What if Jeff Bezos Used Food Banks? An Examination of How NPOs Subsidize Affluence

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

Via Community Centric Fundraising.

How would you feel if I told you that Jeff Bezos got his groceries for free from a food bank?

If he did, it would probably shock and anger you, right? These feelings come up because we as a society assume that nonprofits exist to support those who are unable to access the services they need, and in our country, one of the biggest barriers to access is wealth. So, it is safe to assume that NPOs do not exist to help people like Jeff Bezos.

But this assumption is not always the reality.

“Many of our country’s economic elite directly and regularly use nonprofit services at a discount or for free.”

Outside of frontline nonprofits (those that offer immediate services for those in crisis, such as disaster relief, food banks, housing shelters, etc.), many of our country’s economic elite directly and regularly use nonprofit services at a discount or for free. From Mercer Island to Aspen Valley, affluent folks access subsidized activities from nonprofits, such as guided nature walks at ski resorts, science camps at aquariums, art activities in high-end museums, and more. They enjoy all of these activities for free or at very low-cost.

Sounds unbelievable, right? Does it make you wonder why nonprofit organizations (NPOs) would financially subsidize their services for the wealthy?

It’s a good question, and one we are going to examine here.

To start with, we must first understand how these services are tied to donations.

Here is what most of us assume:

FIRST: A specific societal inequity is identified, one that most greatly impacts those who cannot afford to offset the impact on their own.

IN RESPONSE: An NPO is created to address said inequity and support those who cannot afford these services otherwise.

TO PROVIDE SERVICES: The NPO solicits donations to make its services accessible.

IN RESPONSE TO SOLICITATIONS: Wealthy donors give funds to NPO to discount the service.

ONCE FUNDED: The NPO uses donations to provide accessible services to those most impacted by the inequity.

Seems logical, right? And it can work this way, like with frontline NPOs. But when we zoom out to the broader nonprofit sector, we will see there’s more to the story, especially when we consider how we use our services to secure funding.

What often happens instead is something like this:

FIRST: A specific societal inequity is identified, one that most greatly impacts those who cannot afford to offset the impact on their own.

IN RESPONSE: An NPO is created to address said inequity and support those who cannot afford these services otherwise.

TO PROVIDE SERVICES: The NPO uses its services to engage wealthy donors in order to solicit donations to make the service accessible for all patrons.

IN RESPONSE TO SOLICITATIONS: Wealthy donors give funds to the NPO to discount the service.

ONCE FUNDED: NPO uses donations to provide free or discounted services for ALL patrons, including those who can afford to pay more and/or are not impacted by the identified inequity.

To illustrate how this works, let me give an example from my own life.

“If a majority of the folks served by these classes were affluent and could easily afford the “full price” tuition and beyond — why were they only paying $10/kid?”

I used to work at an environmental education nonprofit located in an extremely wealthy community, one in which a vast majority of residents were well-beyond comfortable — they were affluent. These folks were the primary users of this nonprofit’s services because it was located smack dab in the middle of this affluence.

Just like with many other nonprofits, the services offered were designed to be extremely affordable. For example, a 2-hour kids art class was priced at only $10/child. There were scholarships available for folks who needed additional support, but to take advantage of this, lower-income folks would have to spend money and time to travel to this nonprofit’s campus (#HousingSegregationInEverything).

If a majority of the folks served by these classes were affluent and could easily afford the “full price” tuition and beyond — why were they only paying $10/kid?

Based on countless conversations over the years with NPO professionals, the theory goes like this: NPO engines run off donations, and we often use discounted or free services to engage wealthy people and then cultivate them over time to donate. Potential large donors send their kids to a summer camp or they take a nature walk at a ski resort, they get on a mailing list, and hopefully down the road, they give a large donation.

So, why is that a problem? It seems to work, right? Even though this can work, I believe it does so with many harmful effects.

5 harmful effects that result when we subsidize our programs for rich people

1. It lowers service-providers wages

One of the most harmful ways NPOs keep prices down is by underpaying staff.

At the aforementioned NPO, I was a college graduate in a job that was nationally considered highly competitive, and my “compensation” was a stipend of $25/day (I worked 40 hours a week) and a shared room in a dormitory with utilities.

Here’s what my compensation didn’t include: health insurance, retirement benefits, student loan deferment, food, and more. It also did not take into account the high cost of living in the surrounding affluent community. In short, if you wanted to work at this organization, you had to be able to afford to work there. The low-cost classes provided by me for the affluent clients was made possible because I wasn’t paid well.

2. It limits staff diversity

Statistically, white people are better able to afford working for lower pay (like $25/day). BIPOCs in our country by and large have less accumulated wealth than white people. So it’s not surprising that when an NPOs offers low wages in a geographical area that has low racial diversity and high cost of living, we end up with lower racial diversity of staff in these NPOs. To further compound the issue, if these NPOs promote from within like so many do, you get a homogenous staff pipeline at all levels.

3. It further devalues our services

An argument I’ve heard in favor of keeping NPO service costs low for affluent clients is that these folks are “shopping the market as savvy consumers.” This brings a for-profit perspective into the nonprofit sector, and pits NPOs against each other, so that rather than working together to complement each other’s services, NPOs try to outcompete each other to provide the “best deal” and entice potential wealthy donors. But, many of our NPOs exist because the service they provide is already undervalued and underfunded by society. So, it is counterintuitive to further decrease our pricing because it reinforces the idea that our service is “low-value.”

To illustrate this, let’s go back to my experience with the NPO above: I would often hear complaints from wealthy parents, like “the NPO down the road only charges $8/child so why are you charging $10?” or even arguments to not pay at all because “I donate to here so this should be included.” These were the same parents who would casually share, “We just sent little Johnny heli-skiing for his 10th birthday,” an experience which costs probably about $2,000 , while I was earning $25/day to teach little Johnny and 15 of his friends.

Using free or discounted services may bring potential wealthy donors in the door, but it does not increase their perception of the value of our services; instead, it reinforces the perception that our services are not worth much. And this perception by those in power is part of the reason why our services are needed to begin with.

4. It promotes inter-team disparities

I have often found that the staff providing the services of the NPO are typically paid less than their philanthropy team counterparts. This is often justified by how much each team “brings in” financially.

For example, at the organization I previously worked at, I only “brought in” $10/child whereas a gift officer might bring in a $500K donation. And, in contrast to me, the gift officers were paid a livable wage for their work. And all staff knew of the pay difference between the teams … which created a lot of disharmony between two teams that needed to work together.

As mentioned above, the services provided by an NPO are already undervalued by society, so if we keep justifying paying service-staff less because of how much they “bring in,” we end up perpetuating the very inequities our NPOs were created to uproot. And, if we don’t address internal pay equity, there is the added negative impact to critical inter-team relationships.

