Are Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statements Effective Tools for Foundations?

Morgan Williams

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have become major topics of conversation in arts and culture within the past decade. Studies have shown that there is a marked lack of DEI in all areas of the sector, including audiences, artistic offerings, governing boards, professional staff, and financial support. Compounding this issue is the rapidly changing demographic makeup of the United States; it is estimated that by 2042, people of color will no longer be in the minority.1

While arts organizations can have a variety of revenue structures, many rely on foundation funding to pay their staff, run their programs, and fulfill their missions. The power imbalance between foundations and grantees can shape how grantee organizations approach their work. Because of this influence, it is important to understand how foundations can impact diversity, equity, and inclusivity in the sector.

Increasingly aware of this lack of DEI, many foundations that support arts and culture are now trying to incorporate DEI values into their organizational culture and grantmaking practices. On the public-facing side, foundations are proclaiming their values using DEI statements or by including them in other official materials, such as mission, vision, or values documents. While many foundations are employing this strategy, it is unclear whether their actions match the rhetoric of their DEI statements. It is also difficult to know how arts organizations interpret these statements, and whether arts and culture professionals believe they will lead to demonstrable change in funding practices.

The purpose of my research was to shed light on some of the complexities, nuances, and challenges of putting DEI theory into practice within foundation funding for arts and culture. I considered both the foundation perspective (as represented in DEI statements) and the grantee perspective. The following discussion represents the highlights of my research.

Research Methods

My research consisted of two phases: a discourse analysis of foundation DEI statements, and interviews of professional staff at arts and culture organizations.2

To identify DEI statements for the study, I first searched for foundations that are leaders in the sector. These were foundations that had DEI statements on their websites or were mentioned for their DEI work in the media, academic literature, or industry reports. I also used data from the Foundation Center Website and Grantmakers in the Arts’ “Arts Funding Snapshot” from 2017 to identify foundations that have given generously to arts and culture in the past four to five years.3 I then searched those foundations’ websites for DEI statements. Lastly, I included a few foundations in Philadelphia because my interview participants would be based in that area. The result was a list of forty-two foundations.4 To find interviewees, I identified arts organizations in Philadelphia that had received funding from one or more of the foundations included in the discourse analysis. I interviewed arts administrators representing a wide range of arts organizations and professional experiences. Interviewees remained anonymous to allow them to speak freely. The demographic breakdowns for my interview participants were as follows: women, 8; men, 1; African American, 5; white, 4; and Latine, 1.

A potential caveat for this analysis is that there is great variety among foundations, which can make it difficult to generalize about how they perform as a group on any given issue. Because it is not a homogenous field, there has to be a lot of space for nuance. While all foundations are different, it is still worth looking at them as a unit to assess their role in furthering DEI in the sector and provide recommendations for improvement.

Research Findings and Discussion

Figure 1: Quantitative inquiry word cloud.

I conducted the discourse analysis in two phases: a quantitative inquiry to look at common words and phrases, and a qualitative mapping to identify larger themes.

Quantitative Inquiry

The Current Discourse

In the quantitative portion of the discourse analysis, I identified common terms in the statements and compared their frequency of use. The resulting word cloud gives a sense of the current discourse on DEI in foundation support of arts and culture (see figure 1). Diversity, equity, and inclusion are used most frequently in the statements because they are generally accepted as the primary terms in the sector. Beyond these three, the code frequencies suggest that foundations use terms that are explicitly related to DEI less frequently than terms that can have multiple meanings. For example, words that are tied to identity characteristics, such as discrimination, racism, privilege, social justice, and unconscious bias, are mentioned relatively infrequently, especially when compared to their use in recent literature on DEI. Words that can have a variety of meanings and are not related as explicitly to identity characteristics are used more frequently. These include access, justice, fairness, quality of life, representation, resources, underserved, disadvantaged, and opportunities. Looking at word usage in this way demonstrates how foundations convey their stances on DEI initiatives through specific language choices. It also suggests that some foundations have a clear vision for how they can impact the lack of DEI in their grantmaking areas, while others may intentionally skirt around the issue.

Figure 2: Defining diversity word cloud.

