Must Read Voices of Impact August 23, 2023

An Interview with Mark Adiedo of The Rockefeller Brothers Fund

An interview with Mark Adiedo, vice president for people and culture and chief diversity officer at The Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), on creating an anti-racist and anti-sexist organization.

We continue our Voices of Impact series with Mark Adiedo by discussing with him the process of becoming an anti-racist and anti-sexist organization, how the RBF embeds DEI initiatives into its culture and translates this to its hiring and talent management practices, managing its investments and endowment, and its grantmaking, and maintaining partnerships with its stakeholders in this journey.  

Our conversation, facilitated by Dr. Shlomy Kattan, Director, Tyton Partners, has been edited for length and clarity.

Tyton Partners (TP):
Mark, can you start off by telling us a little bit about the Rockefeller Brothers Fund? 

Mark Adiedo (MA):
Thanks so much for this opportunity.

The RBF’s mission is to advance social change that contributes to a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world.

We are a private family foundation rooted in the Rockefeller tradition of philanthropy, and through our grantmaking, convening, mission-aligned investing, and leadership, the RBF supports the people and organizations building lasting solutions to the challenges facing today’s increasingly interdependent world.

In the last eight decades, seven presidents have led the RBF, and the current president and CEO, Stephen B. Heintz, has been with the Fund since 2001.

The environment, civic participation and democracy, and international engagement have been at the core of RBF’s work, and presently these are expressed through our program focus areas of democracy, peacebuilding, sustainable development, and arts and culture.

Since 2020, we have deepened our DEI initiatives to expressly commit to become an anti-racist and anti-sexist institution. This is central to our mission and achieving the impact we seek.

The RBF’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts have evolved from “reactive” to “proactive”, with two hallmarks – aiming for a more profound sense of belonging among staff, trustees, grantees, and people we partner with and maximizing impact through the work that enables us to achieve our mission.

RBF has been on a fascinating journey in terms of its DEI work of becoming an anti-racist, anti-sexist organization. What does that mean, and what was that journey like for you? 

That’s an interesting question.

The bulk of the work that has now evolved to become a deep focus on anti-racism and anti-sexism started about 15 years ago. Then, we focused on recognizing and incorporating lessons on creating a diverse workplace. The RBF has a strategic orientation of pursuing issues with a long view in mind. There were discussions of “What will the institution be doing in 2020?” and how might the idea of having a diverse workplace in terms of race, gender, disability, and other social identity markers enhance our work.

Our focus then was on the quantitative elements of DEI.

Our workplace was predominantly white, and the gender makeup was primarily women, like most other philanthropic institutions.  

Over time, our DEI efforts have become much more qualitative. Much of this was inspired by important questions six or seven years ago after we had made some strides in the ‘D’ part of the work. Inevitably the E and I had to emerge. We had to ask, “What does equity mean in a workplace and in our work?” and “How about inclusivity?” We also found ourselves reflecting on the question of “Do we have a dominant culture?” If so, how welcoming is that for the diverse staff and partners who were increasingly shaping the composition of the institution?

Just before the pandemic hit, we were aware of the need to realign our culture work with the greater impact of the institution. The summer of the widespread racial reckoning in the U.S., which compounded the effects of the pandemic, was a critical moment for us at the RBF.  We found ourselves in a deep contemplative stage. We were quick to identify that it is insufficient to be just not racist or not sexist.

Our internal honest discussions as staff and with our board resulted in a board-approved commitment to anti-racism and anti-sexism.

Simply put, this commitment pushes us to PROACTIVELY examine and mitigate bigotry, social strata and exclusions, and so on, both internally at the RBF and in our partnerships and external impact, often through the prism of race and gender. 

The anti-bigoted stance does not end there; we proactively consider equity and inclusion within other deep-rooted social exclusions such as disability, sexual orientation, etc.

In the end, we have a conviction that a deep sense of belonging within our organization and those that we partner with results in more accurate analysis and better solutions to the social issues we work to address. It is not only good for us interpersonally, but also mission-critical, especially in the interdependent world we live in.

Can you talk a little bit more about the changes you made at the organizational level and what needs to happen for that to work? 

