • Creating new circles of trust: Getting comfortable with the discomfort of broadening one’s trusted circle to bring in new voices, particularly the voices of those who are more proximal to the problem. 

As one participant said, “I feel personally that race has been a central issue my whole life. I am challenging myself at the Presidents’ Forum to figure out how to give voice to my own understanding and to build agreement and consensus at both the board and staff levels.”

Building on lessons learned from the December and March convenings, KHA will convene participants from both sessions at the Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, in early June. 

Described as a “sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terror in America and its legacy and located on a site where enslaved people were once warehoused, the museum presents the narrative of slavery in the United States, racial terrorism, and the Jim Crow South. Registration is currently open for the lead executive officer in grantmaking institutions.

The Forum has been convened by Keecha Harris and Associates, Inc. (KHA), a firm that leads professional development offerings spanning $144 billion (16%) of the $890 billion in U.S.-based philanthropic assets. KHA worked closely with Larry Kramer, president and CEO of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in shaping the Forum. Learn more at


Keecha Harris and Associates, Inc. (KHA) is a national consulting firm and 8(a)-certified and woman-owned business based in Birmingham, Alabama. KHA leads organizational development, project management, and evaluation projects for publicly and privately funded efforts across a broad range of topics. Clients include the Annie E. Casey, Robert Wood Johnson, W.K. Kellogg, William and Flora Hewlett, David and Lucile Packard, Schmidt Family, and Energy foundations as well as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Misty Mathews