On every grant application, Northwest Health Foundation (NWHF) requires nonprofits to report the demographics of the communities they serve, as well as the demographics of their board members. However, that hasn’t always been the case.
Northwest Health Foundation’s mission is to advance, support, and promote health in Oregon and Southwest Washington. The way we do this has changed over time. Since our founding in 1997, NWHF has granted more than $70 million. After years of giving to healthcare systems and research institutions, we realized we weren’t getting any closer to our goal. The health of Oregon and Southwest Washington residents wasn’t improving, especially not in specific communities. We needed to examine our approach and develop a new strategy.
So, in 2011, our board formed an equity committee. Together, they developed a common understanding of equity broadly and health equity specifically. They considered several different priority areas. In the end, they chose race/ethnicity, disability, and geography, because these areas presented the greatest opportunity for improving health while focusing our work. Too often, the color of our skin, living with a disability, or where we’re born determines our chance at a healthy life. Our commitment to promoting equity is a commitment to ending this reality.
To hold Northwest Health Foundation accountable to our commitment, our board asked NWHF staff to start tracking more detailed data about our grantmaking and present our progress to the board every year. Unsurprisingly, the early numbers showed that most of our grants went to Portland metro area organizations led by and serving white, able-bodied people.
After making this discovery, we invited community leaders of color and community leaders with disabilities to talk with us and give us feedback. We embarked on community visits around our region. We were determined to increase our giving to our priority communities.
In 2011, half of our grant dollars went to communities of color. Almost none of our grant dollars went to disability communities. In 2017, 4 out of 5 grant dollars went to communities of color and 1 out of 10 went to disability communities. We could not have made these strides if we hadn’t started tracking demographics data.
Last year we even added a few more categories: multi-cultural, cross-racial, culturally specific, and disability-led. We’ve also begun developing a deeper analysis around geography, beyond the rural/urban divide. However, we haven’t gathered enough data yet to report how we’re doing in these areas.
Of course, we spend more than just grant dollars. So, a year after the equity committee chose our three equity priorities, NWHF audited our operating dollars as well. We wanted to know what percentage of our budget was spent on hiring racial/ethnic minority, disability, LGBTQ, and Oregon-owned firms. Turns out, not much. Only one-half of 1 percent went to minority-owned firms, and 100 percent of our paid consultants were white. We quickly drafted a new contracting policy centering on minority-, disability-, LGBTQ-, and Oregon-owned companies, as well as companies that pay a living wage and provide quality health insurance and paid leave. We also set a goal: Given that NWHF existed for almost 20 years contracting with majority white-owned businesses, we decided we should spend at least the next 20 years with a focus on supporting racial/ethnic minority-owned businesses, with a secondary goal of supporting Oregon-based, LGBTQ-, and women-owned businesses.
Five years later, we have made significant progress. Some 95 percent of our consultants are people of color, and many are people of color with disabilities. Approximately 70 percent of our controllable business expenses go to minority-, LGBTQ-, and disability-owned firms. This includes our plumber, our painters, our auditors, our lobbyist, tribally owned hotels across Oregon, amazing caterers and restaurants, photographers, and more.
We’ve also made progress within our own organization. In 2016, we asked our staff and board to fill out identity surveys and posted the results on our website. We’re proud to say our staff and board are majority people of color; include multiple people with disabilities, rural Oregonians and Washingtonians, and folks who identify as LGBTQ; and encompass many other diverse identities.
We encourage other organizations to start tracking demographic data, too. Communities of color, disability communities, and rural communities are historically underfunded and underrepresented in leadership roles across the country. It’s not enough for philanthropy to do good. We must do better. Although many foundations and nonprofits have committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we need to hold ourselves accountable. If we don’t collect and report demographic data, we’re unlikely to follow through on our commitments. As Peter Drucker, famed management thinker, said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”
Shannon Duff is Northwest Health Foundation’s grant administrator.