Foundation Presidents Explore Philanthropy’s Racial Equity Leadership Imperative

Birmingham, AL – On December 13 and 14, 2018, foundation CEOs, with aggregate assets of $25 billion, gathered for the inaugural meeting of the Presidents’ Forum on Racial Equity in Philanthropy. The session was held at the Betty and Gordon Moore Foundation in Palo Alto, California. CEOs met to examine how their personal experiences inform their decision-making, glean practical insights from their peers, develop goals for their roles as leaders, and think about the role of racial equity in their work as they address complex societal issues.

The Presidents’ Forum is envisioned as a series of in-person leadership development sessions for CEOs of US 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. Seventeen 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 Forum has been convened by Keecha Harris and Associates (KHA Inc), a firm that leads professional development offerings spanning $98 billon (12%) of the $890 billion in US-based philanthropic assets. KHA Inc worked closely with Larry Kramer, president and CEO of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in shaping the Forum and its first session.

The goal of the December Forum was to a create space where CEOs could grapple with racial equity leadership dilemmas and seek solutions through peer-to-peer conversations. The design of this first Forum and future gatherings is aimed at reducing 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 CEOs were joined for individual sessions by Valerie Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama and a leader in the Obama Foundation, and Sarah Jones, award-winning playwright and performer. Ms. Jarrett offered insights from her extensive experience addressing issues of racial equity, and Ms. Jones presented characters from her though-provoking piece on philanthropy, The 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 through a mix of individual goal-setting exercises, intimate group discussions, and engagement with renowned speakers, attendees found the experience beneficial. One CEO reflected afterward, “I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. . . . This broader group is so valuable as there is only one person in our organization with our job.”

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

  • Personal commitment: For most participants, their commitment to racial equity was deeply connected to their personal values.

  • Commonalities around trust and power: Conversation was deep around how to build trust by understanding the power differential between CEOs and the various audiences they work with.

  • Relationship building and culture: The group considered how their own cultural norms emerge from lived experiences and how that might create conditions of “in-ness,” “out-ness,” “one-up-ness,” or “one-down-ness” in foundation relationships.

  • Mapping the power of relationships and identity: Participants examined their trusted relationships and the implications of “sameness” or diversity in the people they rely on most.

  • Calibrating how leaders see and address race: Attendees explored how their leadership is expressed with a racial equity lens and when they need to be visible on this issue for their staff.

As one participant said, “Our racial equity lens approach should be discovery, and that is a joyful thing. A racial equity lens should allow us to see one another, and that discovery should be joyful. There is so much anger and divisiveness surrounding race in our country. How can we turn this into a joyful thing? How do we show within the institution that we control what we would like to see in our nation as a whole?”

Building on lessons learned from this first convening, KHA Inc will convene two or three in-person sessions in 2019, including an opportunity in March for presidents and CEOs who were unable to attend the inaugural meeting. Additionally, several presidents will be writing and blogging on a range of racial equity internal leadership issues over the months ahead.


KHA Inc, a national consulting firm and 8(a) certified and woman-owned business based in Birmingham, Alabama, 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). 


Sara Padilla

Misty Mathews