The Equity of Risk and Failure


equityHi everyone. It’s Thanksgiving this week, and I usually spend a post listing things for which I am thankful—a meaningful job, awesome colleagues, loving family, The Walking Dead, etc.—but something has been weighing on my mind. Equity. It’s like coconut water; everyone’s drinking it lately (See “Is Equity the new coconut water?”). Diversity, inclusion, and cultural competency meanwhile are like hummus: you can’t attend a meeting without at least one clear plastic container of it.

The problem with Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Here’s the thing: The people of color that I’ve been talking to are getting kind of sick of these terms. We love them, but the dissonance between their usage and actual practice is like getting poked in the eye on a daily basis. Case in point, at panel I was on recently a colleague of color told me that someone contacted her, saying, “Can you help us spread the word about this new job position? We want to diversify our pool of candidates.”

My friend said, “I wanted to ask, Are you trying to just diversify your POOL of candidate, or ACTUAL hires?” We both sighed; thankfully, the wine was plentiful that evening.

This has been happening a lot recently, the usage of these feel-good and trendy terms without serious consideration for the challenging and time-consuming changes that we need to undergo to actualize them. Equity requires the embrace of risk and failure. True equity, and diversity and inclusion, cannot exist without them.

Unfortunately, our field is often frustratingly and ineffectively risk-adverse, paralyzed by thoughts of failure. So yeah, we’ll “diversify the pool of candidates” and then, most likely, select the “most qualified” person anyway, who is often White. I know many organizations who tout equity and inclusiveness whose staff and board are mostly White. They are highly qualified and awesome, but it is jarring when most of their clients are people of color.

Or we’ll “work with communities of color” and then, most likely, select mainstream organizations because these ethnic-led organizations “don’t have the capacity” or “didn’t put in a strong enough proposal.”

The voices of communities of color have been struggling to be heard on almost every single issue. And to everyone’s credit, I don’t feel like people are actually being exclusive. This recent trend of diversity, equity, and inclusion is a testament to the fact that we all recognize both the importance and the lack of engagement of these communities. However, recognition of the problem and talking about it are necessary but not sufficient elements to solving the problems of inequity. We have to be willing to try different stuff, fund differently, and accept a few failures.

Unboxing equity

By now, most of us have seen this graphic above, which displays very clearly the difference between equality and equity. But after we think, “Aw, that’s so cute; all these kids can now watch the game; equity is so magical,” how does it actually translate within our field? Let’s unpack this.

First, I’m not always a big fan of this image, because to the less wise, the short kid is obviously deficient and needs some serious help. The short kid represents entire marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ community, communities of color, poor communities, etc. But this kid can also symbolize individuals such as professionals of color, as well as nonprofits such as communities-of-color-led organizations. These communities and individuals have plenty of strength and assets and is not always just the baby in the group.

But anyway, let’s continue with the metaphor. Since my experience is with communities, people, and nonprofits of color, I’m going to hone in on that for this post today.

Regardless of who this little kid represents, the point is that we are always struggling to see over the fence. We’ll be lucky to get a two-by-four to stand on, much less a whole box, much less TWO boxes. In the case of ethnic-led nonprofits, the argument against giving a whole box to them has always been, “You’re cute, but you guys just don’t have the capacity. If we give you a whole box to stand on, you’ll probably just fall off of it. We can’t give you a large grant. Here’s a small one. Sure, all these problems we’re tackling disproportionately affect your communities, and you have the best connection to them. But come back when you are more organized.”

borgAt a conference I attended last week, funders were congratulating themselves on capacity building around collective impact work. As much as I like collective impact in theory, the reality is that it has more often than not been screwing over communities of color, who cannot access funds to be significantly involved and thus are unintentionally tokenized. (See “Collective Impact: Resistance is futile,” where I compare ineffective CI efforts to the Borg from Star Trek). “Collective impact has been leaving behind many communities of color,” I said from the audience, “how are you addressing building capacity for organizations that are led by these communities so that they can be involved?”

A funder took the microphone to respond. “I wish my organization was one of those with the flexibility to give $5K or 10K grants,” he said, “but we don’t do that. We give larger grants.” And of course, these ethnic nonprofits would never be able to compete for one of these larger grants. They are stuck in the capacity quagmire like college grads who can’t get hired because they have no experience.

The importance of risk and failure

Look, I’m not advocating for people hire staff willy-nilly, or for funders to be throwing money around at random. But the status quo is not working, and holding hands chanting “equity, diversity, and inclusion” without actually doing stuff differently is dangerous because it makes us feel like we’re making progress when we’re not.

