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Framing Diversity as a Valued Resource

This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Change Agent.

Sharing insight from academia and philanthropy to help frame diversity as a valued resource.

In 2019, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will celebrate a half-century’s worth of work promoting and supporting the arts and humanities. The Mellon Foundation exists to strengthen, promote and, when times call for it, defend the humanities. It does so to create and promote thriving, diverse, and democratic societies. But that goal will never fully be met unless we rethink the way we communicate our priorities. And while the Foundation has had great impact over its fifty years, we are only now proactively communicating our mission and those of our grantees widely among and beyond those in philanthropy, academia, and culture. This may seem par for the course in the private sector, but for a half-century-old foundation, it’s a major change.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has always invested in the work of our grantees, but in 2016 we made a bold decision to invest in new tools, tactics, and communications vehicles to better deliver on our mission. It started by putting in place—for the first time in Mellon’s history—a communications department within the Foundation and providing it with resources to better align our institutional mission with our grantees’ on-the-ground work. This internal capacity allowed the Foundation to engage in direct press relations and deploy digital strategies to advance our work and leverage our grant-making. We then launched the multi-year book series Our Compelling Interests (OCI), providing us—through panel discussions, online content, and media interviews—with ways to reach new audiences not yet familiar with our work. None of this would have been possible without the strong backing of our Board of Trustees and their decision to see Mellon communicate the Foundation’s mission through the work of our grantees and partners, and by highlighting a handful of our own strategic initiatives. 

These initiatives allow Mellon to leverage years of experience from our grantmaking to inform broader discussions and debates. Mellon has a well-established grantmaking program focused on advancing equity and inclusion in educational and cultural institutions by encouraging them to diversify their academic, curatorial, and administrative ranks. This encouragement has taken many forms, from a survey documenting the underrepresentation of people of color in the leadership of American art museums and the launching of curatorial fellowship programs to address it, to support for early-career faculty recruitment programs that seek to diversify the professoriate. Our 2014 strategic plan made diversity one of four areas of focus that cut across all Foundation programs. With this experience-based insight, and the ideas and expertise of the global scholarly network in the humanities and adjacent fields that we support, the Foundation is uniquely positioned to contribute to broader policy and societal discussions around diversity.

1. What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?

We are seeking to demonstrate the value of diversity in a thriving democracy and prosperous society at a time when there is increasing anxiety over its explosion. Engaging in a thoughtful and productive conversation about diversity has always been a challenge given pre-conceived notions, current evidence of systemic racism, questions about what diversity really is, and worries that the emphasis on diversity means that “I” will be forgotten. We believe expanding the debate about diversity can help everyone see diversity as a valued resource, not a threat to be managed.

 2. Why do we need this conversation now?

More non-white babies are born in the United States today than white babies. Three decades from now, whites will constitute a minority in the United States. In some regions of the country, this shift has already occurred. The rapid nature of these demographic changes has generated anxiety and fear, primarily related to the loss of a traditional American identity and its perceived cultural and economic impacts. We are at a critical moment where the value of diversity, social and economic, needs to be explored and communicated in order to address growing anxiety and reduce fear.

 3. How do scholarly works and academic institutions generate conversation?

When Mellon developed OCI, the goal was to produce an annual summary of the best research and commentary in discrete domains. Its purpose was to provide scholars, legal experts, academic leaders, policy makers, business executives and others access to a “state-of-the-field” assessment. It turns out, we had a broader audience. To engage that audience, we needed to connect the book to contemporary events. 

We were confident about how to best reach academics and scholars, which we’ve been doing for decades. But we are still in infancy when it comes to communicating our mission and that of our grantees to the broader world. We are now in the early stages of building relationships with media outlets and thought leaders who write about the issues we care about.

In hosting a series of panel discussions, moderated by well-known journalists and including leaders in business, politics, media, and the arts, Mellon has been able to engage thought leaders around the value of diversity and the challenges associated with the demographic changes underway in America. In addition to the panel discussions, the Foundation has sought to connect the various OCI contributors to media seeking expert voices who can help the public understand the impacts of diversity.

 4. Do real-world challenges suddenly require academic support to gain traction?

Real-world challenges have always required solutions rooted in research, historical context, and cultural understanding. And the academy has always been the crucial source from which solutions emerge. The academy’s critical importance hasn’t changed. But we now recognize the need to promote work that can breach academia’s walls to engage public intellectuals, news organizations, and the general public. The Our Compelling Interests series offers approachable books that weave multiple perspectives to a wider audience.

 5. How do we keep the lines of communication open?

We must continue communicating the work through relevant and contemporary frames that our publics are engaged in and care about. We must communicate through accessible, captivating content distributed through a variety of mediums. We increased Mellon’s digital presence–using blogs, thematic e-newsletters, YouTube, Twitter, and Medium–to expand our ability to communicate and encourage dialogue. We are hosting public forums that are open to all, including the media. We have expanded the use of our website to make it more compelling and engaging for new and regular visitors. And we are cross-pollinating with grantee-hosted platforms to both amplify our overall mission and better engage outside audiences. 

Philanthropy has a responsibility to promote difficult dialogue and promote change through the work of its grantees and through its own foundation-sponsored initiatives. Philanthropic organizations have historically served as the fuel source for change-making efforts driven by grantees. But the power of philanthropy comes from its intellectual capital and its financial resources. And only recently have we begun to deploy that power to better support our grantees and our mission through external communications strategies.  

Communications, from our standpoint, should serve to promote the mission, not to aggrandize the Foundation, but we also recognize that the grantees aren’t the only ones with responsibility in this endeavor. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has a critical role to play in supporting the mission, both by developing its own initiatives and in providing support–beyond programmatic grantmaking–to communicate and promote the work that is already happening.


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