Time inequity: What it is and why it’s no-good, very-bad


[Image description: A black-and-white photograph of two hourglasses standing side-by-side within a black box frame overlooking an indecipherable background (it might be a city, out of focus). The hourglass on the left has white sand, and the one on the right has black sand. Both seems almost full and are trickling sand, culminating in small sand piles in their respective bottom chambers. But the black-sand hourglass seems to have less sand in the top chamber.]

People have been asking me, “Vu, how do you manage to write a blog each week while running a nonprofit and parenting a toddler and a baby, and yet still retain your youthful good looks?” The secret is simple: I don’t sleep, and also, personal hygiene and nutrition standards have been lowered. Having a second kid, especially, has sapped our time so much that we tend to eat over the sink in five-minute increments; I don’t mind, because it allows me to rinse pureed peas and quinoa from out of my hair.

I can’t blame the baby for flinging food at us though. We haven’t been paying nearly as much attention to him as we did with his brother. He just turned one, and I think half the people we know aren’t even aware that we have a second baby, so little have we mentioned him. One person seemed irritated; he cornered me one day and said, “Hey, I heard you have a new baby? Why didn’t you tell me?” I felt terrible. All I could reply was, “Sorry, Dad…”

All jokes aside, let’s talk about time inequity and how it relates to our work. Time is the one thing we all have a finite amount of. None of us can create or buy more time and add it to our lifespans. In fact, it’s been proven repeatedly that poorer people and those most affected by racism have shorter life spans. In general, people from marginalized communities—people of color, people with disabilities, transgender individuals, low-income families—have less time on average. Many have to work, even from a young age, to support their families. Some give up their dreams because they have no time to pursue it, due to a parent or sibling who is ill, for example. And in this political climate, so much time is used by many communities simply for survival.   

Yet when we talk about equity, it is often about tangible resources: Income, funding, food, housing, access to green space, etc. Rarely do we recognize that time is just as critical a resource, and that it is also inequitably distributed. This is a huge deal. People from marginalized communities often have less time to spend with their kids. They often have less time for self-care. Many have less time to think strategically. And they are often punished because they do not have as much time as others.

If we don’t see the element of time and how it intersects with other elements of inequity, we cannot effectively address injustice. As a sector need to do a better job considering how we are using people’s time and whether it is equitable or not:

Funders: We have an unfortunate joke in our sector that that the smaller a grant is, the more irritating and time-consuming the application is. This is hilarious, until we realize that many organizations led by marginalized communities can only access these small grants. These are often organizations doing some of the most critical work that only they can do due to language and cultural skills. We are saddling the organizations doing some of the most urgent work with the most time-intensive and burdensome grant applications for the smallest amounts of resources.

I mentioned a while ago about how one of my Executive Director colleagues of color had been on the verge of tears because she had spent over 40 hours writing and rewriting a grant proposal and getting it rejected for the second time. It was for $5,000.

Funders need to be aware that time is not distributed equitably. Many of my colleagues of color who run nonprofits are getting paid part-time but are doing way more work than they’re paid. They often have other jobs. As community leaders, many have community obligations and crises that the rest of us simply don’t have to worry about. Do not waste their limited time. If your grant is less than 10K, it honestly should not be more than a 3-page narrative and one or two attachments. Or even better, just accept a grant proposal that they already spent 30 hours writing for another foundation. Save people the time, and allow them to use it to implement programs and services.

And keep in mind that organizations led by marginalized communities will have less hours in the day—because they tend to have fewer staff and more community obligations—to research your foundation’s priorities, seek support, write the proposal, and rehearse for the site visits. They may not be able to study and play the funding game as well as an organization that has more time in the form of a development team or contract grant-writer. If we want to address injustice, we have to focus on community needs, not simply reward whoever has the most time and resources to prepare the best application.  

Donors: This will be elaborated further in a future blog post, but as with funders, please be aware that many smaller, grassroots organizations, a significant number of which are led by marginalized communities, do not have a development team or even a half-time development person. Which means that they may not be able to send acknowledgements for your gifts as fast, or be able to focus on cultivating a relationship with you as effectively as other organizations. If you think that time is equally distributed, you will get frustrated with these organizations and may even think they’re incompetent. But since it is not, and since leaders of color, leaders with disabilities, etc., may have less time because they have all sorts of other stuff to deal with, please try to be understanding and supportive.

Hiring managers: I’ve talked a lot about how crappy and inequitable our hiring practices are, from requiring formal education as a default, to not disclosing salary ranges on job postings, to overly valuing immediate actions over long-term relationship-building potentials. But there is also the element of time inequity that we need to factor in. People with disabilities may need more time to get to your office, for example. People of color and those from rural communities may have less time because they may be more likely to be supporting their parents or siblings financially through working a second job, etc.

So list salary ranges; don’t waste people’s time. Don’t make unfair requests like “please prepare a 10-page development plan, based on your research of our org.” Think carefully before punishing people for being a few minutes late, for not writing a thank-you note fast enough, etc. Individuals with lower-incomes, single parents, people with disabilities may be left out. If you don’t understand time and other forms of inequity, you may eliminate many diverse candidates for consideration. Besides possibly helping to perpetuate the same injustice you are seeking to fight, you will lose out on the skills, talents, and perspective that your organizations desperately needs to remain relevant.