Here’s the reality: If we hire less experienced people from communities of color, yes, they will likely require more support, and they may fail more often. If we fund small ethnic nonprofits, yes, they will likely require more support and may fail more often. That kid has not had much experience standing on two boxes. His balance is being tested. He may fall down a couple of times.

But here’s another side to that reality: Those staff from communities of color are critical when working with communities of color, and our field does a lot of work with communities of color, to put it mildly. You can hire a less experienced staff of color and train them on technical skills. But you cannot teach someone to be a person of color. Believe me, I tried it; it was uncomfortable for everyone. So if your org works with clients of color, take some risks in your hiring. Don’t just “diversify the pool.”

The same goes for ethnic-led nonprofits. Again, these organizations are the most effective in connecting to their communities, and they do it on shoe-string budgets. Since they have the strongest relationships, they are constantly asked to help with outreach, to sit on advisory teams, and to do other stuff for free. Then when they try to get more significant support, the response has historically been, “You don’t have the capacity” followed by “but why don’t you join the Cultural Competency workgroup of our awesome collective impact effort!”

A bright spot

There was a ray of hope at this workshop on capacity building and collective impact. “While we can’t fund these smaller ethnic-led CBOs,” said the program officer, “we could, however, potentially fund your organization as an intermediary.” My organization, Rainier Valley Corps, I had explained to the room earlier, recruits cohorts of passionate but inexperienced immigrant/refugee leaders, train and support them on nonprofit leadership, and send them to work full-time at ethnic-led nonprofits for a year or two to help these organizations build their capacity; these emerging leaders simultaneously gain hands-on experience needed for them to remain in the field and gradually become effective nonprofit leaders. Both will be lifted out of the capacity and experience quagmire.

Ten years ago, I was sent through a program similar to Rainier Valley Corps to an ethnic-led nonprofit called the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA). Although it had been around for 25 years, VFA had a budget of less than 50K, no full-time staff, and served hundreds of clients through volunteers. For years, no funders would invest in the organization. Meanwhile, I was one of these passionate but inexperienced young professionals. I remember calling up and talking to a program officer of the Gates Foundation for the first time. I sat in my car, stuttering. “It’s OK,” said the program officer, “I was in your shoes once. Just calm down and tell me about your organization.”

That program officer took a risk and funded VFA. And not just a 5K or 10K grant, but a 180K grant over three years, which was unheard of for a tiny community-of-color-led organization with a budget of $30,000 or so. We went to other foundations to leverage additional support. United Way of King County came in with another significant grant, followed by the City of Seattle. A year or two later, Social Venture Partners supported VFA with a significant multi-year grant. The Seattle Foundation, Medina, and other funders stepped in. The board hired me to lead the org as its first ED.

These foundations took a risk to fund this tiny, unproven ethnic nonprofit and its inexperienced staff. VFA is now reaching a million in operating budget, has several full-time staff, and serves thousands every year. It’s building the very first Vietnamese dual-language preschool in the state, and it’s been involved in registering hundreds of people to vote.

Even better, as it grew, VFA helped to found the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), which is one of the few education advocacy efforts led by communities of color. It has also helped to found the Youth Development Executives of King County (YDEKC), an important collective impact effort to advance the youth development field. And it has been leading the development of Rainier Valley Corps, which will create an effective model for building the capacity of immigrant/refugee nonprofits and raise the voices of these marginalized communities on every policy area.

Funders’ willingness to invest in and take risk with VFA has directly resulted in all sorts of awesome things. It has resulted in the Vietnamese community being genuinely involved in several collective impact efforts, and not the superficial and tokenizing involvement that are too common these days.

Give that kid a box!


It’s Thanksgiving, and as I reflect on the things for which I am thankful—a wonderful family, good health, a job I love, an organization I believe in, the most amazing colleagues ever (staff, board, volunteers), and the best readers any nonprofit blogger could ask for (and Tofurky, I’m thankful for Tofurky)—this year I am extremely grateful for those foundations and especially those early program officers (Ken, Muriel, Sindy, Lori, Mike, Caroline, Eunice) who took a risk advocating for me and for my organization. VFA would not be where we are today without your chance-taking and support. And personally, you enabled me to remain in a field I’m proud of and do work that I care about.