Defining Diversity

I used a separate code scheme to get a sense of how foundations are defining diversity. The resulting word cloud shows that foundations are focusing primarily on race, ethnicity, gender, and gender expression when defining diversity (see figure 2). Foundations are not focusing as much on religion, socioeconomic status, education level, national origin and immigration status, or other identity categories.

Another notable pattern in the statements was that there were two clear methods for defining diversity: diversity based on its value to society, and diversity based on identity characteristics. The Rockefeller Foundation, which uses the former type, writes, “we define diversity as valuing and leveraging the collective differences and similarities of our staff.”5 They focused on diversity as an action. In contrast, the Wege Foundation defines diversity based on identity categories. They write, “the Wege Foundation believes diversity encompasses, but is not limited to, ethnicity, race, color, age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, veteran status, immigration status, economic circumstances, physical and mental abilities and characteristics, faith tradition and philosophy.”6 Ideally foundations would define diversity using a combination of the two.

Qualitative Mapping

The qualitative mapping portion of the discourse analysis showed that there is great variety in how foundations are choosing to address the lack of DEI in their practices. Some foundations’ statements were multiple pages long, while others were a few sentences within a larger document (such as a mission, vision, and values statement or a description of a particular funding initiative or program). Despite the variety in length and subject matter, key themes emerged. Those themes, listed in order of most to least frequent, were as follows:

  • systems change and social change
  • the value of individuals: perspectives, potential, and voices
  • diverse foundation board, staff, and partners
  • diverse grantees or program participants
  • the value and necessity of diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • the need for cross-sector collaboration
  • the importance of arts in society
  • increasing access and removing boundaries
  • political activism, arts advocacy, and democracy
  • community engagement and community development
  • the responsibility and role of foundations
  • DEI as a journey and ongoing learning process
  • the goal of increasing diversity
  • the role of changing demographics
  • structural racism

These themes show that foundations who are addressing DEI are doing so in ways that are generally consistent with the existing literature and sector-wide conversations on this topic. These themes include increasing board and staff diversity, working more directly with diverse grantees, using a systems change approach to grantmaking, removing boundaries to the arts, the importance of the arts in community development, and a foundation’s responsibility to further DEI initiatives. The more unexpected themes are still related to these larger concepts. For example, the theme of political activism, arts advocacy, and democracy is consistent with the idea of systems change, or addressing the root causes of inequality rather than treating the symptoms.

There were several patterns in the statement themes when analyzed against foundation budget size, foundation type, statement type, and DEI mention type:

  1. Even though systems change is talked about a lot in the literature as a framework for thinking about DEI initiatives, and it appeared frequently in the discourse analysis, only small foundations and community foundations mentioned systems change and social change. This is perhaps because smaller foundations are more likely to be looking at initiating change in smaller communities.
  2. The themes of diverse foundation board, staff, and partners and diverse grantees or program participants were consistent across budget size. This shows that budget sizes, which are related to influence, are not a factor in whether a foundation is addressing these topics.
  3. Private foundations, including family-run foundations, were more likely to write about DEI as a journey and ongoing learning process and the role and responsibility of foundations in relation to DEI than corporate and community foundations. I would argue that this is because the structure of these foundations allows for more board and staff reflection and development.
  4. The theme of increasing access and removing boundaries came up more frequently in mission, vision, and values statements than in stand-alone DEI statements. This could indicate that while the topic is related to DEI, some foundations are not making the connection between access and diversity.
  5. Foundations that implied DEI values (addressed the general theme of DEI without using the exact term) were more likely to write about the importance of arts in society and increasing access and removing boundaries. These foundations are acknowledging that some people have less access to the arts. But they are avoiding the role that identities such as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and so on play in limiting access.


Within a semistructured format, I addressed the same three major topics with each interviewee: (1) their reaction to foundation DEI statements, (2) the nature of their organization’s relationships with foundations, (3) and any additional thoughts on the state of DEI in foundation funding for arts and culture.

I was genuinely surprised by the range of reactions to foundation DEI statements in my interviews. I assumed professional staff at arts and culture organizations would be interested in them. Instead, what I found is that only a small number of arts and culture professionals are paying attention to these statements. Based on my interviews, whether someone is paying attention depends on the size and capacity of their organization as well as their personal interest in the subject. For example, interviewees at the two smallest organizations (with three or fewer full-time staff) were not paying attention at all to foundation DEI statements. In contrast, the interviewee from the largest organization was paying very close attention. One interviewee even said that they will decide whether to apply for a grant based on the foundation’s DEI statement (or other official content addressing DEI). Another interviewee said they will read a foundation’s DEI statement and research previous grant recipients before applying for a grant. I can conclude from the interviews that if foundations intend for their grantees to read their DEI statements, it is only happening some of the time.

