Moving Through (Not Around) Racial Equity Work

Four lessons we've taken from our own work - and introspection - on diversity, equity and inclusion

By Amanda Holm, Nonprofit Effectiveness Manager, The Boston Foundation

“Look within. Be explicit. Don’t be afraid to be messy. Commit for the long term.” Jennifer Aronson, the Boston Foundation’s (TBF) Associate Vice President for Programs, shared these recommendations for shaping a racial equity lens at this month’s Grantmakers for Effective Organizations national conference. These tips ring true for most social justice work both within the philanthropic community and among our partner nonprofits. Understanding that this work, of looking both inward and outward when bolstering our racial equity lens, is not linear is necessary to move through, and not around, difficult conversations about race, power, and privilege. I would humbly add “be hopeful” to Jennifer’s tips, as there is more traction and more motivated people on similar journeys to building or strengthening the racial equity lens in their work than you might think.

A collage of many small black and white photos is the background and layered over are colorful silhouettes of men and women.

The tools and levers for organizational change and action on the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are numerous, especially for a foundation with such privileged access to resources. Yet, even with those resources, a shared grounding and acknowledgement that this work never stops and that perfectionism will get in the way of progress is crucial, as it can undermine even the best strategies, team trainings, and intentions. Prompted by collective action across our foundation’s leadership and my recent presentation with GuideStar about building a data infrastructure around DEI, I wanted to share some thoughts on steps the Boston Foundation has taken to keeping pushing forward.

As one of the oldest community foundations in the country, the Boston Foundation has long been on the journey to achieve racial equity and inclusion in the Greater Boston area. Founded in 1915, in large part to protect and support the influx of immigrants to Boston, the Foundation has had a rich history of funding organizations and movements that prioritize social justice and lift up the voices of underrepresented and under-resourced communities. And yet, in 2018, we are still very much on that journey, and, in some very real ways, have a long way to go. Here are some of the lessons we have learned as we’ve used demographic data and innovative programming to renew our commitment to racial equity.

1. Change comes from within

At TBF, we are committed to practicing our values every day. Over the course of the past few years, staff members have developed a number of small changes that help ensure that we approach our work with a racial equity lens. For example, within our Program Team we have established a working group whose primary purpose is to lift up new ways we can incorporate DEI into our grantmaking, vendor relationships, operations, hiring, and relationships with the community. We have expanded our grantmaking processes to include more opportunities for community voice and input with such initiatives as Collaborate Boston, and have committed to offering constructive feedback to any applicant who requests it. These small changes have led to a staff that is more responsive and proactive about making decisions to get resources to the communities that have the answers already, but just need support.

2. Data matters—but it’s not the only thing

Like many funders, TBF values data as a measure of progress and impact. We track the outcomes of our grantees, the anecdotes of workshop participants, and the visitors to our websites so that we can better understand how we can serve our constituents. As part of this effort, we track the diversity of the staffs and boards of our nonprofit partners. Right now, the demographic data we are able to collect is limited to gender and ethnicity, but we plan to expand options soon to include gender identity, disability, veteran status, and more. We believe that representation is crucial. Nonprofits that are led by people who represent the communities they serve perform better and fulfill their missions better. We are committed to supporting nonprofits as they progress on their journeys to better representation, as we do the same.

3. Commitment is key

As part of our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we are currently revamping our due-diligence process. By revisiting how we make decisions, we have the opportunity to look back on what has worked, and change what hasn’t worked. This revamp process will include feedback from our nonprofits to ensure the changes we make do not increase their burden, but rather serve to better represent the impactful work they do in the community every day. Moreover, it will prioritize DEI as a key factor for our grantmaking process and will provide support for nonprofits that are still on their journey to creating a more diverse and equitable organization.

4. We are still learning

Above all else, the lesson we have learned from committing to racial equity work is that we are always learning. We recognize that this work has been going on for decades, and will continue to go on for decades to come. We see and appreciate the work of such organizations as the D5 Coalition, the California Endowment, the Kellogg Foundation, and so many others who act as powerful signals to the community that this work is crucial to the nonprofit sector. As we continue to make improvements to our own organization’s processes, data collection, and program implementation, we know we are bound to make mistakes along the way. But we are committed to this work, believe in its success, and welcome your partnership along the way.

What has your journey been like? What tools have you used to inform your racial equity and diversity and inclusion work? I welcome you to reach out to me to share best practices, pitfalls, and how we can work together in this space:

This post originally appeared on the Guidestar blog.