The Indianapolis Foundation’s Pamela Ross shares insights about the organization’s initiatives

by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives have been at the forefront of priorities for many nonprofit organizations in recent years. However, as many leaders have recognized, implementing DEI initiatives can be complex considering that many leaders and employees will have different perspectives on how to successfully move forward.

We recently talked to Pamela Ross, vice president of community leadership and equitable initiatives for the The Indianapolis Foundation to gain insights on the inroads the organization has made since changing its mission to focus on equity initiatives nearly five years ago. The philanthropy, which was established in 1997, and its family of funds contribute more than $40 million annually to nonprofits in Central Indiana. In 2020, it was the steward of more than $825 million in charitable assets. 

As Ross puts it, even after several years of being immersed in DEI initiatives, the foundation still is in the beginning stages of initiating change because it involves uprooting deeply ingrained institutionalized systems.

“We changed our mission to mobilize people, investments, and ideas to create a more equitable Central Indiana where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential no matter their place, race, or identity,” Ross said in describing the foundation’s shift in focus. “In order for people to reach their potential and have the most opportunities, we couldn’t keep ignoring the fact that race is a factor in who gets access — access to money, access to resources in all the different sectors, including education and the workforce.”

Ross noted that one of the most important steps for any nonprofit leaders who are seeking to make progress with DEI is to start by addressing institutional racism within their own organizations. 

“We have to have different perspectives at the table — not just those who are working in the community but those who work in finance, those who sit in leadership seats,” Ross said. “We must change the institutional makeup of the organization.”

Ross said that the process requires taking a critical look at hiring practices. “If all of your staff is white and you serve a population that is 90 percent Black, there’s something wrong with that,” she said.  It’s not a matter of looking at diversity but people who have lived experiences. The people who are most impacted by them will be the best advisors on how to create programs, build out programs, and deliver messages. Their perspectives should be represented.”

With institutional change, the organization must be structured in such a way that it persists beyond a momentary place in time, Ross said. “Several things have changed in all of our departments, including practices, policies, and accountability,” she said. “Many nonprofits struggle with making real change because there haven’t been substantive changes within the organizations for years.”

Embracing community representation 

The foundation also implemented a Community Ambassador program to include decision-makers that represent the communities it serves. That program has been instrumental in giving people throughout Central Indiana a voice about critical decisions, including the foundation’s grant-making process. 

“It’s important to ask, ‘What’s your feedback loop for getting information?’,” Ross said. “For us, it was with our community ambassadors through a program that was started five years ago. It made us better in our own anti-racist practices and policies because the ambassadors are our feedback loop. They’re the ones who will say, ‘Why are you still granting dollars to ‘ABC’ organization? This is what they’re not doing in our community.’”

Ross noted that community ambassadors provide an extra level of accountability. “When you say you’re planning to change something, they will hold you to the fire about it.” 

Supporting grassroots organizations

The foundation also examined avenues to support more grassroots organizations that are making an impact in their communities but may not have the resources to invest in traditional grant-making procedures, Ross said. 

According to Ross, a shift toward a more equitable grant-making process requires a willingness to give up a risk-averse approach. “Not everyone has to show up with a beautiful well written proposal,” she said. 

Ross also pointed out that many grassroots organizations may not have the infrastructure typical of larger nonprofits. “We’re not scared away if they don’t look like the most developed and scaled institutions that are typically led by white executives,” she said. 

As part of its equity focus, The Indianapolis Foundation is dedicated to helping grassroots organizations become more sustainable. The foundation has launched a $3 million, 3-year initiative to help grassroots organizations scale through infrastructure development.

“In the not for profit world, it’s called capacity building,” she said. “We call it infrastructure development, because capacity building has this overarching assumption that there’s a deficit within the organization. The organization … the people who are doing the work … can be very solid in what they’re doing, but they need the structures that typically have not been invested in black and brown grassroots organizations in the same way that they have been for other organizations .”

Through the initiative, the foundation helps these types of nonprofits with various aspects of successfully running an organization, including program evaluation, data management, executive mindset, grant writing, board development, and fundraising. 

This March, the foundation also will host a BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of color) bootcamp that is focused on the challenges of being a black or brown leader in the nonprofit area, Ross said. “We’re trying to create more equitable opportunities for them to scale without feeling like they should be ashamed because they’re not in a certain space,” she said.

Movement of 10,000 app

The Indianapolis Foundation also sought to engage a large community on equity solutions through the development of the The Movement of 10,000 (MVMT10K) digital platform, which is accessible through an app and online. It supports people who are genuinely interested in ways to become more conscious of their decisions and how they invest their dollars and time to create a more equitable society, Ross said.

“If you’re an individual who really wants things to be different, this is a convenient space to learn about what has happened as well as create relationships,” she said. “There’s so much we can learn. We are where we are because too often spaces of power are typically held by white people. And if we’re actually going to change systemic racism and institutional racist structures, we must get to a place where people recognize their power to break those systems by making different decisions.

“The hope is that a lot of different people, especially people who are white and in spaces of power and influence,  can engage so we can see some change,” Ross said.