5. It incentivizes NPOs to modify services for the wealthy

When programs, especially education programs, are used to entice wealthy people in ways that secure a donation, the program content tends to change from what is needed to really achieve our missions (such as systems-change education) to what the potential donors in the audience will be more comfortable learning (such as systems-reinforcement education).

As an environmental educator in front of a group of potential donors, I am far less encouraged to talk about the history and impacts of inequitable wealth distribution and how this contributes to environmental harm. I’m instead encouraged to talk about resource distributions for squirrels and flowers and worms. The content ultimately becomes “safer” for a potential donor in the audience so that we are more likely to get the gift. But the service is then less impactful for making the real change our missions require.

So, what can we do about this?

The practice of subsidizing affluence is deeply embedded in our culture, but changing our fee-for-service model is a big way NPOs can stop it. But it requires fundamentally changing how we think and act about money — and talking about money, especially with those in high-powered positions can be uncomfortable. So, if you do tackle it, expect waves — big ones.

But! Just because something is hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, right? So, here is a very simplified four-step plan that will at least spark good conversation at your organization.

The four-step plan

Step 1: Analyze what your service programs actually cost

Many NPOs have a hard time distilling the actual cost to provide services, but it is critical to revising a fee-for-service structure, so take the time to do it. And when you do, be sure to include equitable compensation for staff who are providing the service. This one will be a hard conversation, especially if pay-transparency is not part of your organization’s culture. But, this is absolutely fundamental if we want to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem. Have the hard conversations.

Step 2: Establish the actual “full price” for the service and build the analysis into philanthropy communications.

This is key because we can’t just raise fees out of nowhere. We need to explain the process above and how doing this will help us better achieve our mission. We need to clearly state how the previous structure was part of the system we are trying to change, and by redesigning our fees-for-service we will center the needs of those most-impacted rather than the expectations of those least-impacted.

Step 3: Offer a sliding scale for clients based on their self-determined needs.

Bluntly sharing the “full price” can jar affluent clientele used to getting a bargain for your services. By offering an opt-in sliding scale, we can communicate the real cost of making equitable change while allowing folks to self-determine how much they can afford.

This self-determination is regularly used in frontline NPOs. For example, I could use a food bank to get my groceries for free, but I won’t unless I financially need to. We have a societal understanding that if I take free food from a bank when I could afford to pay for it, I would be taking it away from someone who really needs the service . We need to cultivate that sensibility among affluent patrons of all NPO, not just frontline NPOs.

(FYI, I am not advocating to increase prices for low-income clients. I do not want anyone to unintentionally shame low-income clients for accepting support. While prices for affluent clients will increase as a result of this analysis, prices for low-income clients should at least stay the same if not decrease as they will be better supported by this new pricing structure.)

Step 4: Lastly, keep asking for the donation.

After the “full price” is shared with the clear rationale, ask the affluent clients to make tax-deductible donations for any contributed funds beyond the price. We have to be confident in our communication and believe that once we are clear and honest with our donors, they will donate, not because they got a discount for a class but because they believe in our work and see that we are living the change the world needs. And they are playing an active role in this, both in their donation and their payment for our services.

We don’t tend to think about how fees-for-service in NPOs can either support or undermine our equity intentions, but doing this hard work will take us one step closer to building a world in which everyone can survive and thrive, one where we feel proud of both the work we do and how we do it.

And, for some extra motivation, keep reminding yourself that you don’t want to be the NPO that gave Jeff Bezos a handout!

Header image: photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

The (White) Elephant in the (Board) Room: How White Board Members Can Step Up By Stepping Aside

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

Hi, Everyone! My last blog on racial equity and boards received a lot of support, so thank you for reading and sharing it! Surprisingly, it also received a number of requests from white board members asking me to push them even harder. That is amazing! Yes! Let’s do it! As a response to those requests, my latest board-focused blog below asks some hard, introspective questions about power. If you are a white board member on a majority white board and you want more of an RE push, this blog is for you! That said, consider the last blog like algebra class and this one is like calculus: If you felt really challenged by the last one, spend time to digest it more thoroughly before jumping to this one. Because this one is gonna poke at some sensitive spots, so you’ll need the resilience that comes from regularly grappling with racial equity and whiteness. Okay. You’ve been warned. Let’s go!

Acronyms used: HWL – Historically White Led organization; RE – Racial Equity; BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; BLM – Black Lives Matter; NPO – nonprofit organization.  

Welcome back, white board members, to the next step in your RE board development work! (note: be sure to read my last blog on racial equity and boards before launching into this one) So much of our effort to change our boards focuses on diversifying the board composition and bringing in more BIPOC members. But today, I want to take a closer look at the other demographic already in the room: the white board members. And, as part of my commitment to offer practical strategies in these blogs, I included a step-by-step activity for you to engage in.

Let’s start by setting a scene: imagine for a moment…

It’s a Friday night and you want to take your family out for a good meal, so you call the restaurant ahead of time and make a reservation. You show up on time, the kids are hungry, and you’re ready to enjoy tasty food after a hard week. You see that the restaurant is super crowded (this is a pre-covid scenario), and the host apologizes and says they don’t have capacity right now and asks you to wait to the side. You and the family do so patiently. 

As you wait, you notice a few things: 

  • Only about 1/3 of the diners are actively eating, and the rest seem to be finished with their meals and are simply chatting with each other at their tables; 
  • A few new parties enter the restaurant and get seated right away even though they don’t have reservations and haven’t been waiting (but you notice their “sleight of hand” tips to the host); 
  • Some of the other folks who are waiting get frustrated and leave vowing never to return to this restaurant; 
  • Some of the other folks who are waiting notice another restaurant across the street that has space and they leave quietly to go there. 

Finally, at around 8:30pm, a party gets up and leaves their table, and the host rushes over to you with apologies and asks if you’d like to follow him to the table. How does all this make you feel?

Now, let’s replace this hypothetical restaurant with your board room. The two are actually very similar:

  • Board rooms also have limited capacity;
  • It takes time for board members to “leave the table” (term limits); 
  • Not everyone in the board room is actively engaged and are simply taking up space (as nonprofit reformer, Vu Le, says: “I have a Rule of One-Thirds when it comes to boards: 1/3 of them are helpful [and] 2/3 of nonprofit boards are useless or harmful.”);
  • There are many ways to get onto boards that aren’t always consistent or advertised to the public (i.e. applications, recommendations from current members, recruitment by staff, a large donation, etc.) and this causes confusion as to who gets a seat, when, and why; 
  • Boards have lost potential members who:
    • Leave to go to other boards; or, 
    • Leave frustrated and offended by the long wait and the lack of communication, and then let their communities know not to trust this organization. And the board members in the room may never realize the damage they have caused with their passivity. 

