Are You Guilty of Equity Offset?

[Image description: Two lemurs, an adult lemur with a little baby lemur riding on their back. They both are facing the camera. I am not sure what kind of lemurs these are, maybe ring tailed? The adult has white and grey fur, while the baby seems to have white and light brown fur.]

This week I got a text message from a foundation program officer colleague talking about “when philanthropy takes equity seriously but not really because they ask the POC to be THE equity person when they are already doing four jobs.” This reminds me of “Equity Offset,” a term my friend James Lovell may have invented when he and some colleagues were discussing the phenomenon of nonprofits or foundations bringing in well-regarded speakers or equity consultants to signal that the organizations are “woke,” and this then allows them to continue being inequitable.

Equity Offset is like carbon offset. Carbon offset, in simplistic terms, works like this: Companies or individuals pay for trees to be planted, or parks to be cleaned up, or other things that reduce carbon or other greenhouse gas emissions, in order to offset their own negative environmental impact. This allows them to basically continue polluting while feeling less guilty.

James may have a different definition, but for this post I’m going to define Equity Offset as: actions that are aligned with equity but are used as excuses to avoid deeper work and to continue being inequitable. It is similar to fakequity, which our friends at has been expounding on brilliantly every Friday for the past couple of years, but different in that fakequity is about talking about equity without taking actions, while equity offset is about doing the right things, but those right things are used to justify continuing to do the wrong things. It is about taking actions that are necessary, but that by themselves are insufficient to achieve equity and justice. Here are some examples, pervasive across our sector:

  • Forming a DEI committee: This is often done so wrong that it warrants its own separate post. What often happens is that people of color are asked to join and lead this committee, usually without additional compensation for their work and emotional labor, and then their recommendations are often dismissed. It can be done right (hint: The ED/CEO and board members need to be active members of this committee), but in a lot of cases, it is a well-intentioned but pointless, frustrating, and time-wasting façade.
  • Doing an equity-related audit or assessment: We all need to be more intentional about how we operate, and assessments are very helpful to help us see areas where we can improve. Analyze your organization’s salaries to see if there are gender gaps. Hire consultants with disabilities to assess how accessible your space, communications, programs, etc. are. These things are great to do. The problem is when they become the only thing you do, and you feel proud that you did it, and then you kick the can down the road, coming up with various excuses to not implement the recommendations that come from these audits.
  • Attending an equity-related training: As my friend and genius facilitator and equity trainer Heidi Schillinger wrote about in “We Can’t Train Our Way to Racial Equity,” although trainings and workshops on undoing institutional racism and other topics are great, they cannot serve as the main action you are taking to achieve equity.
  • Having summits, panels, conferences on equity: I appreciate that over the past several years, topics like race have become central themes, whereas in the past they were a track that people could choose to take or not. But once the summit or conference or panel is over, what are we actually doing about it? 
  • Bringing in diverse board members and staff: Representation is critical, and whether an organization or foundation’s leadership looks like the people it’s serving should be a measure of effectiveness. Unfortunately, there are many instances of diverse, qualified board members or staff being recruited only as tokens to create the illusion of inclusiveness. Their perspectives and recommendations are often dismissed, and gradually, frustrated, they leave.
  • Doing research on equityrelated issues: Research and data are absolutely important, but we need balance. So much of the research now are things we already know, that in fact, people who are most affected by inequity have been saying over and over. Do we need another expensive white paper revealing the shocking, SHOCKING fact that schools are failing kids of color at greater rates, or that people with disabilities are discriminated against more when it comes to hiring?
  • Focusing on class, gender, or other equity topics to avoid talking about race: There is definitely plenty of issues we need to address, but it seems that sometimes people will talk about non-race-related equity topics in order to offset not engaging with the more uncomfortable issue of racial injustice.
  • “Partnering” with marginalizedcommunities-led organizations: Partnerships are great, and our field needs to do a better job with collaborations. But there has been a pattern of larger, white-led organizations partnering with smaller, often communities-of-color-led organizations, but most of the funding still going to the larger partner, a pattern of Trickle-Down Community Engagement that is very harmful to the sector.
  • Reading books and articles about equity topics. There are countless great books and articles out there about various equity topics. We all need to be constantly reading, writing, reflecting on race, gender, intersectionality, disability, neuro-diversity, etc. But again, this by itself is not enough. A colleague told me once, “Vu, our ED loves your blog posts on equity. She shares them all the time and thinks she’s woke. But she won’t let us act on anything you recommend…”

Speaking of articles, I read this one that says that carbon offset is not nearly as effective as companies just polluting less, and is actually pretty harmful. No matter how many trees we plant now, there is no way we can completely offset the rapid and permanent damage to the environment. In the same vein, although equity offset, like carbon offset, can be beneficial, it can lead to negative consequences, including:

  • Giving the illusion that we’re actually doing something meaningful, which may make us complacent to make substantive changes, which perpetuates the status quo.
  • Alleviating the guilt we feel, which may allow for damaging practices to continue. Kind of like when you eat a small kale salad, and then you don’t feel bad about downing an entire pint of ice cream.
  • Providing organizations with excuses to not do deeper work. “We have a DEI committee and a book club; why are you still complaining that 90% of our board and senior staff are white while 90% of front-line staff are people of color?”
  • Perpetuating “equitywashing”: As carbon offset creates green-washing, equity offset creates equity-washing, or creating a veneer to fool the public, which lessens scrutiny and accountability.  

So, how do we avoid equity offset? Well, I would say that something is only considered equity offset if it is used as an excuse or self-congratulatory reason to not do deeper, more difficult work. Having a DEI committee, reading articles on equity topics, having equity summits, etc., are all good things. We need to continue to them. However, to ensure they don’t become a form of equity offset, keep these things in mind:

  • Look at your budget: As I wrote about earlier in “Can we all agree to this simple definition of equity?” equity is about money. It is about ensuring that the communities that are most affected by systemic injustice get the most resources to lead in addressing that injustice. Look at your budget. Is there (still) a gender wage gap? Are staff of color or staff with disabilities at lower-level positions and thus are being paid less? If you are with a foundation, examine where your funds are going. Are most funds going to the communities most affected by injustice, or simply to the organizations who have the best grantwriters? If yes to questions like these, start making significant changes.
  • Commit to taking actions: Constantly bring this question up, “How and when do we implement suggestions that may come up?” When you’re reading a critical book, ask it. When you’re doing an equity audit, ask it. When you form a DEI committee, ask it. Before you ask community members to attend your summit, ask it among your team. Make a serious commitment to taking actions. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your and everyone else’s time.
  • Ensure leadership is involved: A lot of equity-aligned actions fail and become equity offset because they are projects delegated downward by senior leadership. If EDs/CEOs and board members are not involved at onset, they will have less ownership, which means they will be more resistant to implementing changes. This is very frustrating to people who spend endless time and energy doing equity work. Senior leaders, you need to be deeply involved if you are serious about equity and you want your strategies to actually succeed.
  • Be OK with making mistakes: Doing this work is complex and challenging. Especially if you do it right, you will make tons of mistakes. But it is better to take actions, fail, and try again repeatedly than to be so scared of failure that you resort to doing things that only create and maintain the illusion of advancing equity.

I know this is a lot to take in. Bring this up with your team. Ask where your organization or foundation may be guilty of equity offset. Ask it of yourself personally. There is too much at stake; we do not have time for equity offset, fakequity, or equity-washing. We need to take meaningful actions as individuals, as organizations, and as a sector.

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