Long before racial disparities in philanthropy became a hot topic, the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota launched a fellowship and internship for women of color that has been a model for other Minnesota foundations.

Since 2002, the initiative has forged career pathways for nearly 35 young woman who otherwise may not have set foot in the door of a major foundation.

Lee Roper-Batker, president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation, said her own foundation board and staff were a diverse group at the time, but most others were not.

“There was a dearth of color in the larger field of philanthropy,” said Roper-Batker. “Our intent was to build a pipeline into key leadership positions in philanthropy, the nonprofit sector, fundraising.”

That pipeline is being built through some rugged terrain. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, at least 60 percent of nonprofits serve people of color, who comprise more than a third of U.S. population.

However, only about 8 percent of nonprofit leaders are members of racial minorities, said Roper-Batker.

Lulete Mola hopes to change that. Mola was an intern, and now is a Reatha Clark King Fellow at the Women’s Foundation. She spent Friday morning in a staff meeting with U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that focused on women-in-the-workplace issues. She reviews grant proposals, grant directions and more.

Born in Ethiopia, she started a girls’ empowerment group while a student at St. Paul Central High School. The group still exists. A University of Minnesota academic adviser told her about the Women’s Foundation opportunity.

“I was passionate about creating movements, but I never thought about philanthropy — about the money going to movements,” Mola said. “It was a natural draw. I continue to learn every day.”

The Minnesota Council on Foundations also is cultivating future philanthropy leaders. In partnership with the Bush Foundation, it launched the Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellowship in 2014. Its first batch of four fellows worked at the Bush Foundation. Its second group of five were employed by Bush, the Minneapolis Foundation, the Headwaters Foundation and others.

“We believe if you involve a diverse set of people solving problems, you have the best outcome,” said Roper-Batker.

Meanwhile, the namesake of the Women’s Foundation’s internship, Wenda Weekes Moore, will be honored at a foundation leadership event this month for a 40-year career that includes being the first African-American chairwoman of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, chairwoman of the board of trustees of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and current board leader for groups ranging from the Association of Black Foundation Executives to the Minneapolis Council on Churches to the Ms. Foundation for Women.

“She was a beacon for women of color,” said Roper-Batker, who hopes the internship in her honor helps pave the way.


Jean Hopfensperger 612-673-4511