Sound familiar??? This frustratingly common scenario is way overdue for analysis. So, that is exactly what we are going to do today! We need to stop being passive “diners” taking up space in limited capacity rooms. We need to actively examine our board rooms, not only for who we want to bring into the room but who is already in the room and if they should still be there.  This is going to be hard because dominant culture does not encourage people in power (especially white people) to question whether they should have that power, how they got that power in the first place, and if those methods were racially biased. So, the activity below may be uncomfortable. But that’s good! If we’re not at least a bit uncomfortable doing this work, then we’re not doing it right! 

Step 1: Establish context:  

  • Remember that NPO board members are volunteers. Yes, they are volunteers with a lot of responsibility and many even bring in large donations or powerful connections, but board members do not get paid by the organization for their work. So, any discussion about who should or should not have a board seat will not result in losing a job. Egos are at stake here, not paychecks.
  • Let’s acknowledge the fear: you may be concerned that having hard conversations about whiteness and power with board members will result in them feeling hurt or offended, which may lead them to pull their donation or access to their networks. That is a possibility. We need to prepare properly for hard conversations, but we also need to give members the benefit of the doubt that they want to live their beliefs and will continue to support the good work of the organization without being “paid with power” to do so. 

Step 2: Examine your beliefs:

With that context in mind, let’s establish some shared beliefs. I crafted this list from the many npo racial equity and/or “we stand in solidarity with BLM” statements out there. So, keep in mind that I am not inventing these beliefs but rather restating them here as context for the self-reflection questions later. 

“I believe…”Circle one:
I believe systemic racism is real and directly connected to the work of my nonprofit.YES     NO
I believe racism can manifest in any/all structures, including in the structures of the board I serve on.  YES     NO
I believe npo boards have power, which impacts the communities their npos serve.  YES     NO
I believe BIPOC understand racism in ways white people can’t (i.e. reading “The New Jim Crow” as a white person is not the same as living as a Black person in America), and this understanding should be centered in racial equity work.  YES     NO
I believe BIPOC have or can cultivate the necessary governing/leadership skills to serve as board members.*YES     NO
I believe those who are most impacted by racial equity decisions should have the power to make them.
(note: If you amended this in your head to read, “have input on decisions” rather than “have the power to make them,” ask yourself if you really believe the previous two statements.)
YES     NO
I believe white allies on boards play a critical role in racial equity, and their actions should center the needs and voices of those most impacted by racial injustice.YES     NO
I believe racial equity work is urgent and needs to happen now.YES     NO

Step 3: Ask yourself some hard questions:

If you answered YES to any of the belief statements above, and especially if you did so for all of them, then continue to the questions below. These questions are designed to help you examine the power you have as a board member and why you have it. 

  1. Why do you serve on your board? 
    • This seems like a simple question but let’s really analyze this. Most board members serve because they want to support an organization working on a cause they really believe in. Members are often asked to join a board because they have skills, networks, or experiences they can contribute to the benefit of the organization. But think about that logic for a second: being on a board is a power-position; does this mean we think board members are only willing to donate their skills, networks, or experiences in exchange for decision-making power? Is that true for you? Are you only willing to donate your services in exchange for a board seat? Or, would you be willing to donate your skills, networks, and/or experiences but without the final decision-making power of a board seat? If not, why not? 
  2. Are you a member of the community/ies most impacted by the injustice your nonprofit is trying to address? 
    • Whatever sector your nonprofit serves – education, environment, housing instability, food scarcity, etc. – I can guarantee you that middle to upper class white people are NOT the most impacted by its injustices. So, if you are a middle to upper class white person and therefore least impacted by the work of your nonprofit, should you have the power to make decisions that affect those who are most impacted? Really grapple with this question. Clearly articulate your rationale and hold it up against the beliefs above. 
  3. Are you taking action to be a white ally on your board?
    • As stated in the beliefs, we need white allies in this work to collaborate with BIPOC and leverage their privileges to identify and uproot racial bias in systems and build real, antiracist solutions. In other words, all “diners” need to be engaged and active in RE work when sitting in this limited capacity “restaurant.” As a white person, are you doing that RE work on your board? If so, what is that work? Attending meetings or working on a gala once a year is not RE work. If you attend meetings and hold the room accountable to evaluate their decisions with an antiracist lens, that is RE work. If you work on the gala and use your influence to equitably fill the room and contract a keynote on racial justice in your sector, that is RE work. If you are not doing this work, why not? What are the expectations of allyship for your white board members? Is there an unspoken assumption that the “new” board members (i.e. BIPOC) will be the ones to take on the RE work, and it’s optional for the “veteran” members?
  4. Does your board turnover match the urgent rate of injustice? 
    • When working with majority white boards, I often hear, “we need to make room at the table for BIPOC to join.” But with limited seating, the only way to make room now is for the folks already there to leave. Are members only rolling off at the rate of your board term limits? Does this rate match the rate of the injustice your organization is trying to address? I have yet to hear a nonprofit director or board member say that their work isn’t urgent and doesn’t need to be addressed right now. If you believe your nonprofit work is urgent and that work is directly connected to systemic racism (see beliefs above), then developing the proper composition of your board to do that work most effectively needs to be just as urgent. Would you be willing to give up your seat before your term limit in order to make space for someone who is more impacted by the decisions being made at the board table? (note: this does not mean you would have to leave the work or the organization. There are other ways to contribute…see below.)
  5. Have you considered flipping your role? 
    • Many majority white boards establish “advisory boards” comprised of the individuals most impacted by the injustices their npo is working to uproot: ex. an environmental org may have an advisory board of Indigenous Tribal Members. These folks are asked to “advise” the white majority board on decisions but they do not have the power to make these decisions on their own. Why not flip that model? As a least impacted person, would you be willing to serve as an advisor to a board comprised of folks who are most impacted? You could share your expertise as a policy-maker, lawyer, program-specialist, etc. If giving up this power makes you uncomfortable, dig into that. Go back to the list of beliefs above. Which of those beliefs are connected to this option of stepping up by stepping aside, and do you believe those?

Step 4: Make a plan…then, do it!

Congratulations for making this far into this activity! Now, you may be asking, “what can I do about all this?” Here’s my recommendation: 

  • Do this work intentionally, not reactively. You don’t want to cause harm or jeopardize the legal status of your organization by making rash decisions. Make a plan, but make sure it has an urgent timeline that matches the rate of the injustice your organization is working to address.
  • Redefine what it means to be “qualified” to serve on your board. Base your rationale on the beliefs you stated in your RE and/or BLM Solidarity statements. Ask yourself, “what do we really believe in, and what are we willing to do to live our beliefs?”
  • Develop a pipeline of potential members who meet your new definition of “qualified.” If you need support creating a pipeline of BIPOC board members, consider partnering with an organization whose goal it is to get BIPOC professionals on boards, like the Black Board of Directors Project. Or, really put-your-money-where-your-solidarity-statement-is and hire a recruiting firm (BIPOC owned and operated, please, like BIPOC Executive Search).  
  • Have the hard conversations with your board chair and/or executive committee about who needs to have decision-making power and who can advise those with power in order to best meet the needs of the work (i.e. step up by stepping aside).
  • Examine your board matrix to prioritize who is in the board room and why. Related, hash out the role of white ally board membersand how they will be held accountable to those standards.
  • And finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. This is challenging and very nuanced work. And it needs to happen now. If you want support in this, please reach out to me. I am here to help. You got this; I got you; together, we can make change. 