The role of power dynamics in foundation-grantee relationships has been addressed extensively in existing literature.7 The individuals I interviewed were divided in their opinions on the nature of foundation-grantee relationships. Some said that arts organizations can never be true partners with foundations because of the inherent power imbalance. One interviewee said, “I think most funders want to — and I believe need to — remain separate enough from their grantees so that there is no expectation of support.” Contrastingly, other interviewees said that they have close relationships with foundation staff. Some observed that foundations are increasingly viewing grantee organizations as partners. One interviewee said, “I have good, friendly, and happy relationships with most of the individual program officers that I’m connected to. . . . I feel like some of them have made choices to treat me as a colleague.” This is an important indicator of progress, as it shows that some foundations see themselves as part of the same system for change as their grantee organizations.

At the same time, interviewees argued that foundations could be doing more to harness these partnerships. One interviewee proposed that funders should partner with organizations to come up with ideas for how to solve larger issues in arts and culture and society more broadly. They explained, “we [professionals in the field] think we might have something to offer in solving a problem in our world, but we don’t think we can figure it out on our own, and, even if we did, we are going to need help along the way in getting the right people to the table.” They suggested that foundations should help convene people from across the arts and culture sector to brainstorm solutions to a problem before allocating dollars toward solving that problem. This collaborative approach could put the foundation and the grantee organizations it supports on more equal footing.

While most interviewees believed that balanced relationships with foundations are possible, all agreed that foundations’ words do not always match their actions. From their perspective, foundations will often say one thing, but the money will tell a different story. In addition, foundations will say they are diversifying their boards but then not do enough to make that happen. One interviewee spoke about the common issue of tokenism on boards, saying, “People have to give up their seats. You can’t just bring one ‘diverse’ person onto an old board. Because a board is a body of people . . . one person isn’t people having their voices heard.”

Another common sentiment was that foundations are doing well in addressing diversity in terms of race and gender but are behind in other areas. One interviewee questioned whether foundations really understand what is happening in the sector, saying,

When foundations say DEI, do they really mean across all spectrums of people or do they just mean on race and gender? Because I feel like there is a much bigger divide in the arts along class, religion, ableism, immigrants, etc. . . . we are doing much worse on those areas than we are on race and gender.

This closely corresponds with the results of the discourse analysis. Race and gender were mentioned more than any other identity type in DEI statements. When asked to define diversity for themselves, all interviewees described it relative to an individual’s unique identities, mentioning specific identity types, the intersections between them, and how those identities bring a range of perspectives to the table. As one interviewee said,

It’s about having differing backgrounds and opinions and bodies so that there can be a diversity of thought and a non-homogeneous way of seeing, and that has to be done at class, education, race, religion, income, sexual orientation, gender identity, parent or non-parent, immigrant or non-immigrant, fat and not-fat, people who are differently abled. You should think about it in every single possible way and try to have groups of people that are as representative of humanity as possible.

While interviewees cited some foundations as positive examples, the general trend was that staff at arts and culture organizations do not think that foundations as a whole are grasping the concept of expansive diversity.



A few themes came up consistently in each portion of my research. These themes are not only relevant to foundations but are essential reminders for anyone supporting DEI initiatives in arts and culture. These themes include defining diversity, relinquishing power, and DEI as a consistent practice.

The meaning of diversity cannot be assumed but rather must be defined. As DEI becomes a more prevalent subject of discussion in the field, it also becomes more susceptible to an individual person’s understanding of its context and scope. Defining it clearly will help the sector, and foundations writing DEI statements, avoid ambiguity and confusion. We also need an expansive definition of diversity; it is not enough to think about diversity in terms of race and gender. The arts and culture sector needs to consider less visible identity traits too, such as socioeconomic status, religion, educational background, professional experience, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, as well as how these traits intersect and influence how a person is treated in society.

