Diversity, Philanthropy and How I Got Through College

A recent college graduate discusses how philanthropy in the form of scholarships helped her finish her degree.

By Tierra Moore Piens, The Greenlining Institute

Philanthropy changes lives. I know, because it changed mine.

When I arrived at UCLA my first priority wasn't making new friends or signing up for student organizations— it was finding a job.  And I did.

I knew that financing my college education was going to be tough, but I had no idea just how difficult it would be. By my second year, tuition and housing costs had both jumped. To reduce costs I decided to live off-campus my sophomore year, sometimes commuting 71 miles to and from school, and other times sleeping on the sofas of relatives and friends who lived closer.

At the start of my third year at UCLA things became desperate. With no idea of how my family would afford my final two years of college, I considered dropping out. In a stroke of luck, I was introduced to the Soledad O'Brien & Brad Raymond Foundation, which awarded me scholarships that allowed me to stay in school and live near campus. Their philanthropy gave me the opportunity to graduate from college and pursue my passion for social justice work. Now I'm headed to law school in the fall at Berkeley Law!

The 2008 financial downturn and slow economic recovery for America's communities of color has created countless cases like mine —children, families, and communities that just need a little support to help them get to where they are trying to go.  Now, more than ever, we need our charitable foundations to be the bridge between hardship and success. This is why The Greenlining Institute is committed to making the philanthropic sector more responsive to the needs of the community.

One thing that will help foundations be more effective is diversity. And while it's hard to prove cause-and-effect, the presence of diverse foundation board members correlates strongly with philanthropic investment in minority-led nonprofits that address the needs of communities of color.

In February, The Greenlining Institute issued its latest report on foundation board diversity, examining the number of diverse board members who served on the top 48 charitable foundations in the country by asset share. We found that diversity is still lagging at many major foundations: three quarters of all board members continue to be white, and slightly more than half of directors are white men.  In short, the people who run major charitable foundations don't quite look like the rest of America.

Still, a growing number of foundations have improved their track record. The California Endowment is trailblazing the diversity effort among the top foundations with 67 percent diverse representation on its board of directors! Additionally, this spring, Greenlining sent letters to the forty-eight foundations featured in our philanthropy report, and we're happy to note that The J. Paul Getty Trust responded to inform us that Dr. Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana was recently appointed to the trust's board of directors. We commend The J. Paul Getty Trust for a step in the right direction.

In 2013 we hope that the message becomes loud and clear:  it is no longer acceptable to redline, or close the door to diversity in any boardroom in this country, including philanthropic boards. To reach fair outcomes, we need to start with shared ownership and equitable investment.

Click here for a list of how the top forty-eight foundations fared.

Thank you to all foundations and philanthropists that awarded me undergraduate scholarship support: The Soledad O'Brien & Brad Raymond Foundation, The Nestlé Foundation, The Fitzpatrick Family, The UCLA Black Alumni Association (UBAA), and The Academic Advancement Program at UCLA (AAP).

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