It’s time we call out the (white) elephants in the (board) room!


*I specifically phrased this belief to read “have or can cultivate” the necessary skills to govern as opposed to just “have” the skills because there is bias in recruiting only for established expertise and not the ability to develop them. To start with, many of the skills NPO boards seek are from sectors that are historically white, like fundraising, law, and finance, so that means without specific recruiting criteria that prioritizes racial diversity, you are more likely to have multiple white fundraising professionals, white lawyers, and white CPAs on your board. Because of this dynamic, many white majority boards subconsciously believe there aren’t any BIPOC professionals out there and they need to “lower the qualifications bar” in order to bring on BIPOC board members. Stop that thinking in its tracks. It is flat out wrong and reeks of implicit bias.There are highly qualified BIPOC professionals out there. Just because you only have experience with white professionals speaks more to the history of the professions you are recruiting from. It also speaks to who is attracted to your organization…and who isn’t. Really examine your needs and intentionally recruit BIPOC who have the skills you need. For example, if you need HR experience, then recruit Black HR professionals. Or, consider what skills new board members can learn rather than only recruiting those who have accreditations (i.e. do you really need a CPA on a board in order to run a financial report?). Finally, consider what you are trading if you unwittingly prioritize skills like fundraising as equal to or in higher value than the experience of BIPOC in a racially biased society. Which understanding is teachable and which only comes with lived experience?

Header image: photo by Headway on Unsplash

Actually, We’re Just Getting Started: Considerations for Crafting Solidarity Statements

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

Acronyms used: HWL – Historically White Led organization; BLM – Black Lives Matter

A hand-written sign on the ground that reads “To be silent is to be complicit.” Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash.

It seems like every day there’s another statement from a historically white led organization (HWL) stating that they “stand with Black Lives matter.” Overall, I am really happy that there is a swell of consciousness and recognition among HWLs of the systemic racism against Black people. There are many white leaders out there who are really paying attention with heightened urgency and truly want to make change. In the grand scheme of things, this has the potential to be such an impactful shift in the nonprofit sector to really identify and uproot racism in our systems. But, as I was reading these beautifully crafted statements, I found myself getting frustrated, even angry, about this onslaught of verbal support, and I know I am not alone in this feeling (ex. #ShowtheReceipts is trending on many platforms). Why? Because many of these organizations are the very ones who one year ago, one month ago, even one week ago either overtly or covertly refused to stand with BLM. It used to be too risky to be seen with BLM; now it is too risky NOT to be seen with them. The historic refusal of HWLs to stand with BLM and take real anti-racist action in their organizations has actually contributed to the need for movements like BLM to begin with. In all of those statements out there, there has been little to no acknowledgment of these ironies. Is it any wonder why I and so many others are questioning the authenticity of these statements?

“It used to be too risky to be seen with BLM; now it is too risky NOT to be seen with them.”

This all got me thinking: what do I want to see in a statement to let me know that the organization isn’t just hopping on the solidarity bandwagon? Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Acknowledgement of the organization’s past silence and complicity. Chances are at some point in an organization’s recent history, some staffer/client/volunteer/etc. asked the question, “why don’t we openly support BLM?” Or, maybe it was more subtle, like “why do we support diversity and inclusion but not racial justice or anti-racism?” If this was the case for your organization, as it was for so many HWLs out there, please own it. Otherwise, your statements now about standing in solidarity can feel inauthentic. Silence is a form of action. Own the past complicity of this choice. Because in reality, it is this silence on the part of those with power that contributed to the need for Black communities to shout, “Black Lives Matter!”
  2. Self-reflection to understand the rationale of this history and its impacts. Why didn’t more HWLs stand up for BLM before? Maybe they felt it was “too political” (suggestion: dig into the coding on this…what does “political” really mean???), maybe they were worried about offending/losing donors, maybe they didn’t want to be seen as radical. Whatever the reason, please own it and explain that you will no longer use it as an excuse. Because if you don’t take time to uproot the implicit bias in your past rationale, it will keep coming up over and over again in the future to stop your progress as you try to take action for BLM.
  3. Acknowledgment of the violence. For every Black person who is killed by racist violence, like George Floyd, there are thousands more whose lives are also impacted every day by the same systemic oppression: jobs not offered, schools not funded, compensation not fairly provided, avenues cut off, microagressions endured. Daily. But it took violence and the subsequent outrage of an entire community to wake your organization up to the point of making a public statement. Why? Please really grapple with this question and own it. And please promise to never again wait for this level of violence before taking action. 
  4. Commit to real action informed by Black stakeholders. “Standing” is an action, so I want to know what actions your organization will take and how you will choose those goals. This is a golden opportunity to center and amplify Black voices! Even committing to meeting with Black stakeholders specifically to set these goals for your org is an action, a first step. And if you do this, please compensate these stakeholders for their time to work with you on this plan. Remember: they are helping YOU bring to life your commitment to BLM, not the other way around. 
  5. Publicly state a timeline. This is a major complaint I hear from BIPOC staffers and stakeholders: HWLs so often promise to make change but do not provide timelines to follow up. Just like with any strategy, give yourself a “report back” deadline and share this with your community members. Otherwise, without this accountability, it is likely that these actions will simply be pushed off when some other stressor enters the organizational system (as history has so often taught us).
  6. Authentically report back on progress. I know that organizations will not succeed in everything they try. But, it is okay to try, fail, learn from failure, and try again. This is how we grow, and this growth is not easy. We need to be comfortable with imperfection because we will likely not hit every target the first time we try, but we need to recognize why we didn’t, be able to explain how we will adjust to do it better, and have the developed resilience to stick with it. (one major caveat here – trying and failing at the expense of Black people is NOT okay. Take the time in your initial planning to identify and implement ways to mitigate fallout if failure to achieve a goal should occur. This takes deliberate intentionality and will be more easily addressed if planning is done with Black stakeholders from the start.)