A lot of what I have just described – our journey to becoming anti-racist, anti-sexist – if you track it back to about 15 years ago when it started in earnest, there are a lot of micro changes we’re making. We’re making micro changes in our recruitment processes. We’re making micro changes by asking ourselves questions such as, “Are the vendors we work with representative of the populations that we want to serve?” We’re thinking deeply about the micro changes that need to happen with the grantees we’re attracting to the institution and partnering with to advance the social change we want to see in the world.

Then, at some point, you realize you cannot just focus on the micro; otherwise, you’re doing a lot of internal navel-gazing that may not be synchronized to produce the type of synergistic and strategic impact required in order for the institution to achieve its mission.

Additionally, the inner work must result in a greater impact externally. As we were doing much of the internal work, the social challenges were multiplying, given the perils of climate change and attacks on peace and stability, and democratic institutions and processes, both at home and abroad.

It is in this context that we realized we could continue entrenching belonging internally and with our partners while also striving for greater impact because of our people-forward, culture-centered work.

I would like to say our internal efforts were always strategically aligned to our impact, but that would not be accurate. However, our commitment to the important work the RBF does never changes, and it remains a powerful agent of tethering, compelling us to align our efforts to the social issues the RBF exists to address.

Said differently, we became increasingly aware of the multiple micro progressions we were making and concluded, with staff input, that cohesion, transparency, and accountability will be key in realigning the micro efforts to the macro work of the RBF.

We have since made inroads on this and are presently at a stage of creating a strategic direction that can be evaluated to ensure that the sum total of our effort accrues to advancing our mission in a sustainable and prudent, equitable and inclusive, and strategic manner.

Culture and our people-forward approach will continue to be integral to how we harness our talents to address the social issues the RBF works to address.

It’s not going to be perfect, but it will yield greater inclusive and equitable outcomes.

The negative intended and unintended consequences of social exclusion are immense.

The idea of becoming anti-racist and anti-sexist as a change management process is therefore inevitable in some regards.

At the RBF, we are experimenting with the idea of building internal and external consortia and partnerships that strategically advance both micro/ and macro approaches to becoming anti-racist and anti-sexist. One needs the other; you cannot just do the internal without doing the external, and so you’re constantly building and reinforcing social and talent consortia.

Paying attention to the context is also critical. There are moments like 2008 when the first Black president is elected to office in the U.S., but fast forward to 2016 when you have a new administration, and you must pivot with the moments.

These moments can become windows of opportunity to catapult your institutional transformative efforts.

At the RBF in 2016, we felt like our external impact was stalled by  the political climate. We did not appreciate how much internal infrastructure we had built to push back and stay the course.

Similarly, in 2020, when we declared our commitment to anti-racism and anti-sexism, we underestimated the internal progress in our culture that allowed for this posture.

In addition to resilience and a return to institutional values and people-forward culture-centeredness, there’s more to unpack about the RBF way of advancing its mission. We are now creating a strategic framework that can categorize how we have arrived at our current state and provide a clear roadmap of how we get to our desired state – where we have a greater understanding of how our culture animates the talent we require to achieve the important mission of the RBF – in the next three to five years.

We are yet to chronicle how our 15-year DEI journey has brought us to the current state. When you look back, it is hard not to say, “Wow! Look what we did in 2008. Look at how we overcame the challenges of 2016. See how we pivoted in that here and there and how that prepared us for 2020.”

When we are clearer on the connection between our culture, talent, and impact, we will be better positioned to take advantage of the upcoming windows of opportunity.  

What are your thoughts about what you have learned from field building activities and systems change and what learnings others can take from that process?

At the granular level, I have learned the importance of self-care for staff, partners, and myself. It’s not an easy journey to build inclusive and equitable structures.

There’s a very good reason, as a society, we are the way we are.

This work must be approached sustainably. Self-care is critical.

The less granular lesson I have learned is that there is work to be done at the strategic level.

Much of culture work, anti-racism and anti-sexism included, would benefit from benchmarking.

Back in the day, there was such a thing as a personnel department, which then became human resources (which then became human capital, which now is a fancy people operations department). This was a journey of transforming a nebulous idea of a team that manages other humans into a strategic effort that completely shapes how organizations are defined and contributes to whether the organization sinks or floats.

Similarly, with the work around anti-racism and anti-sexism, minimum standards should be established for DEI work that can be compared across institutions and sectors.

Benchmarking and, ultimately, strategic approaches will be important in creating a community of professionals for this work that will have important returns for the practitioners, their institutions, and their sectors.