Striving Toward Equity in Non-Profit Spaces

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Key Points 

  • The nonprofit sector remains predominantly white-led, white-funded, and white-designed in practice, form, and function.
  • There are specific ways in which nonprofits can counteract white supremacy culture through policies, values, and programming.
  • RE-Center Race & Equity in Education is continually learning new ways to live more fully into our identity as an equitable and racially just nonprofit.

Key Terms

  • Systemic Racism
  • Structural Racism
  • Status Quo
  • White Supremacy Culture
  • Accountability

Alice Walker said, “Because whatever has happened to humanity, whatever is currently happening to humanity, it is happening to all of us. No matter how hidden the cruelty, no matter how far off the screams of pain and terror, we live in one world.” 

There are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations across the United States (reference). So many have missions related to advancing equity, racial and social justice AND yet, these missions often fail to generate internal organizational influence leaving nonprofit staff with the dissonance of working for a values-driven organization that seems to have gone driverless internally.

If we, as a sector, might live into Alice Walker’s description of one world, one humanity, then we must do better at confronting the internalized white supremacy and saviourism baked into our work, hold steadfast in the face of politics and sociopolitical influence, and intentionally decline to be led astray when things become uncomfortable for those of us who sleep on pillows of privilege.

In this article, we aim to offer some of the ways we at RE-Center Race & Equity in Education, a 30-year old, Hartford, CT-based nonprofit are striving toward equity internally and externally.

Context

The nonprofit sector remains predominantly white-led, white-funded, and white-designed in practice, form, and function. We might cite statistics here about disparities between nonprofit executives who are menfolk versus womxn. We would break that down by race to show more dramatic disparities persist for womxn of color, particularly Black womxn. We would cite lack of representation of BIPOC folx on Boards, particularly Black folx. We would cite lack of representation of LGBTQIA+ folx on Boards and in leadership. We would intersect that data with race and disability and neurodiversity, and socioeconomics. We might examine bylaws countrywide to show trends that lack an awareness of harmful language, that reinforce the gender binary, that rely on traditional, white supremacist notions of hierarchy, agency, and function. What these statistics would lead you to is the overwhelmingly white landscape that is philanthropy. You would understand the deeply entrenched white saviorism as well as the historical and contemporary exclusion of BIPOC folx, LGBTQIA+ folx, disabled and neurodivergent folx, and folx of other minoritized identities from positional power and influence in this sector. What results is a landscape we have to work against. Beverly Daniel Tatum offers in Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria (Tatum, B. D. (1997). "Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" Basic Books/Hachette Book Group.), systemic racism is the moving airport walkway that propels forward with or without us, so in order to be equitable, or dare we say anti-racist, we need enough inertia to walk faster AND in the opposite direction of its forward movement. Basically, we fight the status quo daily in all decision-making, relationships, and the way we operate as an organization.

Organizational values

2.5 years ago, there was a leadership change at RE-Center with a new Executive Director hired, and 3 additional new roles brought on that focused on Policy & Research, Strategic Development, and Finance & Operations. We are 5 full-time staff, 7 board members, and 27 Racial Justice Strategists & Coaches. We did a values refresh--No an overhaul-- and decided as a community that a statement was more than individual words and could reflect the time we spent defining intentionally. Below is what resulted.

  • At RE-Center we advance justice by shifting systems & influencing policies, practices, and beliefs to cultivate the liberation, freedom, health, & well-being of Black & Brown people. 
  • We prioritize relationships that redistribute power, both identity-based & positional, & we foster opportunities for folx to be their full & whole selves. 
  • We practice love- the love of Black & Brown children, rejoicing in their sovereign humanity. We practice love of self, because feeling too small or too big has no place in justice work.  We practice love so we may be curious, move from possibility, and have boundless imagination. 
  • We uphold spaces, places, & climates that honor the brilliance & joy of Black & Brown people & all historically excluded folx
  • We strive for community- locally & beyond - where we, as a non-profit organization, disavow white saviorship, hoarding resources, and living histories of colonization. 
  • We seek accountability- intentionally bearing the responsibility to serve the community, be in community, and hold space with community, as an embodied value that requires time and nourishment. 

These values serve as our barometer for decision-making, for assessing readiness AND willingness (two different things) of potential partners and collaborators, and for how we value our own services. One example is that typically, RE-Center does not cost out the amount of hours per month in a partnership where we are delivering services for a few reasons: 

  • This approach is a tool of white supremacy culture that undervalues the work, expertise, and time management particularly of BIPOC folx and folx from historically excluded identities; 
  • It undervalues the amount of preparation time, brainstorming, and content development done by us as consultants, and 
  • It attempts to quantify the unquantifiable such as our leveraging of expertise and experiences we have gleaned over years of this work that is being offered to a potential partner at a cost embedded in our rates. If we were to cost to the dollar every hour, it would be either impossible to compensate us as an agency or we would have to solely create new content for each organization we work with, meaning they wouldn’t benefit from years of work in other settings

What this results in is us saying “no” or “no thank you” or “we are not the right vendor for you” in many cases where our values demand it. We believe in equitable compensation for our full-time and consultant community members and there is more on that below.