If an organization makes a statement that takes all this into account, I would feel excited and engaged.* I would want to follow them, to learn more about them and support them by holding them accountable, and maybe even get involved as a volunteer or a donor if I see evidence of their work. In short, an organization that made a statement like this would take a critical step towards building a relationship with me, not just making a statement at me. But, crafting a statement like this may be hard, so as part of my commitment to offer practical strategies in these blogs, I drafted a template for organizations to use as a straw horse: 

“We didn’t stand up for BLM before. We were scared and didn’t want to risk losing our largest contracts/donors/non-Black stakeholders. We now see that our silence and lack of action was complicit in the systemic oppression of Black people. And we are so sorry that it took so much violence against Black people to make us see this. So, we commit to taking risk, speaking out, and working hard from today on. We will deliberately analyze our organizational systems and structures to expose and uproot anti-Black bias. We will set these goals with our Black community members in ways that amplify their voices and needs. We will report back transparently on these goals every ____ through our website, email, etc. We will share what went well, what didn’t, what we learned, and how we will apply that learning to move forward. This is how we will earn the honor of saying that we stand with BLM.”

This is not a plug-n-play statement and it’s definitely not one-size-fits-all, but it should provide a foundation to start from and good fodder for discussions. And I hope it helps because I truly want this current wave of consciousness to succeed. Because we can’t and shouldn’t push off radical change any longer. Now’s the time, and we’re just getting started.

If you’d like to discuss how I may be of further support to your organization, please reach out. You got this; I got you; together we can make change.

*Please note that I am speaking for myself as an Asian-American cis-hetero woman who works professionally as a racial justice consultant. My recommendations are informed by my lived and learned experiences and the input of my BIPOC colleagues and friends, but I do not speak for anyone else.

Header image: photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

“If You Like It Then You Shoulda Put a RE-ng On It!” Moving Nonprofit Boards Towards Real Racial Equity (RE) Commitments

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

Acronyms used: RE – Racial Equity; BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color; HWL – Historically White Led organization; ED – Executive Director; NPO – Nonprofit; DEI – Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

Author’s note: I wrote this blog 3 weeks ago, but I couldn’t post it and pretend as if the past 7 days haven’t happened. In the nonprofit sector, we MUST ground all of our work in the context of the greater context of legalized racism, and that starts with identifying and uprooting racist structures in our own organizations. Vu Le wrote an excellent blog on this recently, and my blog below focuses on one of the many pieces he calls out: the nonprofit board. The smaller organizational systems we engage with daily reinforce and are reinforced by the greater systems, and in nonprofits, the board systems are often the least examined even though these structures can make or break the racial equity work of the organization. So, board members, this one’s for you.

I work with a lot of nonprofit Executive Directors who ask me, “how do I bring my board along on our organization’s racial equity journey???” I get it. I am a former ED myself, and I’ve worked with and served on boards of all kinds. Often, these boards and their members are well-intended but rarely expected, encouraged, resourced, and/or held accountable to do their own work beyond “embracing diversity and inclusion” in the organization. And that lack of commitment and subsequent lack of action is a serious problem because of the leadership role boards play in npos*. But there are ways to address these challenges and make real change on your boards! And, there is a LOT of desire by board members themselves to do so! So, as part of my effort to post more practical equity tools, I’m sharing some of my favorite board resources, a sample RE document you can use, and some hard-learned advice to help shift nonprofit boards towards real RE commitments. 

Let’s start by painting a picture of what a board commitment to equity could look like…

Imagine this scene: The Board and Racial Equity (RE) are strolling through a park, enjoying the fine weather. Action!

The Board and Racial Equity walking in the park… Photo by Shaojie on Unsplash.

Board: Did you know that today is our anniversary? Two whole years together.

RE: Really? That long, huh?

Board: Yup. Two years ago today we crafted that equity statement and posted it on our website.

RE: Wow. Time really flies.

Board: Since then, we’ve been spending time together learning about justice, taking implicit bias tests. We even brought in that trainer to talk about white supremacy culture, remember that?

RE: I remember. Good times.

Board: Well, I’ve been thinking lately, I want more than just casually learning about you, RE. I’m ready for a real commitment. I want to move beyond just having good intentions. I want to make this real, RE!

RE: Are you sure? We’ve been here before, Board, and we always dance right up to the line of action and then stop. What makes this time different?

Board: I know, RE, I know. I’ve said it so many times before, and each time I always backed down. Like that time that large donor met you and got really uncomfortable, and I caved. Or that time our Executive Director retired, and I said I didn’t have time to do a full hiring process and make a real commitment to you.

But you always held me accountable to a bar that I have never been held to before, RE, and to be honest, that scared me. I’ve never been pushed as much as I have been with you. You have shown me how much more I can be, how much more I need to be if I really want to lead. And, I took your advice! I talked with the community members most impacted by the injustices we are trying to address…they want us to be together, too! They said that if I really want to serve them, I need to make a real commitment to you. 

And that made me see that I am ready to take real action with you, RE. I will stop saying that my role is to just “support the staff” as they work towards you. I will stop hiding behind the excuse of only having 6 meetings per year. I want to examine my recruitment matrix and bring on new members from the communities most impacted by injustice. I want to overtly talk about overrepresentation, not just underrepresentation. I want to retool Robert’s Rules of Order to amplify nondominant voices, and I want to dig out my dusty bylaws and examine them for the racism deeply embedded there. I want you, RE, to be my lens. Heck, I want to get Lasik so you’re not even a lens that needs to be put on! I want to be the Board you believe I can be!

RE: Wow, Board! This is a lot to take in. If we do this, it’s going to be hard, you know that, right?

Board: I know.

RE: You have members who don’t acknowledge our commitment, some of whom are incredibly uncomfortable when I’m even brought up in conversation.

Board: I know. I will change that. I will hold all my members to the same standards and actions and no longer expect just our new BIPOC members to tow this line. RE, I’m ready. Let’s do this. Let’s make this real.

RE: Oh, Board! Since the first 501c3 was established in 1954, I’ve been waiting to hear those words! Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

Cut, print, that’s a wrap! 

Don’t you just love a happy ending? Well, it’s actually a beginning because if you dig into that story, you can see all the work that board is now committed to taking on, the real actions that will make their commitment to RE stronger. So, how can you move your board to “put a ring” on Racial Equity? Here are a few resources:

  1. If you’re interested in better understanding why board action towards RE is important, here are a couple resources I love: Activating Race Equity Problem Solving on NPO Boards; and Diversifying Boards Means Ceding Control: Are White NPO Leaders Ready? These are only a couple of the MANY out there**, but they’ll get you started and they have lots of good embedded references to follow, as well. 
  2. If you’re interested in a step-by-step process, this is a resource I’ve mentioned on my blog before, but it is so good it deserves another shout out: ProInspire’s Equity in the Center Awake to Woke to Work. It offers clear and tangible ways (with rubrics!) to help you “pull the board lever” in your organization. 
  3. If you’re interested in board info in general, I always find BoardSource.org really helpful. Not everything they offer is RE focused, but they do have helpful resources on DEI and great templates, such as matrices and bylaws. 
  4. Lastly, for a template to challenge the conundrum of changing board demographics, check out the my Board Recruitment Commitment to RE. This commitment is bold and open and doesn’t hide behind pretty or coded words. It can be an internal document (not everything needs to be published externally), acting as a guide for the board to change membership changes over time. If this commitment were adopted, you can see how many other board policies would be examined as a result of this one: the recruitment matrix, onboarding documents, bylaws, member assessments, etc. A commitment of this level would be the result of a LOT of hard work, but it is not an end-product; instead, it is a beginning that ripples out, providing members more and more opportunities to actively demonstrate their commitment to RE. A board that makes this commitment would really put a REng on it!  
Sample Board Recruitment Commitment. Image courtesy of Sapna Sopori.

