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Language Matters

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take5movement2.2Periodically, D5 highlights the work of Take 5 Champions – leaders and organizations that are taking action to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in philanthropy. The Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) is a long-time leader in its work to promote DEI. The following post by CMF’s Debbie McKeon, Vice President of Member Services, shares recent insights gained from CMF’s continuing journey to strengthen Michigan grantmakers.

Words do matter. Language is messy by nature, which is why we must be careful in how we use it. As leaders, after all, we have little else to work with.

— Peter Senge                                                                          

When I joined the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) in 2012 as senior vice president for member services, the organization was in the midst of a comprehensive five-year initiative called “Transforming Michigan Philanthropy through Diversity and Inclusion” (TMP). Building on our board’s longstanding belief that “including the broadest possible cross-section of people” would strengthen the work of grantmakers
in our state, the program included research, education, and communications efforts designed to help our member organizations become more diverse and inclusive.

The initiative has been successful on many levels. We’ve seen participating member foundations make significant progress on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) front within their organizations, with cascading effects in the communities they serve. But not all members were participating, and we suspected it had something to do with words.

Surveys and interviews with members indicated that, while most foundations were aware of our TMP seminars and educational tools, not all viewed them as relevant to their organizations. “Diversity is not an issue for us,” was a common response. What that often meant, we discovered, was “There are no people of color in our community.”

“Diversity” is a perfectly good word, and most organizational websites include definitions listing all the identity groups encompassed by the word. But for some of our members — and for some people everywhere — diversity has come to connote racial differences only. In an attempt to reach a broader audience for our learning services, CMF is testing a new communications framework that emphasizes the value of “embracing differences” to improve organizational effectiveness.

Drawing on research findings that diverse teams outperform homogenous ones, we developed a discussion and assessment tool that we hope will engage all our members in the work of DEI by helping foundation leaders begin essential conversations about the power of differences. The assessment guides participants through a series of statements about understanding, commitment, conditions, and resources, asking them to evaluate where their organization stands with regard to these aspects of a diverse and inclusive culture.

Each topic in the assessment is accompanied by a brief explanation of “why it’s important” and a short case study of a CMF member organization showing “what it looks like.” Nonjudgmental categories of response — “Exploring (haven’t decided),” “Making Progress (somewhat true),” and “We Are There (true)” — were designed to encourage honesty and give leadership a clear view of the current landscape.

By aligning our learning services and resource hub offerings with the assessment’s response categories, we hope to give members an easy way to find CMF programs and tools that will serve them wherever they are on the DEI journey.

Before releasing the assessment tool last fall, we tested it with a focus group of members who had not formerly participated in our TMP programs. The response was overwhelmingly favorable, especially with regard to the language it used. One interviewee noted that the word diversity tended to “immediately direct the conversation to racial diversity” and that using the language of differences would help to “prompt a broader discussion.”

Another member said that she believed the tool could help her organization better serve its community through grantmaking practices that “recognize that people with differences not only have needs, but also come with resources (as donors, as skill experts, or with access to other people with resources).”

Peter Senge makes a good point about language and how it is pretty much all we have to work with as leaders. At CMF, we’re working to make our words matter, and we are interested to hear how others in the sector are addressing the language of DEI.

Debbie McKeon is Senior Vice President, Member Services for the Council of Michigan Foundations where she leads the team providing CMF members with learning services that promote leadership skills and equitable grantmaking practices.

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