9 questions to help you develop an equity mindset

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Hi everyone. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the anti-transgender laws in Texas, the “don’t say gay” bill in Florida, the murders by right-wingers in Portland, the CDC continuing to be OK with letting disabled people die, and other forms of injustice everywhere, this blog post today may not be too polished and probably not very funny.

The reality is that inequity is pervasive. This is why our sector exists. However, because inequity can be complex and not always obvious, it takes intentionality to develop a mindset of equity, one that often runs counter to how we have been trained or conditioned to view the world. The failure to understand and use this mindset, means we often inadvertently perpetuate inequity. I see a lot of well-meaning colleagues defend or perpetuate terrible philosophies and practices in our sector because they don’t use this mindset, and I sometimes also make these mistakes myself. None of us are infallible.

So, let’s talk about some questions we can use to assess the equity implications in any given situation. To illustrate these points below, I’m going to use various examples but will focus on a situation that has been divisive in our sector: The question of whether staff should be asked to donate to their nonprofits. I am passionately against it, and I wrote about it here. And I know some colleagues are strongly for it. But today’s post is not about rehashing the arguments. It’s about assessing the equity around the arguments. It’s gonna be a little meta!

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Before you quote Dr. King, here are some things you can do to be less of the white moderate he warned about

[Image description: Picture of MLK marching in 1968 with other people, many holding signs with various messages, including “We march for jobs for all now!” “We demand voting rights now!” and “We demand equal rights now!” Picture provided by History in HD on Unsplash]

Today, a whole bunch of people and organizations will be quoting the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., because that’s what we like doing on this day. He was murdered by a white supremacist, and we now cherry pick the quotes that are most inspiring and least likely to cause tension. Few will bring up that he also said these other things, including “Something is wrong with capitalism. Maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

AndWe all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free market capitalism for the poor.”

And “I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting.”

The last one hits especially hard this week, because critical efforts to protect and advance voting rights are being stymied. Yes, by Republicans, but that’s to be expected; they know they will lose the majority of federal elections if voting were fair. But more frustratingly, by two white moderate democrat senators.

The white moderate is the force Dr. King identified as the biggest barrier on the path to an equitable world: I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

While this is applicable to the political world, our sector has also become one giant white moderate sector of well-meaning people who often perpetuate the very injustice we were formed to fight. Last year, I wrote “21 signs you or your organization may be the white moderate Dr. King warned about.” Since then, I have seen more signs of white moderation in nonprofit and philanthropy.

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How “strategic philanthropy” has harmed our sector, and why it refuses to die

[Image description: A grey-and-black striped cat, sitting behind a chess board, set with wooden chess pieces, glaring at the camera. The cat looks kind of menacing. Or is that just me? Image by RickJbrown on Pixabay]

Remember that couple that did a gender reveal party earlier this year and ended up starting a wildfire that lasted two months and burned down 22,000 acres? Gender reveals are ridiculous, corny, and harmful. I don’t think aliens are going to give us advanced technology as long as we keep doing inane things like this.

But what does this have to do with anything? We’ll get there. A long time ago, before Omicron, before Delta, before the original variant, I met with a foundation program officer for coffee. “We’re in a process to figure out our strategic funding priorities this year,” they said, “what are your thoughts on this?” I took a long sip of my hot cocoa, trying to figure out how to sound diplomatic. But I have no poker face and probably looked like this cat.

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Outsider Efficacy Bias: What it is and how it affects our work

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I always joke that when I start writing and producing Nonprofit The Musical, one of the characters would be a consulting robot. It’s a robot that is a consultant, and it repeats exactly what the staff says, but the board actually listens to it! If you’re a consultant, you might be offended by that joke. But let’s be honest, this is one of the reasons we hire consultants, and effective consultants recognize that this is a necessary role they play.

This is because we have a rampant belief in our sector that people from outside our organization/community/geographic area are somehow more knowledgeable and effective than the people in it. I am calling it the Outsider Efficacy Bias (OEB), unless there’s a better name for it. Here are some ways it manifests:

  • Board members insisting on hiring an external candidate to be the ED instead of promoting a qualified person within the organization
  • EDs/CEOs doing the same thing, hiring a staff from outside, often neglecting internal candidates
  • Foundations hiring people from academia or the corporate world, who have no experience in nonprofit, to be the CEO
  • Organizations hiring consultants from outside the geographic area instead of contracting with local consultants who live and work there
  • Organizations hiring local consultants instead of just listening to their staff
  • Conferences booking national and international speakers instead of working with local speakers
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charity:water and other mega-charities, we need to talk about your harmful, archaic views on overhead

[Image description: A greyish-brownish squirrel, standing on a stump, looking directly at the camera, their hands touching and resting on their chest. This squirrel is not happy about the messaging around overhead. Image by Yannick Menard on Unsplash]

Every year at about this time, as people become more inclined to donate to charity for the holidays, memes start floating around regarding nonprofit overhead rates. “Don’t give to these orgs! Only 4 cents of every dollar you donate go to helping people! The other 96 cents go to mansions and truffles for their well-paid executives!” Which is quite ridiculous; most nonprofit executives only have at most two mansions, and consume no more than 100 grams of Périgord black truffles each week. Sadly, the public is pretty clueless regarding our work and are quick to latch on to nonsense regarding overhead. I wrote about it here in How to deal with uninformed nonprofit-watchdogs around the holidays.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest drivers of the narrative around overhead being no-good-very-bad are nonprofits themselves. Specifically, large international organizations with significant brand recognition. They usually do vital, life-saving and life-changing work, so I am not here to question their programs and services. However, in their quest to raise funds, they continue to use archaic messaging around overhead that are toxic for the entire sector. Here are a few examples:

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