Human-centeredness 

There were many lessons we feel we have learned and are continuing to lean into from the effects of COVID. With rising inflation and healthcare costs, with increased strain in understaffed workplaces, we know we have to intentionally use a human-centered approach internally to live up to our values externally, otherwise we risk being performative and inauthentic.

In the past 2.5 years, we have:

  • Shifted to be a remote organization allowing us to have team members in CT, NJ, PA, GA, CA, NY, and beyond. It has opened up the potential talent pool dramatically.
  • Become an exceptionally flexible workplace culture where folx “flex” working hours where needed to support childcare, caring for elderly relatives, and typical honoring of family obligations- be they celebratory, grieving, or just regular life needs and commitments. We believe no one should struggle with calendaring appointments for themselves and loved ones because of rigid, antiquated work schedules. 
  • Raised all salaries and have developed an aspirational scale of where we want salary bands to grow with increased funding in the future such that we close the distance between the highest and lowest paid team members and exceed the market rate which does not account for race and gender disparities. We see no reason why nonprofit salaries should be so far from competitive rates when our work is so important. We have offered cost of living adjustments in alignment with inflation and our Executive Director declined the last COLA to better close the gap between the highest and lowest salaries. We are attentive to racial hierarchies in pay, noting that we pay BIPOC folx on the full-time staff and in our consultant community 70% of our total personnel allotment. We have also dramatically increased the rates for our consultant facilitators and researchers.
  • Centered advancement and title changes that better reflect the intention in our work and the goals staff have for themselves professionally.
  • Sought out a more robust, national health insurance plan and now pay 100% of the employee premium. We are currently seeking funding for consultant health expenses via a monthly stipend proportionate to the amount of work they do with RE-Center.

While these moves are in no way meant to appear conclusive and we are not suggesting we have arrived at a mythical destination of equity, we believe we are more closely living into an expressed value that also increases employee satisfaction and retention.

Capacity-building doesn’t end when training with us is over. Ongoing coaching and policy review is required.

RE-Center has some history of offering one-off trainings. 2.5 years ago we changed that as a practice we know to be exceptionally ineffective at transformative change. Now we only offer one time sessions to networks where there is the potential to spark and ignite deeper work in many spaces. We engage mostly in multiyear partnerships such that we can ensure we will be supporting an organization on their journey through the initial discomfort, the rocks in the road, and leave with a progressively lightening touch that ensures their GPS has a roadmap to continue to build infrastructure and craft new policy change.

Outward-facing persona must reflect the internal commitments. And vice versa.

Our Executive Director is unafraid to speak out on complex issues of racial and social justice. In fact, she shares that it is part of her own accountability in her role as a white Puerto Rican cis hetero non-disabled woman nonprofit leader. We believe that having an organizational presence outwardly in this way serves to: 1) be accountable to our values, 2) model for other organizations how they might navigate complex issues, and 3) set the stage for the curriculum shifts we propose schools and districts make to teach, engage, and relate in more equitable and just ways.

Governance & Board relations must reflect the commitment

There are a few ways we have and continue to ensure that our Board of Directors is curating conditions to strive for equity. First, we see beyond traditional notions of donating to the organization as the sole or primary reason for recruitment. Traditionally, non-profit organizations seek out individuals with high socioeconomic advantage who specifically have access to 5 and 6-figure contributions from both their personal bank accounts and their respective businesses or corporations they hold C-suite level positions. At RE-Center we value and uplift flexible options that empower individuals and their choice of philanthropic giving. When we consider what we know about structural racism via generational wealth, persistent disparities in pay, and the intersections of race and socioeconomic advantage, the historical limitations of board seat requirements have made it increasingly difficult for nonprofits to recruit BIPOC individuals. As of 2019, 78% of nonprofit Board members were white (reference). While the implication that Black and Brown individuals are incapable of giving at the same capacity as whites is harmful and presumptive, there are concrete truths and studies that demonstrate the racial wealth gap and major salary inequities still exist between these groups. 

Second, we seek influencers, networkers, and connectors for our Board of Directors. They also have to be folx who don’t bristle at the mention of white supremacy in the workplace. COVID and the execution of George Floyd enlightened the misalignments between typical non-profit board values and mission. Many organizations faced challenges communicating and embodying their alleged commitments to dismantling systemic racism and oppression. As we search for and identify prospective new Board members, it's important that we properly vet these individuals and understand their personal beliefs and values. It’s become far too common for staff and internal leadership to accept racist behaviors, actions, and verbal statements from board members who dictate the mission of the organization and constituents that it serves. We wish to influence change in this space by developing a vetting process that will eliminate foreseen challenges and opposition of who we are at the root. We assess potential board members’ language, public record of engagement on issues of racial and social justice, affiliation with partner and like-minded organizations, and discussion and engagement with our organizational values which are the best representation of our belief system. 

