GRAND RAPIDS — If people of color continue to be underrepresented in Michigan’s philanthropic and nonprofit sector, industry leaders fear the funding, programs and services they provide might fail to reach people who most need it.
While some organizations have stepped up and are able to show that diversity, equity and inclusion are a key focus of their work, a lot more remains to be done, said Juan Olivarez, former president of Aquinas College.
Olivarez is leading an effort that will take a deeper dive into the issue. He recently accepted a position as distinguished scholar in residence for diversity, equity and inclusion with the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.
“We still don’t have enough people of color and underrepresented groups both in foundations and nonprofits serving the community,” Olivarez told MiBiz. “It matters in terms of having that diverse perspective.”
The position was created as part of a multifaceted response to monumental demographic shifts taking place throughout the United States and in Michigan. Leaders in the $1.6 trillion nonprofit sector recognize they must adapt to changing needs in communities to ensure equitable access to health care, education and the workforce, according to GVSU.
The underrepresentation of minority populations occurs boardly and at the leadership and staff levels within nonprofits, Olivarez said.
During his three-year appointment, Olivarez will research and share knowledge about how to improve inclusive practices in the nonprofit sector with a goal of advancing the center’s work on building capacity in the nonprofit sector while incorporating equity principles. Olivarez’s position is funded in part by recent grants from the Frey Foundation, the Wege Foundation, the Kate and Richard Wolters Foundation and support from the center’s founder, Dorothy Johnson. The gifts are part of GVSU’s Laker Effect campaign.
“One of the things we will do is get information, but we will also engage with the nonprofit sector to understand what they are doing to recruit and retain and what they are doing to advance people who are already within the organization,” Olivarez said, adding the effort may result in greater attention to professional development opportunities.
“A lot of what you hear is that qualified, underrepresented people are not there for them to find,” he said. “We believe that they are and we have to promote the ability to impact that talent pipeline for the sector.”
This will involve a greater promotion of the sector and the opportunities available to underrepresented populations while also providing a training component so the populations are better equipped to compete for jobs, Olivarez said.
Leadership of the Wege Foundation said the decision to fund the research came as a natural outgrowth of the vision its founder had for the Grand Rapids community. Mark Van Putten, president of the Wege Foundation, said Peter Wege wanted Grand Rapids to be the best medium-size city in the U.S, while recognizing that it would have to be the best for each and every resident in Grand Rapids.
“It’s obviously important from a societal and ethical point of view to assure that the ways our resources are entrusted are spent and reflect the diversity of the community,” Van Putten said of Olivarez’s work. “I was born and raised here and one thing that really impressed me is the extent to which business leadership recognizes the importance of diversity. That’s the source of creativity and innovation.”
Olivarez said the nonprofit sector is not an isolated case when it comes to disparities. Issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion remain present in hiring practices in other sectors, he added.
“When you’re looking for people or when you’re out there to recruit for talent, even for colleges, there’s still a tendency for people to look for people who look like them,” Olivarez said. “It’s very difficult to break the mold. There’s inherent bias that still exists in people. I’ve seen it everywhere I’ve worked in my career.”
For this reason, he said, hiring underrepresented populations has to be a targeted, concerted effort with an expectation that the hiring pools are diverse.
Van Putten said if hiring and recruitment efforts don’t have a focus on populations that have historically been underrepresented, “we fall behind, become isolated and are not competitive.” He said Peter Wege’s belief was that “you can’t be the best if you’re not the best for everyone.”
The Grand Rapids Community Foundation thinks it’s vital to have input and participation from people experiencing inequities because they are better positioned to talk about the ways they can be supported, said Kate Luckert Schmid, the foundation’s vice president of programs. She said organizations must continue to create opportunities for communities of color and underrepresented populations to address issues that will lead to systemic changes to support all communities.
“We’ve long been encouraging our nonprofit sector to get greater resident voices and look at hiring practices because we know that’s where the strengths are going to be,” Schmid said. “We’re helping to develop networks to showcase efforts for communities of colors and create connections to create that advocacy component. We’re equipping and empowering people of color to advocate for issues that they’re passionate about it.”
The most recent example of this work is a partnership between the GRCF and the Urban Core Collective, which brings communities of color together to obtain equal access to education, economic prosperity, health, and power and influence. Through this new partnership, announced on July 12, the GRCF expands its network of nonprofit and community partners that are working to build an inclusive economy and thriving community for all West Michigan residents.
MAKING THE CASE
The first part of Olivarez’s work at GVSU will look at philanthropic and nonprofit organizations and their internal operations before moving on to focus on the community.
“Can we do better out in the community in terms of strengthening and advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in talent pipelines?” he said.
Olivarez will take a lead role in the development of a prototype talent pipeline initiative in the West Michigan area that seeks to better understand the role of employment in inclusive community development. Simply put, he will be trying to determine how communities can be more inclusive in their development by figuring out who’s benefiting and who’s not.
The new effort at the Johnson Center continues a string of recent efforts from the philanthropic sector in Michigan to make the case for giving a greater voice to people of color and underrepresented populations.
In May, the Battle Creek-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation published the results of a study on the business case for racial equity in the state. The report found that Michigan can realize a $92 billion gain in economic output by 2050 if racial disparities in health, education, incarceration and employment are eliminated.
In June, the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute announced a first-of-its kind collaboration with seven local colleges to create “Pathways to Careers in Healthcare” for area students of color. The program is funded by a $400,000 planning grant from the Kellogg Foundation.
Given the current political climate, Olivarez said those who don’t agree with a greater focus on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are reacting out of a sense of fear. The country has to move beyond the politics of attitudes, he said, and focus on talking about sustaining our society, democracy and communities.
“What we’re seeing is fear that if you are a white person in power, it means you’re giving it up and that others are going to take over and that’s scary,” Olivarez said. “Demographics are changing, and we need more people of color in leadership and decision-making roles. Our society is becoming more diverse. And as it becomes more complex, it takes more ability to work together.”
MiBiz coverage of Michigan’s nonprofit sector is made possible through a generous sponsorship by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a leader in funding, initiating and leading programs that benefit the Grand Rapids area in the arts, community development, education, environment, health, and human services. For more information, visit grfoundation.org.