But still, it continues to be an uphill battle. For example, even as I work to build Rainier Valley Corps, already I run into funders who say things like, “Well, what’s your track record? You’re too new. You’re too small. You’re unproven. How do we know this is going to work? You’re asking for too much money.” All the while they have been talking about Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; granting tiny amounts to communities of color; and wondering why these communities are not developing their capacity and being involved at the systemic level.

If we want true equity, we must embrace risk and failure. Give that short kid two boxes! Don’t just “include” or “engage” him in stuff. Don’t just ask him to join your board or your “cultural competency” committee or something. Don’t just stand around chanting equity and inclusion while the kid scrambles trying to stack several tiny pieces of wood together to elevate himself a few inches. And be willing to accept that if you do give him a box, he may at first and on occasion fall off it.

But it is worth it. Because what we are doing around engaging and empowering communities of color has not been very effective, and the challenges facing these and other communities are more and more pressing. It is better to take a risk on something that has a 50% chance of success, than keep status quo and have a 100% chance of failure.

Let me know your thoughts, and please feel free to disagree.

Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives (they’re rarely as long and as serious as this one!). Subscribe to NWB by scrolling to the top right of this page and enter in your email address.


22 thoughts on “The Equity of Risk and Failure

  1. Sheila Capestany

    I agree wholeheartedly Vu! But here’s my other problem with this image: it is not talking about opening the gate and letting folks in – instead it relegates them forever to “equitable status” as outsiders peering over the fence. It feels a lot like ” you can have what looks like we have ( a view of the game ), but you can’t have what we actually have (a real seat at the game)”. No shifting of the power, no equity.

    1. Tim Terran

      Wow, you look beyond the insight! haha.. I would have to second your comment on the pic, about opening up the gate and not just providing “equity” to look what’s going on inside the fence.

      Quite alarming is that, some studies suggest that some minorities aren’t even given the equity of getting to see what’s inside the fence to begin with on the job market specifically.

      I wrote my comments above with the link below:

      The Rich countries and the minorities they discriminate against, mapped:

  2. ak_laura

    I agree. I appreciate how you are able to say what I feel and have observed working in nonprofits for over 20 years as an Alaska Native Woman – it has not been easy and am frequently frustrated that when when talk about equity, diversity, and even equality, that the people we are talking about aren’t even at the table.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, ak_laura, and I’m sorry for all the frustration. If we keep giving feedback and pushing, I am hoping it will make a difference. I don’t think people are intentionally trying to be oppressive. We just have a very ineffective system, where there are strong power dynamics at play. it’s these dynamics that oftentimes prevent enough nonprofits from giving feedback to funders and policy makers to trigger change.

      1. ak_laura

        Thanks. I get frustrated at times, but I never give up. Everytime I get invited to the table, I share why it is to get more people at the table and how we can more people at the table. I’m known for not giving up on this issue and people know that in advance when they invite me, they know I may say some things that make us uncomfortable but they can count on me to say it and say it in the interest of solving problems not creating it 🙂

    1. Vu Le

      Amy, thank you for writing that piece. I read it, and you ARE funny. “A retired banker, a farmworker organizer, a children’s advocate and an economist” walk into a boardroom…
      Yes, diversity is very important. All boards need to understand how much more effective organizations can be when there is strong diversity. However, I am working on a blog post called “The Supply and Demands of Diversity and Inclusion” (or something), which posits that we can’t just increase demand on diversity without working to bring more diverse people into the field and into positions of influence.

  3. Arthur Nagel

    Being a free community clinic in the Texas Hill Country, you could substitute people of color for rural. We get passed over all the time because we are rural. Our client numbers will never equal the urban NPOs. Likewise our finite pool of clients do not have all the accessibility of free medical care that urban residents do. Our budget is not large enough to be on the radar for the bigger medical funders. And our county is small and insignificant, mainly ranching and tourist industries, not oil and gas, manufacturing, banking (which have their own respective major foundations) like our nearby bigger counties. It’s frustrating to be one of the little guys, yet our work is so important to a medically isolated county where there is only one doctor for every 7,000 people. We rural NPOs would love two boxes or, as Sheila stated, “a real seat at the game.” Thank you for taking a serious tone and addressing some real issues facing small and/or people of color NPOs. (And thank God in Texas it’s not hummus, but tortilla chips and salsa!)

    1. Vu Le

      Thank you for bringing up this point, Arthur. I don’t have much experience working with the dynamics between rural and urban communities, so you comment has been making me think. (PS: I’m torn between hummus and chips and salsa. Sometimes over here, we have chips and hummus.)

