Ditching Privilege

Lowell’s alma matter, Amherst College, has taken many steps over the past five years to embrace and embody anti-racism. And yet the school’s anti-racism efforts felt hollow. That’s because the school retained an embarrassing vestige of the old-school old-boy network: the admissions boost it bestowed upon the children of alums—a clear example of an elite institution perpetuating, rather than dismantling, privilege.

Here’s the messy part: At this time last year, both of Lowell’s high school seniors decided to apply to the school, and in the spring both were admitted—in all likelihood benefiting from the fact that their dad went to the school. While Lowell was a longtime opponent of the legacy-admissions policy, he did not reach out to the admissions office to find a way to drop the legacy preference for his kids—a sin of omission he now regrets.

He won’t face this dilemma with his 10th grade daughter, because last week the school did the right thing: It announced that it will immediately end its legacy preference. It also announced a dramatic expansion of its financial support for students from low- and middle-income backgrounds; students who aren’t in the top income quintile typically will pay zero tuition. Lowell’s 10th grader is fully on board with the school’s decision. Truth be told, she can’t really understand how Amherst could justify the policy in the first place.

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We all know ending legacy admissions won’t end inequity in higher education. But it sends a powerful signal not only to other colleges but to all boards about the importance of aligning values and practices in this moment of deep and deferred reckoning.

Elite institutions should see the writing on the wall: Now is the time to take a close look at your mission statements and identify policies and practices that could be out of alignment. What are your sins of commission—that is, in what ways are you perpetuating inequities rather than fighting them? What are your sins of omission—that is, in ways are you failing to put your money where your mouth is?

Foundations and donors stuck at the performative stage on the equity continuum should see Amherst’s action as an emulation-worthy example of what it looks like when an elite institution shares power—in a way that involves actual sacrifice. Some alumni will revolt. Some donors may renege on major capital projects. Angry political commentators will probably drag the college into a culture war. But it was the absolute right thing to do for aligning this 200-year-old institution with its aspiration to bring together “the most promising students, whatever their financial need, in order to promote diversity of experience and ideas within a purposefully small residential community.” So, if you’re a foundation leader or donor, how can you use this example to motivate the same courage within your organization?

Finally, if you are lucky enough to have privilege in this society, think about the subtle costs of benefiting from unfair systems, such as the pit in the stomach that comes from knowing you’re out of integrity with your own values. Regardless of your race, ethnicity, gender, or status—where might you be benefiting from some form of inequity? How might you stand up and be counted, when it counts?

Saluting those standing up for fairness,

Signatures: Mario and Lowell
Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap Ambassadors Community.

Updates From Around the Leap Community

We commend the Monitor Institute by Deloitte for their new report, What’s Next for Philanthropy in the 2020s. Once again, the wise Monitor team offers outstanding insights on the vectors of change that we need to understand if we’re to be effective. We just wish that the threats to our climate and American democracy were given more weight. We fear that if we don’t make meaningful progress on these existential issues, we might risk “majoring on minors.”

We loved the deeply personal reflections by Headwaters Foundation for Justice President Maria De La Cruz in the blog post “On Stress, Sabbaticals, and Systems Change.” De La Cruz discusses her own struggles with mental health (“I was the worst version of myself”) and shares her perspective that all of us who work on hard social issues are susceptible. “Movement work … attracts people who want to change the world, sometimes to their detriment. We are on the verge of losing an entire generation of people willing to do this work because of the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual toll it takes.” Her suggestion: Let’s move beyond one-off approaches and cultivate wellness in systematic ways.

The Leap Ambassadors Community just released “How Your Financial Management Reflects Your Equity Values,” based on ground-level insights from leaders on the frontlines. For example, Ann Goggins Gregory, SVP for Resident Services at MidPen Housing, shares that her organization’s per-household spending was equally, not equitably, distributed; higher-need populations might receive the same per-household services amount as a much more stable population that used services less frequently. She then explains how she’s addressed that dynamic. The bottom line: Equity means giving more to those who need more.

Take a look at “Dear Fellow Funders: No More Statements on Racial Equity Please (Until You Publish ‘The Receipts’), by Scott Thomas and Erica Hamilton. By “receipts,” they mean documenting and transparently sharing the actual practices … as opposed to the ‘wokeness window dressing’ emails sent on Juneteenth.” Specifically, they advocate for publishing, at an absolute minimum, “the dollar value and percentage of grants made to organizations led by people of color, along with the racial composition of the grant maker’s staff and board.”

We’re both big fans of Year Up and its founder, Gerald Chertavian, so we got a lot of joy out of seeing the way the organization has rigorously tested innovative strategies for more quickly identifying and supporting participants struggling with their college coursework. As Project Evident has just highlighted, “Year Up found ‘strong evidence that the alternative strategies … substantially improved success.’” Best of all, the study was able to help them understand why these approaches worked. Great model for all of us.

Independent Sector has just released its second annual Health of the U.S. Nonprofit Sector report, providing original analysis of federal data highlighting our sector’s economic impact and demographic composition. Recommendations cover research, practice, and policy. Among the key findings: Nearly half of all nonprofits said they served fewer people in 2020, 40 percent reported a reduction in revenue in 2020, and nonprofit advocacy helped save four million jobs in 2020.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Nov 4–Online
How Are Federal Agencies Building and Using Evidence and Data to Drive an Equitable Recovery?” webinar; Results for America

Nov 4–Online
Graceful Exits: How Foundations Can Offer Strong Support as Grants End” webinar; Chronicle of Philanthropy

Nov 4–Online
Real Change?: How a Time of Crisis Has Shifted Philanthropy” virtual learning session; CEP

Nov 9-10–Online
Measurable Equity 2021: Funding Racial Progress” virtual conference; Clear Impact