May 4, 2020

The Bridgespan Group and Racial Equity: Reflections on Our Journey

Co-founder and Managing Partner Jeff Bradach describes Bridgespan’s journey to center racial equity in its work. Here he offers context for the research we are releasing now and in the future to help build a more equitable and just society.

By: Jeffrey Bradach

Bridgespan prides itself on being an impact-driven organization. We launched 20 years ago with a vision of how we might help make the world a better place. Hundreds of people have joined our ranks, scores of funders have supported us, and thousands of social sector leaders and philanthropists have worked with us and read our content. We are deeply grateful for such engagement and partnership, and recognize the privilege we have to do this work.

Some of the most powerful lessons we’ve learned over the past two decades have come from reflecting on our missteps. Perhaps the biggest one: the long time it took for us—and here I need to be more specific, me and many of my white colleagues—to grasp the centrality of race in almost all of the work we do. For an organization whose animating question from the beginning has been, “How can we have the greatest impact in the world?,” and whose work centers on breaking cycles of poverty, this failure is a deeply troubling part of our story. The reality that our lack of awareness has sometimes helped to hold in place—and in some cases contributed to—greater inequities in society compounds the cost of our error.

Visit our Racial Equity in Philanthropy Resource Center for more information about dismantling the persistent and substantial barriers leaders of color face in securing philanthropic funding.

Over the past five years Bridgespan has been on a journey, doing the vital learning and self-reflection required to center racial equity in our work. We have sought direct feedback from critical friends. Whether it’s hiring dedicated staff who have deep knowledge of these issues, having racial equity practitioners push our thinking, or engaging our leadership team in racial equity trainings, our focus has been on listening and actually hearing what’s being said. Perhaps most significantly, we have had extraordinary colleagues, largely people of color, who regularly over the years, with care and courage, have asked crucial questions.

We have been reluctant to share our journey because it risks repeating a pattern of centering the wrong people in the story of race. But many trusted advisors, representing a diverse set of communities, suggested that sharing a bit about how we got here would helpfully put the research we are releasing now, and the work we hope to pursue in the future, in context.

We recognize that we are but a small player in the pursuit of equity and justice. We seek to learn from and elevate voices of leaders of color and equity leaders on how we can support their efforts to achieve equity and justice. We’re deeply indebted to and inspired by such pioneering organizations as the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, CHANGE Philanthropy (including ABFE, Hispanics in Philanthropy, Native Americans in Philanthropy, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, and other partner organizations), Echoing Green, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Whitman Institute, Racial Equity Institute, Equity in the Center, Camelback Ventures, PolicyLink, Public Equity Group, San Francisco Foundation, and many others.

Bridgespan’s attention to race has evolved from our first decade when it was largely limited to recruiting employees of color. Now, we understand that race plays an integral role in all the work we do and the change we seek in the world. Specifically, our mission to break cycles of intergenerational poverty is impossible if we do not also include a pursuit of racial equity, given the intersection of issues of race and racism with poverty and justice.

One of our major lessons learned has been that we have to work on all dimensions of equity at once—recruiting, inclusive culture, leadership capacities, and the tools and strategies of our work—or we will be doomed to have little bits of progress followed by a slide back to the status quo. An important learning moment for me several years ago was seeing that the progress we were making on recruiting Black and Latinx staff was being undone by below average retention rates. As we dug into it, we found that we weren’t a place where all people felt included and able to bring their authentic selves to the work. This was one of many wake-up calls that helped me and colleagues see how much more would be needed if we were serious about embedding equity in our organization.

In an impact-driven culture like Bridgespan’s, one of the most powerful levers of internal change has been a growing recognition of the ways our use of conventional tools and approaches can undermine our clients’ and audiences’ pursuit of impact—and our pursuit of our mission. For example:

  • Advocating for philanthropic big bets without recognizing how such gifts might magnify inequities in funding;
  • Sourcing grantees for philanthropists without recognizing how some referral processes systemically leave out promising leaders of color;
  • Pursuing population-level impact strategies without recognizing that in almost every celebrated “success story,” people of color have been affected least and last;
  • Applying traditional assessment tools, like randomized controlled trials, to grantee selection without recognizing how doing so systematically disadvantages leaders who haven’t had access to funding for those tools.

We have come to recognize how these ways of seeing and working contribute to holding in place inequitable outcomes, even if unintentionally. That awareness, which of course many others have noted for years, has been a powerful force for change inside Bridgespan. Importantly, now one cannot predict who will raise questions about racial equity in our meetings and discussions, as such questions are no longer being asked by just the same few voices. To be clear, we are not all at the same point in our journeys—indeed navigating that range has been one of the harder parts of doing this work—but the overall progression is palpable.

This letter accompanies two articles that call renewed attention to the persistent and substantial barriers to capital leaders of color face:

Racial Equity and Philanthropy: Disparities in Funding for Leaders of Color Leave Impact on the Table lays out an argument for funders that racial equity is critical to achieving social change.

Overcoming the Racial Bias in Philanthropic Funding offers a framework of the barriers leaders of color face when securing funding, along with practical advice for foundation staff.

Through this body of work, we seek to reinforce the message that equity practitioners have conveyed for decades—including our collaborator on these articles, Echoing Green President Cheryl Dorsey. Cheryl has spent a lifetime diagnosing inequities, including those in funding social entrepreneurship. Bridgespan is lucky to call her not only a partner in this work but also a board member. I cannot emphasize enough the influence she has had through that role, along with many years of friendship, in challenging our organization to do more to advance racial equity—including using our own institutional privilege in service of equity.

Likewise, these two articles aim to supplement and amplify—and importantly not displace—those voices who have been raising these issues far longer than ourselves. We are continually humbled by the efforts of those doing the work of racial equity across the sector and are eager to find ongoing ways to support and complement their efforts as we learn more.

In the spirit of holding ourselves accountable, let me note that we have also more intentionally adopted a racial equity lens in our advisory work. The additional steps we are taking include the following:

  • Centering equity in the design of our work from the first conversations with our clients through to implementation. This means seeking to help every US-based client grapple with the role of structural racism as well as the opportunities to take a racial equity lens in the service of impact. And for clients around the world, it includes raising a range of equity considerations (including ethnicity, gender, and caste) that contribute to disparities in outcomes, as well as supporting more organizations that are directly addressing issues of equity.
  • Rigorously examining the role of race and racism in our research and analysis, including tactical steps like interviewing an inclusive range of stakeholders and disaggregating data on outcomes, grant portfolios, and grantee pipelines to illustrate the effect of major decisions on communities of color.
  • Ensuring that our clients understand the implications of their choices for communities of color. In particular, we have an obligation to ensure funders have the opportunity to connect with and learn from leaders of color and equity practitioners—for example, when sourcing grantees and conducting interviews to inform strategy development.

The bar for this work is at a radically different place than it was five years ago or even just months ago. Every aspect of the coronavirus pandemic—from the infection rates and sobering death tolls to the economic devastation that will linger long afterwards—further highlights the inequities that operate at the core of society. And I fear that this crisis, like almost every other one, will widen those inequities. It serves as a real-time reminder of how critical it is to design with the most vulnerable in mind and to name racial equity as an unwavering goal.

Bridgespan is much closer to the beginning than the end of our journey. There is so much to do and such a distance to travel. We commit to continue to do the work, learning, and self-reflection needed to be a meaningful contributor to moving towards a more equitable and just world. We know we won’t always get it right, and we invite your questions and candid feedback on how we can continue to live into these aspirations.

Jeff Bradach is the co-founder and managing partner of The Bridgespan Group.

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