Monday, October 3, 2011

The Insider: Robert K. Ross, M.D., President and CEO of The California Endowment

By B. Denise Hawkins
Guest Contributor,

For Robert K. Ross, M.D., president and CEO of The California Endowment, systemic, organized, and meaningful change in philanthropy is long overdue. Until now, Ross says, efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusiveness in American philanthropy have been marked by a slow pace of change and sporadic attempts.

Last week, The California Endowment announced it was making a landmark grant to the D5 Coalition, a growing alliance of 16 national and regional philanthropy organizations working to help hasten the pace of change to diversify the foundation world. Ross, a founding chair of the coalition formed in 2010, says the $4.05 million dollar award made through the endowment’s Equity and Diversity program, will help track progress on diversity, spawn greater diversity and inclusivity in foundation leadership, support the work of diverse donors and population-focused funds, and develop relevant policies and practices for foundations.

The work of the D5 Coalition, Ross says, represents a “big opportunity” to bring renewed heft to an issue not new for the field. The coalition will help “ translate years and even decades of rhetoric and hand-wringing into more consistent, sustained action in the field of philanthropy.”

The D5 Coalition, directed by Kelly Brown, is aiming to achieve such transformation by 2015, with support from other philanthropies including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In this edition of The Insider, Dr. Ross talks further about his hopes for the Coalition’s work, the need to shatter stereotypes of minority and underserved people as little more than recipients of services, and his ascent into philanthropy.

Prior to his appointment at The California Endowment in 2000, Ross served as a clinician and public health administrator, was director of the Health and Human Services Agency for the County of San Diego and Commissioner of Public Health for the City of Philadelphia. The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia is where he earned undergraduate, and graduate degrees in Public Administration, along with medical degrees.

BGB: As you survey the national and regional philanthropic landscape, what do you see with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusiveness?

ROSS: In the field of philanthropy, simply put, we are doing better as a field but not where we need to be. I see more progress – over the past decade -- among larger, national and regional private foundations and community foundations, especially in urban settings. But there are still far too many smaller and mid-sized private and family foundations where a person of color cannot be found anywhere in the organization, the board, management, or even staff.

When you announced the California Endowment’s $4 million investment in the D5 Coalition in late September, you pointed to the field’s efforts to date to address issues of diversity and inclusion as “rhetoric, hand-wringing, and un-sustained.” Looking forward, what makes you hopeful that there will be a systems change within philanthropy by 2015?

Having attended numerous conferences and meetings with like-minded colleagues in the field of philanthropy, I was growing frustrated and weary of folks complaining about the lack of commitment and progress on the matter of diversity and inclusion in our field. The complaints were justified, but it appeared that we had enough lessons and passion to translate all of “the noise” into a more meaningful strategy, and give the strategy a “home” with some accountability, and some resources behind it.

The “why” of your decision to make such a significant investment in the D5 Coalition, an initiative aimed at making organized philanthropy more diverse in the U.S., may be obvious, but can you share the motivation behind the decision?

Philanthropy is in the business of providing capital for problem-solving ideas – in public education, in addressing poverty, the environment, health care, housing, civic engagement, and the arts. These areas of work constitute rungs on America’s “opportunity ladder” – having America reach its promise of meaningful opportunity (defined as the pursuit of life-liberty-happiness) for all. Too often, America has stereotyped African Americans, folks of color, and low-income communities as supplicants for services and supports. I believe, along with many others, that folks in underserved and disinvested communities can be powerful architects and drivers of meaningful change. That comes from their ideas. We must have a more diverse and inclusive philanthropic industry so that these ideas can be welcomed, nurtured, and explored – and even funded! Moreover, communities of color still reside, disproportionately, at the bottom rungs of the opportunity ladder in this country, so let’s target some resources where it’s most needed.

Why are the efforts of the D5 Coalition and its ultimate impact, important to minority healthcare to closing the health disparities gap?

If philanthropy represents the incubation sector for social change ideas, then it is fundamentally clear to me, and to us, that our field must operate under a culture of inclusion to solve the problems. We are smarter as a field with more diverse players at the table.

As an African-American CEO of a major foundation, how would you describe your entry and your ascent in a field that has traditionally lacked racial and ethnic diversity among its staffing and leadership ranks?

My ascent in philanthropy is part luck, part fortune, part hard work, and a whole lot of blessings. The fortunate part was that The California Endowment was led by a board of directors who valued inclusion, diversity, and social justice as core values. Without this, I would not have been offered the opportunity to lead it.

To follow the work of the D5 Coalition visit:

B. Denise Hawkins, an award-winning journalist, is an editorial consultant at Orchard Hill Communications and a regular contributor to Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine (