The courage to be unfair

[Image description: A tan brown lion cub, hiding behind a tree branch, blurred yellowish background. I think this is a lion cub. Image obtained from]
Last week, I went to speak at a conference in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania put on by the United Way of Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce and United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley. The topic was Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Not wanting to use the same graphic with the kids standing on the boxes (you know what I’m talking about) to illustrate the difference between equity and equality, I tried the sandwich metaphor:

“Imagine if you had three kids and three sandwiches. Equality would be that you give each kid a sandwich. That seems fair. But many of you work with kids whose families are low-income, whose only meal that day may be through school or through your program. Imagine if one of the kids has not eaten for three days, and one kid just came from a birthday party and is stuffed. Equity is understanding these circumstances and giving the kid who is really hungry two sandwiches, and maybe the kid who just ate gets none.”

I know that is extremely simplistic, and I acknowledged this with the audience. These metaphors and graphics are always problematic, as they overly simplify extremely complex issues, as our friends at point out. Why was the kid hungry in the first place? Why is the family poor? Should we give sandwiches, or create conditions where the parents have stable jobs so they can provide food? Should we teach the kids who are full about poverty and food deserts so they willingly give their sandwiches to the hungry kid? Why is it always a deficit view?

But it was good for us to have a common language and concept to start with, and during a breakout discussion, a conference attendee said something that really stuck with me. I am paraphrasing what he said here:

“We need to have the courage to be unfair. If we give one kid two sandwiches and another kid none, people who don’t know the context will criticize us and say that we are being unfair to the other kids. But that’s our job. We sometimes need to be unfair.”

I wanted to speak to this man after the event, but he quickly disappeared, like a one-year grant. Mysterious guy with the brown jacket and the piercing gaze, thank you for saying what you said. Beer or non-alcoholic drinks of your choice and unlimited vegan ice cream on me if we’re ever in the same city.

The concept of “fairness” is something that we have all learned from a young age as a good thing, something to strive for. My five-year-old, for example, has now moved from the mantra of “why?” to “that’s not fair!” Sometimes he combines the two: “Why can’t I have bunny fruit snacks after brushing my teeth? That’s not fair!” (Parenting tip: Think carefully before using Google Images to show pictures of dental problems to your five-year-old)

Because of how ingrained “fairness” is, we have all internalized it, including across many aspects of our work. If we give some job candidates special treatments, that would not be fair. If we provide technical assistance to some orgs on their grant proposal and not others, that would not be fair. If we create a grant that’s only for organizations led by communities of color, that would not be fair.

But fairness is often the diametric opposite of equity and social justice. Sure, if a job candidate shows up extremely late for an interview or misses it entirely, it may be unfair to give them a chance when other candidates showed up on time. But what if this candidate is amazing and qualified, and she can’t afford a car and the bus was late? What if she uses a wheelchair and had challenges navigating to and in your building?

Sure, if an organization asks your foundation to review their proposal to get feedback from you before they submit it, it would be unfair to give them that extra help when you don’t do it for other applicants. But what if this is the only organization that is led by a community that has suffered the most under unjust policies and systems? What if they do incredible work but they don’t have a contract grantwriter or an on-staff development person? What if their willingness to risk asking for your help is an indication of their dedication to learning and improving?

Sure, if foundations or donors designate funding for only specific marginalized communities, or give funding outside their formal grant process, it may be unfair. But what if these organizations have been historically shut out from receiving funding? Or even though they do things no one else can do as effectively, they have always received small amounts, as this is often the case in our sector, where for decades and to this day less than 10% of philanthropic dollars go to organizations led by communities of color.

The concept of “fairness” is easy for people to understand, and on a superficial level it seems good and something we should aim for. But “fairness” guarantees the status quo. “Fairness” eliminates qualified candidates and perpetuates the lack of diversity in our sector. “Fairness” continues to ensure the communities most affected by systemic injustice—black communities, Native communities, immigrant/refugee communities, Muslim communities, communities of disability, rural communities, LGBTQIA communities—continue to get the least amount of resources.

So how good is “fairness” really? Does it actually even exist in the world we live in?

I say that fairness, the way that it is currently defined and used by society, is the antithesis of justice. It gives us the illusion of doing something good and allows us to bypass the much harder work of understanding and addressing complex challenges and systems. And because it is so ingrained in our culture, if we act in a way that seems unfair, others may criticize us because they don’t see the full picture.

But this is where the courage comes in. We cannot do our jobs effectively without courage, and courage includes doing what is right even when it goes against what society believes to be fair, even when others get on our case. Our work is not to be fair. Our work is to restore balance where we can, and we cannot do that if we constantly prioritize being “fair” to those who historically have had more privileges and resources.

It is easier to give each kid a sandwich and be done with it. There would be fewer people up in arms. But our work is much harder than that. Each of us and our organizations and foundations must ask ourselves if we are willing to focus our attention and resources on the individuals and communities most affected by systemic injustice, and if we have the courage to face the inevitable criticisms that will come our way. And if we aren’t, then can we possibly hope to ever achieve our missions and the promises of our sector?

Let’s worry less about doing what society thinks is fair, and worry more about doing what we believe is right. Equity requires us to have the courage to bend the rules of fairness, or redefine it entirely; that’s the only way we can bend the arc towards justice.

Support the maintenance of this website by buying NAF t-shirts and mugs and other stuff.

Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NAF by scrolling to the top right of this page (maybe scroll down a little) and enter in your email address (If you’re on the phone, it may be at the bottom). Also, join the NAF Facebook community for daily hilarity.

Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. If you’re an ED/CEO of color, join EDOC. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or tell nonprofit jokes. Check them out.

Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organizationRainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.