 Finally, here is some hard-learned advice that will hopefully help you on this journey:

  1. Being the leader on this does not mean you have to have all the answers, but it does mean you need to be in it for the long haul. Making a real RE commitment is not something the board can dabble in, picking up RE and putting it down as stress enters and exits the system. That’s the touch-and-go mentality you’re trying to get away from. If you’re serious, and if you’ve gotten this far in this blog you must be, just know this will be hard and the successes may be small and take time to achieve. But progress can be made! My advice to sustain your sanity: document those successes because you can look back on them to spur your stamina over time. Trust me: this documentation actually helps, and I wish more boards did this as part of an annual board progress assessment, not in a “pat ourselves on the back for doing nothing” way but rather a “what did we set out to do, where did we succeed, where did we fall short, why, and how will we move forward” kind of way. It may feel slogging at times, but nevertheless, she persisted, am I right?
  2. Leading this effort will take an extra toll if you are a BIPOC board member at the helm. It is exhausting to uproot the bias you experience on a daily basis, and that goes double if you’re volunteering your time to do it. In addition to the assessment advice above, I recommend exploring ways up front to sustain your energy that address racism in the professional sphere. Talk to your board chair or ED about allocating board resources to support your health to lead this challenging work. For example, does the board have funds set aside for members to attend professional networking sessions (like Future for Us) and BIPOC affinity groups (like, EPOC or the BIPOC Project)? Can you use board meeting time and space to host a BIPOC affinity group if you are fortunate enough to have multiple BIPOC board members? Your insight and membership are critical to achieving the RE vision, so build in ways to support YOU from the start because you’ll need it. (And, if you’re a white board member reading this, PLEASE SUPPORT YOUR BIPOC PEERS!!! If you want a resource on how to do this, check out these guidelines for white allies from Racial Equity Tools.)
  3. Create a coalition for change! Are there others on the board who are also committed to this work?Can you convene them to shore up energy before taking it to the whole board? This is especially helpful with large boards who don’t meet often or those that have had high turnover. Bring these allies in. You will need their support in this journey, and you can work together to become a united force speaking with a clear and consistent voice. This may be the start of your board RE committee!
  4. If your organization has an equity statement, center it in your rationale for the board work in RE: What are the responsibilities and tasks of the board and how can these support or hinder this vision? Does our board reflect the communities most impacted by the injustice our organization strives to address? If the board has already expressed a desire to address equity (as so many have), why do we want to undertake this work? What are we willing to risk to do so, and what do we risk if we don’t? etc.***

Okay! That is it for this blog and I hope it was helpful. I know that this is hard work, but you don’t have to do it alone: I can help! If you want more support than the resources and tips above, contact me to discuss how I can help you address racial equity at the board level. This is absolutely critical work and you should not have to do it without support. You got this; I got you; together, we can make this happen. 


* As a refresher or if you’re new to working with boards, npo boards are designed to guide visioning and planning and oversee the macro-level organizational functions; they hire, assess, and (if needed) fire the ED; they fundraise; they network; they donate their skills and expertise. NPO boards are often made up of highly passionate, highly skilled volunteers who believe deeply in the mission of the organization. But they are also highly removed from the npo’s daily functions and they spend maybe 30 hours a year together as a group. Then, there’s the diversity issue!!! Most npo boards are majority white, even in sectors most impacted by injustice that is perpetuated/justified/upheld by whiteness (the mind reels with contradictions!). There are oh so many reasons why this dynamic exists and I’m not going to get into all that here (if you want to, though, check out this Board Source report or see the many links below). But all this  – the demographic makeup of the board, its general detachment from the organization, each other, and communities served, and the lack of real accountability to move beyond verbal commitments – has made addressing racial equity on HWL boards a serious challenge.

**More resources on board development: 

***If your organization does not have an equity statement yet, consider making this the first step in the board’s work towards RE by dedicating board time to work with the staff to create one (use the activity in my blog last month to push this process). Because the board serves the organization, it is very important to envision the organization’s RE journey first; then the board can determine their role in getting the organization there. Also, if you are a board member considering RE, it is highly likely your ED is already thinking about this, like the countless number I’ve talked to lately who are trying to figure out how to bring their boards along. I would bet your ED would LOVE to have a board member approach them to discuss how the board can embrace RE to better support the organization!

Header image: photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Dear White People (Who Want to Support BIPOC Colleagues at Work)

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

Acronyms used: BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color

There is so much pain and suffering in our country right now, especially in BIPOC communities. It pervades all aspects of our daily lives, including work. For those of us fortunate to still be employed, we spend most of our waking hours doing our jobs. And, there is an unspoken and unrealistic expectation that we draw a curtain between the work that we are doing and the lives we are living. The pervasiveness of racism can make this separation harder to maintain for BIPOC than white folks. Many BIPOC colleagues of mine report feeling feeling tired, overwhelmed, exhausted, scared, frustrated…and this can impact focus and productivity at work. I hear from many concerned white professionals that they see this struggle and want to support their BIPOC colleagues in the workplace, but they are unsure how. So, this blog is for you, white colleagues. Here are some actions you can take to share the unfair burden your BIPOC colleagues are forced to carry. 

***Important point of clarification: The suggestions below are NOT about white people “coming to the rescue of poor BIPOC folks.” That is white saviorism, an insidious tool of white supremacy. This blog is meant to give white people ideas on how they can and should take on some of the heavy load forced onto BIPOC by white dominant systems. White ally support should never unintentionally become white saviorism! Do NOT get the two confused. Keep checking back with yourself to make sure you don’t slip into this mentality.*** 

Caveats to my suggestions below: 

  • I do not speak for all BIPOC folks. Everyone has different feelings and needs. Some BIPOC want your support; others don’t. Start with a conversation so you don’t assume. 
  • The suggestions below are not magic solutions that will work in every setting. Many of these suggestions rely on a certain level of pre-existing trust in the group to succeed. 
  • The suggestions below also rely on authenticity (i.e. don’t offer help if you don’t want to be taken up on it).
  • Offers of support should not publicly “call out” the person you are offering them to. Again, conversations should always precede any offer and should be built on trusting relationships. 
  • If you have questions, check with your HR department. I’m not an HR professional and the advice below is from my personal experience. 
  • Finally, as with any suggestion or piece of advice offered anywhere, use your best judgment to determine what will work with your colleagues on your team in your workplace.

