2 min read
I was reading the recent Chronicle of Philanthropy piece by Stephen Heintz, Robert Ross, and Sterling Speirn announcing a new report from their philanthropic diversity initiative, D5:

This month a coalition of 18 national and regional philanthropy groups that we help to lead will release “State of the Work 2011,” the first in an annual series mapping the state of philanthropy when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

It demonstrates that the demographics of foundation executives and trustees don’t reflect the nation’s overall diversity; fewer than a third of foundations have diversity policies and practices in place; available data suggest that diverse communities don’t get as much from grant makers as others; and philanthropy needs more standardized data collection on diversity-related issues.

So this initiative is completely voluntary, though it will probably give some aid and comfort to activists working toward getting government mandates for philanthropic diversity. But reading the article, it made me wonder, "What would James Surowiecki think?"

The authors cite Surowiecki's book, "The Wisdom of Crowds," as evidence that a diverse board of a philanthropy would make better decisions than a less diverse one. First, I'm not sure how you'd measure which decisions are better in this respect. Will they choose to give money to more effective groups or merely more diverse ones?

But choosing where to give money is not the same as asking everyone at a fair to guess how many jellybeans there are in a jar (Surowiecki's famous example of the wisdom of crowds.) Surowiecki explains what's necessary for crowds to be smart: Wise crowds" need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions.

So beyond the diversity of opinion that Heintz, Ross and Speirn advocate in their boards, is there any evidence that racially diverse boards or boards with more women or gay members will fulfill these other requirements? In particular, will they really have independence from one another and will their decision-making be decentralized? Probably not. My guess is that they will all be thinking along the same lines. Those lines will follow the conventional wisdom of D5.

Diversity in philanthropy comes from different people with different passions giving money to different causes (see my American Philanthropic Diversity: What It Means, Why It Matters, published by the Philanthropy Roundtable). They operate independently from each other. That is the wisdom of crowds.