Case Study

DEIB Assessment & Strategic Roadmap + The Poetry Foundation

January 3, 2023
Minute Read
The Poetry Foundation
Arts Foundation
30–50 employees
Chicago, Illinois

Summary of Outcomes

  • Three BIPOC members joined the board between December 2020 and June 2021.
  • The Poetry Foundation invested in additional HR firm resources to significantly increase People Operations capacity.
  • Three caucused healing sessions were led by the Ethos team with Poetry Foundation employees and the Board of Trustees to address past concerns with employees.
  • $2 million in emergency grants was distributed to support poetry and affiliated art organizations that were struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.


In 2020, the Poetry Foundation was called by their community of awardees, fellows, contributors, and collaborators to create action plans and make commitments to dismantling problematic structures and practices within the foundation. In June of that year, they began to take steps to create a more equitable environment. The Board and Foundation partnered with  Ethos to conduct an Equity Audit to become a more socially just organization and meet its commitments.


  • Conduct an audit of current efforts to give the Poetry Foundation a baseline understanding of where they were starting from as they began their journey to become a more socially just organization
  • Create an Action Plan of recommendations that leadership could then carry out to better align with their promises

Part 1: The Audit

To begin, Ethos set forth both quantitative and qualitative methods of data collection in the form of:  

  • Magazine Audit
  • Compensation Audit
  • DEIB Survey
  • Policies and Procedures Audit
  • Research Interviews

Magazine Audit

To conduct the magazine audit, five researchers from the Ethos team read all issues of POETRY since 2003, which amounted to 203 issues of POETRY Magazine. Ethos developed a complete list of published poets.
The Ethos team individually researched each poet to find their self-identification of their race, ethnicity, and gender identity in their biographies, writings, and interviews — if they did not name them in their works, they were identified as undisclosed. POETRY never asked for self-identifying information, so the Ethos team followed strict guidelines around representing how exactly poets named themselves in their biographic materials, leading to dozens of categories that were then grouped together to better visualize the data.

Between 2003 and 2020, 3,904 poets were published in POETRY. Of all of the underrepresented racial/ethnic identities Ethos analyzed, Black poets were most represented (8.20%), followed by: Asian poets (5.71%), Latinx poets (3.59%), Indigenous poets (1.13%), Pacific Islander poets (0.64%). In addition to race and ethnicity data, gender identity information was also collected.

Throughout the audit, Ethos noted trends within the data. For example, diversity among their writers had been incrementally increasing across these social identity categories over time, with 2018 representing the biggest increases.

Compensation Audit

Ethos reviewed 41 staff salaries, which were then benchmarked against dozens of comparable salary reports for similar institutions, such as foundations, nonprofits, cultural institutions, and publishers. Ethos leveraged a compensation analysis software tool, built on a data set comprising tens of thousands of reports. Ethos also created a custom compensation scope to apply to the roles, which included: nonprofit, Midwest region, and 25 to 50 employees.

Based on Ethos' findings, most roles were in the median range in comparison to similar roles. However, in order to ensure that compensation met or exceeded standards, compensation was immediately adjusted across the organization where necessary.

DEIB Survey of Poetry Foundation Employees

Between October and November of 2020, Ethos Surveyed Poetry Foundation Employees on their experience of DEIB at the organization. 21 out of 32 employees participated.

Respondents noted a need to investigate compensation measures, improve hiring practices to open opportunities to more diverse groups of people, and engage in more open communication with leadership.

The 21 employees also responded to a self-identification survey that included racial/ethnic identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and ability.

Policies and Procedures Audit

Ethos reviewed 16 internal documents, handbooks, HR master files, and other written materials to understand the policies, procedures and practices that guide the Poetry Foundation. Some of the materials reviewed included:

  • Employee Handbook
  • PTO policy
  • Benefits packages and documentation
  • Compensation data
  • Open Letter of Commitment and related updates
  • Vision, Values, and Mission
  • Job descriptions and roles and responsibilities
  • Performance reviews
  • Goal-setting documents

The Ethos team used the findings to make several recommendations that both directly and indirectly impacted these materials to provide greater equity to the organization's extended community.