Okay, that all said, the first recommendation I have for white colleagues is to take time to understand exactly how exhausting this is on many BIPOC folks and how much more energy this can require from us to remain our most productive selves. Personally, I’m seriously fatigued, distracted, scared, and emotionally drained right now, and I hear this from so many of my BIPOC friends. I will still work hard to get my tasks done on time, but it takes a LOT more of my energy to do so right now and my capacity is low. And, as a cis-hetero Asian American woman, my many privileges buffer me from the full impact of pain out there, so I know that if I’m tired, then my Black friends and colleagues are likely exhausted. In fact, critical race theory has a term for the impacts of accumulated racism in Black American communities: racial battle fatigue. Understanding and acknowledging that this exhaustion/fatigue/etc. is real and very different from what you are facing as a white person is the first step. 

In a small effort to normalize bringing the real world into the workplace, consider replacing the usual prompt at the start of a meeting (“so, how’s everybody doing today?”) with something more honest and vulnerable, like: “The world is really hard right now in so many ways (racism, violence, systemic injustice, COVID, isolation, etc.), and it is definitely harder for those of us who feel those impacts directly and daily. What is one word that describes how you are feeling right now? What is each of us doing to take care of ourselves? How can we take better care of each other on this team?” Again, choose your prompts wisely based on the level of trust and open communication already cultivated on your team. And expect that this will take more time than you may be used to. But, spending some time with your team discussing their realities can be an invitation to bring one’s whole-self into the workplace, which is actually beneficial to all staff, BIPOC and white alike. Note: take mental notes if people share concerns that you may want to follow up on later for more support, and be sure to set aside time to do so with them in private. This work is all about relationship- and trust-building. 

If there is trust already between you and your BIPOC colleague, and if your colleague has verbally expressed concerns around capacity, then consider offering to take appropriate tasks off their plate and/or offering flexibility with deadlines when possible. You may not be taken up on these offers, but they demonstrate tangible options that you put thought into, which is a significant step beyond the kind but generally useless offer of “let me know if I can help.” Note: pay special attention to those two “ifs.” Without those, you may offend rather than support (flip the roles: how would you feel if you didn’t express any bandwidth challenges and a colleague you didn’t have a trusting relationship with offered to take work off your plate??? That’d be weird at best, right?).

Does your sick leave policy cover mental health days? Does racial battle fatigue count as such? If so, share this information with your BIPOC staff so they know they can take a break without jeopardizing their jobs. And, go back to those offers of task-sharing and deadline flexibility so your colleagues not only know they can take leave with pay but they feel assured they won’t be seen as dropping the ball or “slacking” if they do. So many BIPOC have been trained by white dominant society to never let up, to always be on, be ready, be perfect. Sometimes we need to hear that it’s not only okay to take a break but it is supported to do so and it won’t be held against us later. If your sick leave does not cover racial battle fatigue or if you’d like to increase the days for equitable support of your BIPOC staff, talk with your HR department for options. That would be an opportunity for structural change.

Community is critical in times like these, so resourcing BIPOC staff to attend BIPOC-only affinity spaces on work time is incredibly helpful. This is a very tangible way that a white supervisor can value BIPOC staff health in the face of the disparate impacts that affect them. As a BIPOC in the environmental sector, I regularly attend Seattle EPOC gatherings and find them so helpful and rejuvenating. If you are not in the Seattle-area, there are EPOC chapters across the country, and if you’re not in the environmental sector there are many other online/virtual spaces, like the BIPOC Project. Often, resource allocation for experiences like these must be directly tied to work outcomes, so I encourage white supervisors to consider how these types of experiences are professional development and community engagement efforts that benefit the organization.

Finally (and most importantly), please hold other white staffers accountable for racism in the workplace. We don’t need to deal with more of that right now. If you see microagressions, address them when they happen. Don’t wait for a BIPOC staffer to do it, or send a note to the BIPOC staffer later exclaiming how appalled you were at that action. Do it yourself when it happens. Similarly, if a white staffer on your team has a record of microagressions (you know who these people are) and if you are in an authority position, please hand out real repercussions. Don’t make excuses for them or only focus on arranging healing conversations between them and the BIPOC staffer who received their aggression. Healing conversations are great, but they need to be paired with actual repercussions, not substituted for them. Again, talk to your HR to make a plan, but this is the exact opportunity where you can leverage your privilege as a white person and power as a manager to take action.  

There are many other ways white colleagues can demonstrate their support of their BIPOC colleagues, so please share them here and we can all learn. I’d also like to ask that those of us BIPOC who benefit more from white dominant systems and aren’t impacted as greatly by the greater world context, that we consider our roles in supporting our BIPOC colleagues who are taking bigger hits than we are right now. None of this is easy, none of it is one-size-fits-all, but all of it is critical in the fight to uproot racism. 

Side note: for my BIPOC readers, if you are feeling symptoms of racial battle fatigue, please check out this list of networks designed to support your mental health: https://www.self.com/story/bipoc-mental-health-coronavirus. Also check in with your HR department as you may have access to Employee Assistance Plans through your employer.

Header image: photo by Surface on Unsplash.

Overstretched: Finding the Right Fit for Your Racial Equity Rubber Band

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

*acronyms used: HWL – Historically White-Led organization; BIPOC – Black/Indigenous/People of Color

The other day, I was trying to wrap a rubber band around a box that was just too big for the band. I stretched it and stretched it and sure enough, it snapped. But, for some reason, I started crying. It wasn’t because the sound scared me or I hurt myself; rather, I was sad because like that overstretched rubber band, I have been feeling so overstretched lately, too. Before this new COVID world order, I was a lot like a rubber band: I like giving support by holding things together, helping to provide order in disordered places. But since we’ve been in a global pandemic, I’ve felt like I don’t have enough stretch to cover all the things that need support. Everything feels so big, so out of my control, so beyond my ability to help. When that rubber band snapped, I felt like I snapped, too. What could I possibly do that would help with all the chaos in the world? What could I do to change any of the injustices felt at such a large-scale? What use was I, just a little rubber band who had been stretched too far?