Commitment to fiduciary duties is also one of the biggest challenges that smaller organizations face. Being transparent about the organization's needs and annual commitments is a practice that we have incorporated at the start of the fiscal year as well as a clear outline in board search postings and new board member materials. By implementing this practice, it is clear at the start of the relationship where support and extra hands are needed. It also empowers board members who are having trouble finding their niche to discover where they can be most resourceful. Last year, we held one-to-one meetings with each Director to privately discuss events for the year, financial commitments, and overall capacity to participate in meetings and other activities. 

Development goals and approach

One of the most critical aspects of long-term sustainability is access to new and continued funding opportunities. Funding sources for organizations without a national presence and a working board composed of C-Suite level executives coast at mid-level giving ranges, often one time grants or short-term multi year investments (2-3 years). Small to midsize nonprofit organizations rely heavily on long-term relationships with local/state community foundations. When these funders revise their philanthropic priorities or decrease their previous commitments (funding sometimes drops to almost half or only 25% of the original ask), nonprofits are faced with the struggles of closing financial gaps that can make or break staff salaries, cause program/project interruptions, opportunities for professional development and more. 

The inaccessibility to funding staff and foundation leadership is also at the root of funding equity issues. The lack of access to contacts at large foundations and Corporate Social Responsibility executives at major corporations that have the power to make transformational gifts has made it increasingly difficult for smaller organizations to grow. Now more than ever, RFP’s from new organizations are not accepted and contact information for program staff is almost impossible to retrieve. There is also the present issue of “impact” being directly related to the number of constituents served and the geographical makeup of where programs and services are provided. How can organizations tell their story if they are unable to get in front of the right people? If organizations don’t have the financial support to expand their programming, how can they grow their constituency nationally to receive national-level support? These are the tough questions that we challenge grantmakers with when we participate in annual check ins or are invited to share feedback. During our Racial Justice Conference, we hosted a session where nonprofit executives, fundraising staff, and foundation staff shared their experiences on both sides and brainstormed their intentions on how this space can be made more equitable for everyone.

In 2021, we hired a younger (comparable to the traditional/average age of individuals in this role), Black woman who lived out of state to step into our Senior Development Strategist role. We want to work against the inequitable stigma that BIPOC folx are unable to raise funds or only have success in these roles unless they come from an affluent background or hold a host of personal high-net worth connections that will follow them from organization to organization. We support this role by sharing names of individuals who have the capacity to give, sharing invitations to local events and webinars in the greater Hartford area, connecting her to board members who are deeply involved in the nonprofit community, and empowering her to take ownership of different initiatives that will yield funds as we build our individual donor pipeline. Additionally, our Executive Director has attended various institutes and courses in Development to help her better understand the funding landscape, industry challenges, and overall best practices as she collaborates with the Senior Development Strategist.

Equity advances in our events & our resources

Our outwardly projected-persona as an organization must also reflect our internal values, in form and function. What this means is we think critically about:

  • Ticket prices and sliding scales for payment.
  • Free resources such as our blog, tools on the website, and this magazine itself.
  • Innovative models for delivering services around equity and racial justice for nonprofits that are financially possible given budget limitations and still hold true to what is needed in advancing this work.
  • Using majority BIPOC vendors and speakers.
  • Offering spaces just for BIPOC, including a space for rest at our annual Racial Justice Conference.
  • Declining to only center financial measures for wins in both development and events in general. We set goals for engagement, geographic reach, networking and coalition building, etc.
  • Intentionally offering hybrid events like our conference to be more accessible. 
  • Seeking financial investment solely for live interpretation in ASL for keynotes and speakers.

When you intentionally move equitably, you do have to navigate tricky situations. One example, was that this past year at our conference which was a full-day of learning including 2 keynotes and workshops priced at $65 for in person and $45 for virtual, we had requests from 2 local organizations to purchase one virtual ticket for 10+ people to “view” the event in a boardroom. Now, we want our audience to be as expansive as possible and we felt we had set a comparatively low ticket price for the quality of the event. We also understand there are reasons that even folx who are local to Hartford could not attend in person. However, the idea that a group of folx could just “watch” together and not engage in workshops or push their thinking through participatory dialogue was antithetical to the tone and community approach we set for the event. Additionally, we do have to be able to fund the speakers and event materials so the idea of purchasing just one virtual ticket for 10+ people was not okay when we ran it against the values barometer for our work. We pushed back and ultimately both organizations declined to attend at all. Sometimes, standing for equity means you end up sacrificing work, relationships, and partners, AND it is still ok when aligned with your values.

Ultimately, we feel these 2.5 years are the first chapters of a deeply engaging book on our journey. We are leaning into this work more and more daily and continually learning new ways to live more fully into our identity as an equitable and racially just nonprofit.

Shaniqua is the Senior Development Strategist of RE-Center, a Black woman who was born and raised in urban Philadelphia and uses her roots and earned experiences to stay present in the privileged world of philanthropy. 

Natalie is the Executive Director of RE-Center and a white Puerto Rican, cis hetero non-disabled educator, advocate, non-profit leader, & mami with significant class privilege.