Research Interviews

Ethos interviewed three different groups—employees, board members, and community members, especially signatories of the original community letter. Through interviews, Ethos identified themes that reflected the sentiment between September and December of 2020. 18 interviews were conducted with employees, four were conducted with board members, and seven community interviews were conducted by Ethos while four additional summaries were added from Flowers Communications Group.

During community interviews, Ethos researchers identified strengths and areas for improvement. In employee interviews, three main themes emerged:

  • Organizational culture was in flux according to employees — providing opportunities to decenter problematic power structures, but simultaneously creating frustration, ambiguity, and pressure on internal team members.
  • DEIB was an overwhelming priority, and employees provided recommendations to improve existing efforts as well as new ones.
  • Employees noted that departments were siloed, and under former leadership, competition was encouraged. They expressed a desire to engage more with each other, and wanted to see more people from underrepresented groups in leadership and on the Board.

Part 2: Action Plan 

After conducting the audit, the Ethos team suggested  a number of recommendations based on the findings. The following are a sample of some of those recommendations. 

  • Add Diversity to the Leadership Team and Board of Directors: Ethos found that survey participants noted that diversifying the leadership of the organization was the most valuable and impact-driving change the Poetry Foundation could make.
  • Acknowledge Past Concerns with Empathy: Employees expressed that experiences would need to be seen and validated by those in positions of power in order for resolution and healing to take place.
  • Build an Internal People Operations Team : Ethos noted that an organization the size of the Poetry Foundation commonly has two team members solely dedicated to People and People Operations. The recommendation was made that expanding the internal People Operations Team would be an appropriate next step.
  • Strengthen Middle Management Layer: Specific management training to improve the experience of this manager cohort's eventual reports and their own confidence in what they bring to the organization was recommended.
  • Form an Editorial Board: As interviews were conducted, community members cited a lack of access to the organization and a lack of poets serving on the Board of Directors. Ethos' comprehensive magazine audit showed dramatic disparities in representation, especially Poets of Color.
  • Develop a Formal Leveling System: When putting together the compensation audit, Ethos began the process of putting together a lightweight leveling system based on pay bands. This system charts clear career paths and expected behaviors by level to help employees understand opportunities for progression.
  • Develop a New Long-Term Grant Program for Community Organizations: Community members signaled that there was a need for the Poetry Foundation to develop more formal and codified grant-making opportunities. As a result, Ethos noted that there was an opportunity to develop a program that was clearly and wholly associated with the Poetry Foundation.
  • Hire a Sensitivity Reader: Since the magazine team was already hiring Readers, Ethos proposed adding another Reader who is explicitly designated as a Sensitivity Reader, as they would ensure better representation on the page. This was noted as a critical need for the organization based on the audit's findings.
Based on Ethos' findings, most roles were in the median range in comparison to similar roles. However, in order to ensure that compensation met or exceeded standards, compensation was immediately adjusted across the organization where necessary.


The recommendations were originally developed in December 2020, and over the course of six months were reviewed by board members and employees, and as of June 2021 several recommendations had been put in motion, resulting in the following outcomes: 

  • Between December 2020 and June 2021, three BIPOC board members joined their board. 
  • The Ethos team led three caucused healing sessions with Poetry Foundation employees and the Board of Trustees set time to directly address past concerns with employees. 
  • The Poetry Foundation invested in additional HR firm resources to significantly increase People Operations capacity. 
  • The Poetry Foundation invested in partnering with Ethos to lead a 6-month-long management program that blends management fundamentals and DEIB. 
  • POETRY ran an international-wide search for Guest Editors to helm the magazine from 2021 to 2022 as future editorial structures were still taking shape. 
  • The Ethos team partnered with the Poetry Foundation to rightsize jobs, develop levels, and create pay bands starting in June of 2021. 
  • As of June 2021, $2 million in emergency grants to support poetry and affiliated art organizations struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic was distributed.


Both the audit and the action plan carried out by Ethos helped the Poetry Foundation not only measure their baseline, but also follow through on their promise to make meaningful change in their organization. For the organization’s one-year commitment update to its community, it demonstrated measurable changes that aligned with the original goals as a direct result of the information and recommendations provided by the Ethos team.

Learn more about our DEIB Assessment & Strategic Roadmap offering here.


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