And then I realized: it’s not that I have to stretch around all the world’s injustices; instead, I need to choose the right size of issue to wrap myself around to make a difference that will ripple out to the greater world! This may seem like elementary wisdom to drop in a blog, but after many conversations with colleagues and friends, I know I am not alone. A lot of us, especially those who are supposed to provide support and solutions to systemic injustices, need this reminder. I was allowing myself to be swallowed up by the whole, mad, chaotic pandemic, as if my only choice was between solving all of the world’s problems at once or break trying. That feeling is overwhelming and can lead to stifled inaction. And inactivity is exactly what the world does NOT need now! We need more antiracist action! So, instead of trying to wrap myself around all of the systemic injustices surfaced by COVID, I am refocusing myself on the same form of injustices that manifest themselves in the smaller systems I engage with every day. All of these smaller systems support and are supported by the greater system. If we apply ourselves to uprooting injustice in the systems that are within our stretch/control, we can contribute to a larger, more just picture overall. Without breaking ourselves in the process. 

It’s not that I have to stretch around all the world’s injustices; instead, I need to choose the right size of issue to wrap myself around to make a difference that will ripple out to the greater world!

For personal life, I encourage folks to keep learning about how to identify and uproot racism in our daily lives. Here’s an excellent piece titled, “I’m White and I’m Outraged by Ahmaud Arbery’s Murder. Now What?” This is intended for white folks, but as a cis-hetero Asian American woman with much unearned privilege in this world, I found it useful, as well. Donating to organizations doing the frontline work I am not able to is also a way to stay within my stretch while making a difference. Donations can take the form of time, talent, testimony, and/or treasure, so if you are able to provide any of these t’s, reach out to nonprofits that are focusing on providing relief for those most impacted by COVID. Here is a great article in Forbes with a list of national options, and if you’re in the PNW, here is a link to one of my favorites, Front and Centered’s COVID relief fund for frontline workers (note: I do not work for or sit on the boards of any of these nonprofits). Also, if you have children and need ways to support their understanding of COVID and racism, here is a link to one of my favorite teaching websites, Teaching Tolerance’s Supporting Students Through Coronavirus. You can Google more but these are antiracist options to (hopefully) wrap yourself around now without overstretching. 

While the personal stuff is really important, don’t stop there! I spent time this last weekend reminding myself that examining and uprooting racial bias in workplace structures, policies, procedures, and practices is still critical, especially during a pandemic that impacts so many workers unjustly! If we wrap ourselves around work systems and strategically root out bias and replace them with just strategies, our efforts can ripple out to the greater world! To help you with this work, I am committing myself to sharing more tangible workplace activities in my blogs that you can use at your organizations to deconstruct supremacy. 

So, to that end, here is today’s activity: Examining Organizational Racial Equity Statements (see below). We are so trained in white dominant culture to code our words for safety in order to not offend anyone…but who is it that we are worried about offending? (Be honest.) The truth is, these statements need to be more than pretty words to show funders how “woke” we are; these statements need to set a bar for us to reach for, something that pushes us to a high, impactful, urgent, and authentic standard. If these statements use coded language or have unexamined assumptions, they can lose their potency as standard-bearers for our work, thereby allowing us to “skate by.” This is why critical examination is so important: it can keep us real and honest. And, this examination (though challenging) is very much within our control. I focused on race in the questions below, but you can adapt them to focus on any specific “ism” that your organization is trying to uproot. 

That’s it for this month’s blog but I will keep sharing activities and resources to help you identify and uproot organizational injustices. And, please share resources of your own! Together, we can support each other and give everyone a little bit more stretch to do the hard work without breaking in these challenging times!

Sapna Strategies’ Activity to Examine Organizational Racial Equity Statements:

Many organizations have equity statements, so as we craft ours, let’s research what our colleagues are writing! Evaluation of these statements is not meant to unduly praise or criticize any single organization. We have no idea how these statements are being brought to life within the organizations. Also, there may be internal documents not available to external audiences like us. Lastly, there is no “perfect” statement. 

But, these types of statements do hold an organization to a standard. By examining others’ statements critically, we can better craft an equity statement that holds us to a high, impactful, urgent, and authentic standard. Once completed, this statement should be centered in our work, from strategic planning to lesson planning and everything in between. For every action we consider, we must ask the question, “how will this action get us closer to meeting that standard?” 

Steps to this activity:

  1. Find and read at least one racial equity statement from an organization/s that you are interested in, partner with, work at, etc. Many orgs have their statements posted online, so a quick Google search should produce results. 
  2. Then, ruminate on the questions below. REMEMBER: the point of these questions is to get us thinking about our work and our statement, not to judge or poke holes in another organization. Peer review is a helpful tool to help us learn more about ourselves. 
  3. Though most of the questions below are in a yes/no format, it does not mean that “no” answers are bad. As we craft our own statement, if we choose to say “no” to any of the questions, we need to examine the reason why. And then, we need to ask if this reason must to stay inside the organization, or would we be comfortable sharing it externally. Why or why not? Keep asking “why” until it can’t be asked any longer. Every decision does not need to be shared externally; but, every decision does need to be examined and owned by those making it. 

Questions to consider after reading the equity statement/s:

  • Racism: 
    • Does the statement clearly call out racism (or does it generally refer to all the “isms”)? 
    • If so, does it explain why it focused on race? If not, does it explain why it focused on all “diversity?”
    • Is there a clear connection between uprooting racism and the mission of the organization? 
    • Does it acknowledge the sector’s racist past and present?  
    • Does it acknowledge urgency centered on those historically and currently negatively impacted by racism?  
    • Does it acknowledge how those same demographics contributed the least to the disruptions they must now navigate?   
  • Whiteness: 
    • Does it call out underrepresented populations? Overrepresented populations? 
    • Does it explain how whiteness fits into dismantling racism? 
    • If the organization is HWL, does it address how it benefits from the system as it stands? 
    • Does it explain this organization’s role in changing the system?  
  • Structural changes:  
    • Does this statement call for fundamental changes in the structures of the organization, or is it additive in nature, focusing on programs to add or additional work it will do (i.e. not really requiring the organization to examine and uproot the biases baked into its core)? 
    • Does it explain how it will do it?  
    • Does it state what the organization is willing to risk in order to do this? (this can get us past safe actions and push us to “put our money where our mouth is,” so to speak)
  • Future/Urgency: 
    • Does it paint a picture of what a racially equitable future in this sector looks/sounds/feels like?  
    • Does it explain what happens if the organization doesn’t do this work? 
    • Does it explain why this organization needs to uproot racism? 
  • Impressions: 
    • Is it vulnerable?  
    • Do you detect any saviorism or deficit modeling (the overt or covert implication that a perceived “deficiency” or “dysfunctionality” in a nondominant population is the reason for the injustice imposed on them)?  
    • Based on the writing, who do you think crafted the statement: people at the top? White people? BIPOC? Why do you think that? 
  • If this were our organization’s statement, how would it make you feel? 
    • Uncomfortable?  
    • Nervous?  
    • Excited?  
    • Unprepared?  
    • Confident? 
    • Inspired? Uninspired?
    • Other? 
    • Examine those feelings and explain in detail.  

Header image: photo by Michael Walter on Unsplash