Privileged parties need to be willing to give up some of their power, allowing room for marginalized individuals, organizations, and points of view to come to the foreground. Foundations can accomplish this in a variety of ways. Examples include adding more underrepresented individuals to foundation boards and professional staff, requiring that a certain percentage of grants be given to historically marginalized groups, and collaborating with grantee organizations to address key problems in the sector.

The pursuit for diversity, equity, and inclusion is a never-ending process. It is not a goal that can be reached but rather something that must be consistently evaluated, worked on, and tracked. Foundations, arts and culture organizations, and individuals involved in the arts and culture sector need to be thinking constantly about diversity, equity, and inclusion, as demographics are always changing.

Assessing DEI Statements

Foundations’ DEI statements vary greatly in content, which is to be expected; foundations are unique as dictated by their individual missions. But even accounting for those differences, all statements serve the same function. Foundations use DEI statements, whether in the form of stand-alone DEI statements or other organizational documents, as devices for conveying their values. They function both as internal guidelines and as external announcements. The qualitative themes from my discourse analysis support this idea; many foundations discussed focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion within the foundation, in its grantmaking practices, and in collaborating with external stakeholders.

My interviews, however, showed that DEI statements are not always reaching grantees, who are arguably foundations’ most important stakeholders. Foundations exist to serve the community by redistributing financial resources. If they are unable to effectively communicate with their grantees, then something is failing. Those who are paying attention to DEI statements are not necessarily convinced that foundations are acting on the intentions expressed within them. If foundations are to keep using DEI statements, they have to address the who, what, when, and why of their DEI initiatives in these statements.

Who are these statements for? Foundations need to be mindful of their audiences and communication channels. If a foundation’s grantees, partners, and other stakeholders are not aware of their DEI statement, then the foundation needs to take the necessary steps to correct that. Staff at smaller arts organizations often do not have the time to read details on foundations’ websites, so foundations need to think about how they can reach them in other ways. That could be through emailing, calling, setting up in-person meetings, or including details about their DEI statements in their grant application processes.

What are the goals, and when are we going to accomplish them? Foundations need to have measurable goals and deadlines for their DEI initiatives, and these should be included in their DEI statements. It is easy to overthink DEI; people get hung up on language choices, or they spend so much time defining the problem that they fail to act. Listing measurable goals or outcomes on the DEI statement will help foundations follow through on their values. Unless foundations hold themselves accountable, there is no point to DEI statements other than making foundations feel good internally or look good externally.

Why does it matter? This question is at the heart of the movement for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in arts and culture. For foundations to play a role, they need to understand why DEI is necessary and urgent, and they need to convey those sentiments in their DEI statements.

All foundations are different, and while that presents a challenge when trying to evaluate them as a single group, that does not mean they cannot be held accountable as a group for their actions. While foundations may be driven by different missions, they all have a common purpose. Foundations ultimately exist to serve the public, and they therefore need to act in its best interest. The American public is changing, and foundations need to ensure that they are changing along with it. Supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion in arts and culture is acting in the public interest.


  1. Spilka, Figueredo, and Kioukis, “Foundations Facilitate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” 6.
  2. In discourse analysis, a researcher systematically analyzes a body of material, whether composed of writings, recordings, videos, etc., for both manifest and latent messages in the materials by determining the frequency of message characteristics.
  3. See Mukai and Stubbs, “Arts Funding Snapshot,” 6.
  4. Budget sizes of the foundations I included skew larger than the national average. This is because larger foundations that support arts and culture were easiest to identify based on available information. In addition, large foundations have more resources, staff, and a greater capacity for sharing materials with the public. These foundations were therefore more likely to have DEI statements or mission, vision, values statements that both mention DEI and are readily available online.
  5. Rockefeller Foundation, “Diversity and Inclusion.”
  6. Wege Foundation, “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policy.”
  7. See Spilka, Figueredo, and Kioukis, “Foundations Facilitate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”; Scutari, “A Goal of Justice”; and Laing, “Grantee Inclusion.”


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Mukai, Reina, and Ryan Stubbs. “Arts Funding Snapshot: GIA’s Annual Research on Support for Arts and Culture.” Reprinted from Grantmakers in the Arts Reader 29, no. 1 (Winter 2018).

Rockefeller Foundation. n.d. “Diversity and Inclusion.” Accessed May 6, 2018.

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