  4. verucaamish

    I’m the poster child for this. About 10 years ago, in the middle of my career, I applied to for a senior organizing position at a national environmental group. The job announcement said they wanted someone with extensive experience working with communities of color. I was the lead policy and TA person for a national AAPI group (albeit one with a shoestring budget) working with groups like the Urban League, Leadership Council on Civil Rights National Council of La Raza, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health as well as doing on the ground organizing with grassroots AAPI and multi-ethnic immigrant rights coalitions. It was down to me and one other candidate. They chose a white candidate who had worked for other white-led environmental organizations. In the end, they couldn’t pull the trigger on actually hiring outside the movement. It’s so true what you wrote – you CAN teach about the issue and the skills around policy and organizing. You CAN’T teach the lived experience. And now that same organization is trying to get trained up on leading with a racial justice lens.

    1. Vu Le

      Sigh…this is the type of stuff that I see all the time. And then people keep wondering why POCs are not “at the table,” and then these mainstream orgs pay small amounts of funds to ethnic groups to do outreach, perpetuating a pretty ineffective and irritating cycle.

  5. Sherry S. Jennings

    Thanks for a provocative blog post, Vu! I agree with the concepts and ideas. And, when we talk about who are among the most marginalized in societies throughout the world, let’s not forget women. Women are 50% of the U.S. population, yet we still do not have equity in voice or pay (see Amy and AK Laura’s posts). As a society, we’re just now getting around to understanding violence against women on college campuses and in the NFL (speaking of a crazy elitist nonprofit). You may also notice that all of the figures in your graphic appear to be little white MALES. LOL! As Sheila C noted, the in group that has the power is reluctant to give it up. That said, it’s not about pushing the White men out. I don’t want to take any of the little boys off their boxes, but can we add some new ones? It’s about making room for women and other marginalized groups.

  6. Ivy Hest

    Thank you for this! I’m a white community organizer who’s worked exclusively in communities of color. I make sure we talk openly about race and how even though they trust me, I’m still “other”. And I think (or at least hope) any good, white organizer would prefer to have a person of color work with a community of color. But time and time again I saw people who had the right instincts get passed up because they didn’t have the experience. And my ED would just say that we don’t have the capacity to train someone from scratch.

    I offered to do it myself, and proposed that we created a three-month training program where I could train incoming staff and they could try it out and get offered a stipend (living wage), and if it seemed like the right fit after, we would do an evaluation and “graduate” them to full staff status. I never got to go through with it– I left the organization to move to a new state a few months later– but I’d love to see something like this happening. Even a sharing program of sorts, where strong, grassroots organizations could team up on the training and support.

    I’m glued to my news watching events unfold around the country after the Ferguson decision, and all I want to do is fly out there and help organize. But I know that’s not for me to do. My energy is probably better spent organizing the money, and the allies, to support their cause. But me acting as an organizer will only fuel the divide.

    I just discovered your blog and have started reading from Post #1, and I love it. I just started a blog myself, which I’d like to think of as a community organizer’s Non-Profit with Balls (or maybe that’s just what I call it in my head. Organizers with Balls?) In any case, I had been planning to write about this very issue (but from an organizer’s perspective) this week, so if you’re interested, check it out on Friday!

    Thanks again!

    1. Vu Le

      Ivy, thanks for the thoughtful article. I read the piece you wrote, and think that we should all do more of this type of reflection that you are doing. There are roles for everyone, and allies like you are critical. Keep blogging.

  7. Tim Terran

    Great insight! Especially at the beginning of the article where, it posted the example of the thoughts employers are going through their minds, i.e., “..Are you trying to just diversify your POOL of candidate, or ACTUAL hires?”

    However, quite alarming is that, some studies suggest that hiring process in Canada (e.g. Toronto, Montreal) are not even diversifying the POOL of candidate to begin with! Meaning simply a lot of the minorities aren’t even being considered as a candidate and won’t even get a call back for interview.

    Read the full article in the link provided below, you will find some of the results showing indications of bias toward applicants’ name on resume that is associated with a minority ethic group vs a name from the majority population of the country. For example, in Toronto, the resume to call back ratio for some minority ethic names appear on the resume are 1.5 to 1.8. Meaning, because of the minority names on the resumes, those applicants would need to send out 1.5 to 1.8 as many applications for a job to get a call back, compared to an applicant with a name associated with the country’s majority population!

    The Rich countries and the minorities they discriminate against, mapped:

Comments are closed.