“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
At this morning’s breakfast plenary on the closing day of the 2011 Annual Conference, Ambassador James Joseph reminded me of this statement from French poet and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. His observations on the matter of “Philanthropy and Pluralism: Diversity That Does Not Divide” exhorted 1,000 “ship builders” to pause, put down our tools, look out, and yearn once more for that which got us into the ship-building business in the first place.
Lamenting that today, 40 years after his history-making action at the Annual Meeting of members to oppose a slate of board candidates for its lack of diversity, he said we are still “a badly divided nation in a badly divided world.” At the heart of any discussion about diversity and inclusion in philanthropy is “a struggle for the soul of democracy,” he suggested. Back then, pluralism meant inviting “others” to join and assimilate the dominant culture. Today’s pluralism is more egalitarian and produces “a creative tension that enriches rather than divides.” But in our never-ending quest for better tools (policies, practices, strategies, data, etc.), we have neglected to replenish the yearning needed to fuel our efforts—a relentless discomfort and dissatisfaction with our inability to connect diversity in our field to our broader role in strengthening democracy and fostering equality for all.
Heeding Ambassador Joseph’s call, we are at a point where diversity is in fact not dividing but uniting the very sector itself. In 2010, foundations and philanthropy support organizations came together to form an unprecedented coalition of 18 infrastructure organizations (collectively representing thousands of foundations) and set a strategic agenda to help philanthropy become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. This five-year national collaboration, known as the D5 Coalition (http://D5coalition.org), not only responds to but embraces the fact that the world is changing. We believe philanthropy should change with it. The ultimate goal of this work is to help foundations achieve greater impact in an increasingly diverse landscape.
Ignoring this painfully obvious imperative as a field puts us at risk not only of criticism, disdain, and external meddling, but—more frighteningly—irrelevance.
Mae Hong is director, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors