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From Commitment to Practice: Reflections on Arabella’s DEI Journey

Hilary Cherner, Kheira Issaoui-Mansouri, Desy Osunsade, and Aditi Naik
From Commitment to Practice: Reflections on Arabella’s DEI Journey

At Arabella, we’ve always seen ourselves as mission driven; what motivates us to come to work every day is the prospect of investing in communities and creating social change. About five years ago, some of our staff members and clients began to ask how our commitment to our social mission was reflected in who we hire, how we operate, and what we value. These questions came at a time when the field of philanthropy as a whole was going through a renewed wave of interest for diversity, equity and inclusion, and these various forces created a window of opportunity for change. After some reflection, our leaders recognized that there was a gap between our social mission and our structure, and that to truly help make lasting change we needed to redefine who we are, whose voices we elevate, and how we design solutions to some of the world’s most pressing social problems. They recognized that without diverse perspectives, an inclusive culture, and an eye toward equitable outcomes, we risk designing solutions that don’t work or that may reinforce existing inequities. We captured our early efforts in an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and promised to continue to share our story.

Like many others in the sector, we took our first steps toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion by adjusting some of our hiring practices. Among other things, we hired a recruiting team that is squarely focused on diversifying our workforce; we intentionally decided to be more patient with our hiring timelines, which meant we could wait for a diverse candidate pool to develop; we trained our hiring managers on implicit bias; and we stopped asking for salary history. We also worked on our internal culture by hosting trainings and informal conversations where we talked about our privilege and its side effects.

To ensure our commitment to DEI would be consistent and long-term, we also created a DEI task force charged with implementing our DEI efforts. The task force made many important contributions to bringing a DEI lens into our work, internally and externally. For example, the DEI task force helped us revisit our own organizational narrative and reassess our focus on John Winthrop, one of the founding fathers of modern American philanthropy, as the central figure of our firm’s origin story. Winthrop, who sailed on a ship called the Arabella on which he delivered his famous “City on a Hill” sermon, was one of the leading figures in founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was actively involved in drafting legislation to sanction slavery, and was himself a slaveowner. While we are not responsible for the inequities of our collective past, we are responsible for how we discuss that history, who we choose to glorify, and what elements of our story we choose to forget or attempt to hide. Our DEI task force worked with us to de-center Winthrop and tell our story in a way that is not dependent upon the narrow and exclusionary philanthropy of the past, but instead to tell our story in a manner that models the inclusive and equitable philanthropic culture that we strive to achieve. Members of the DEI task force also developed a tool to embed DEI principles into the grant-making process, which really helped us kickstart the process of thinking about how DEI principles should inform how we do all our work. Thanks to feedback from clients, we have now updated that tool and continue to use it.

After a few years, we realized that while extremely valuable, the task force lacked some essential elements: executive representation, accountability, and connection to our overall strategy. Last year we prioritized those elements, making DEI an integral part of our strategic plan. Our DEI efforts now have an executive sponsor, objectives, and a team charged with implementation across departments. Working under this new structure doesn’t mean we have it all figured out, but we think this approach launches a new phase of work for us. Recently, we’ve started to push our analysis, reflection, and actions toward DEI in a few ways:

  • We are committed to increasing the diversity of our leaders and are acting internally and externally to do so. In the past few years our focus was on diversifying our workforce in general but while we made some progress36 percent of staff members now identify as persons of color, up from 18 percent in 2014we still have a lot of progress to make in terms of the composition of our leadership team 
  • We will develop our new set of DEI goals in partnership with staff members. Over the next year, we will launch an inclusive process to engage staff members in defining and shaping our new set of DEI goalsThrough this process, we want to explore what it means to be inclusive when shaping an important organizational decision and we hope to build bridges among staff members with different lived experiences and from different teams and levels of seniorityWe don’t expect our process to be perfect, but we are looking forward to experimenting and learning.  
  • We are taking a harder look at racial equity. Over the past few years, the ways in which we have talked about equity were identity agnostic. We have heard from staff members that while equity should be seen through many lenses (e.g., gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, citizenship status), given the history of our country, we need to put racial equity at the center of our efforts. Our leadership team recently completed a powerful training during which they explored this question and they are excited to apply what they’ve learned 

We are humbled by the progress we have made and excited about what the future holds for us. There are still areas that we are struggling with and we welcome your partnership in thinking through them. For example: 

  • Our work culture pushes us toward numerical outcomes and fast decisions, which sometimes steers us in the wrong direction. We have now come to understand that DEI is not just about the numerical outcomes (e.g., more people of color in leadership positions), it’s also about qualitative and relationship-based outcomes that are harder to track but equally meaningful (e.g., leaders understand their power and make space for others to speak up first). But as philanthropic professionals, we crave concrete wins, and sometimes feel an urgency to see quantifiable change, which means we sometimes can lose sight of what matters most in the long-term because we are distracted by the short-term, quantifiable win.
  • We understand that cultural change is essential to becoming a more inclusive and equitable organization, but we are not sure how to hold ourselves accountable to such changes. While we are learning to appreciate qualitative and relationship-based outcomes, we still want to find a way to hold ourselves accountable to the change we want to see. We know that increased diversity without a shift in culture will not lead to the sustainable change we aim for. But how do you measure culture change? We are taking some steps in developing tools to do so, but we’re still very early in our exploration.

As we continue to examine how we can live our values more authentically and deeply, we welcome your thoughts on how you have approached your own journey.



The authors are members of Arabella’s DEI Working Group. Managing Director Hilary Cherner leads the firm’s advisory and fiscal sponsorship services. As a member of the executive team, she facilitates collaboration across teams and projects and helps enhance operational models, leading to continual improvement of the firm’s client service delivery and impact for our donor partners. 

Kheira Issaoui-Mansouri is a director at Arabella, where she works with foundations to design, implement, and evaluate grant-making programs. 

Desy Osunsade is the senior director of Arabella’s Culture and Talent team. In this role, she is responsible for leading all facets of human resources for Arabella Advisors and for all people-related functions. 

As director of knowledge management, Aditi Naik is responsible for making sure that all client service staff members are able to learn from past work and operate on a day-to-day basis using the full expertise of the Arabella platform.

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