Service providers: As a colleague mentioned in the comments below, we need to recognize that the people seeking services often have even less time than we do. It may take them longer to get to our services, wait hours in line, fill out paperwork, and otherwise meet all the requirements we have. We also get frustrated by clients who don’t fill out evaluation surveys or attend focus groups to help us assess our programs, when it may be that they are pressed for time. We all need to be understanding and figure out how to streamline our processes in order to save our community members’ time.

Larger organizations, including foundations: I’ve written about this before, in Trickle-Down Community Engagement, but it bears repeating: Stop asking leaders of color and staff of smaller nonprofits to do stuff for free. We get asked all the time to run a workshop, sit on a panel, organize a focus group, help with outreach, serve on a committee, deliver a keynote, etc., often with no consideration of how limited our time is. If you seek our advice or expertise, be willing to pay organizations and leaders from marginalized communities. It is inequitable to ask us to spend our time to help you do your job without giving something back. These leaders’ time is limited, especially right now, when immigrant and refugee communities are being attacked and many of us have our hands full trying to protect and defend our friends and neighbors and keep civilization from collapsing.

Volunteers: If you volunteer at an org led by communities of color, keep in mind the dynamics of time. For example, you may think that an organization is disorganized because you got a crappy orientation, poor direction, lack of general communications, etc. Try to be understanding. I remember visiting an ED friend of mine. She is a wonderful and well respected leader of an immigrant community, but terrible with email and phone communication, so I decided to swing by to catch her in person. When I got there, she was unloading sacks of potatoes and onions for the organization’s food bank. While we talked, she told me about the sudden death of a community member, and how as a community leader she had to rally support for the family. It made me realize how privileged I was that I had the time to drive around the city to visit people, while my colleague was handling a crisis that she never asked for. If an organization seems disorganized, that may just be the case. Or it could be that their time is finite, their staffing is limited, and they must prioritize. Think of things you can do to free up more time for this organization. If they have no time to at organize volunteers, maybe what they need is for you to volunteer to be a volunteer coordinator, for example.

We all need to understand the role that time plays in our work. When our work is at its most inspiring, it is more than just restoring tangible resources to people. It is also adding and restoring time, arguably the most valuable resource of all. Meals on Wheels, for example, delivers hot meals to seniors. But the visitations, this sharing of time, bring hope and well-being to many older adults who may be lonely, who may not have others spending time checking in on them. (Don’t get me started on the administration’s plans to cut funding that supports Meals on Wheels).

As much as I complain about how much my kids sap my time and energy, I think about all the parents who have to work multiple jobs to support their families, who have to trade in the limited few hours they have to spend with their kids each week. I remember my own parents working 15 hours a day six days a week and the toll it took on us as a family. 

The lack of time combined with the lack of financial resources, all within a system that favors some and punishes others, continues the cycle of injustice. We need to be more thoughtful and reflective of the role time plays in this work, with the people we serve, with our colleagues, with our grantees. I am reminded of the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, when Will Smith’s character, Chris Gardner, was desperately poor and experiencing homelessness, with only five dollars left, and this wealthy coworker asked him to spot him five dollars. Five dollars meant nothing to this other dude. But that five dollars, which I think Chris Gardner needed to be able to take the bus home, meant a lot to him and to his son. We all tend to treat other people’s time the way the coworker treated Gardner’s five dollars. We in this sector need to be more aware that five minutes or five hours of time is not the same to everyone.  

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29 thoughts on “Time inequity: What it is and why it’s no-good, very-bad

  1. betty barcode

    “Stop asking leaders of color and staff of smaller nonprofits to do stuff for free.”

    I am not a leader of color, but as an employee of a small cultural org, it completely frosts me when people from massive, well-funded nonprofits or educational institutions ask for freebies.

    So here is a New Rule for nonprofits:

    1. When dealing with a fellow nonprofit whose budget and salaries are a fraction of yours, always pay for the goods, services, or content that you want.

    1. Jeremy

      We always, always, always have the ability to say no and give them the reason why. Do they know how this upsets you? If your non profit does not have the time, money or resources to be doing it then you should be telling them no whether they are paying you or not. Just a thought . . .

    2. Gayle Lawn-Day

      Jeremy is correct — you can always say “no” and explain why — and boy, do they get mad. We have stuck to our guns, but be prepared for the blowback. We are then considered not “team players” because other groups WILL do it for free…..but it is the right thing to do and stopping this has created the time for other things that has resulted in real growth. We don’t regret it, but be ready to be the bi-chiest org on the block.

    3. klee14452

      I am agree that larger nonprofits should understand a disparity in their abilities to contribute money and resources to projects over the ability or grassroots and emerging organizations. In the following conversations, I am struggling with the fact that nonprofits can not afford to be absent from gatherings, conferences, and planning activities. While the roles of managers in small organizations are comprehensive and cover a great many areas. Time management also includes delegating tasks to volunteers and other staff–when available. Organizational representatives might also be a knowledgeable volunteer who contribute information at conferences, in educational and planning processes through valuable exchanges of information and experiences in place of staff. Far too often, such gatherings are the locations where valuable information is exchanged and lead to future program and project funding whether rightly or wrongly. The challenge therefore in managing time is also managing individuals within and relate to grassroots and emerging nonprofits who have skills to assist the many duties and area responsibilities of organizational managers involved in capacity building and growth..

      1. Ben

        I think this is a very complicated issue and not black-and-white (no pun intended). I run a new nonprofit with a budget of 150k and we recently partnered with another local nonprofit with a budget of 50 million. We will be donating some services to them because it perfectly aligns with our mission and helps them fulfill theirs, too. Although we are strapped for cash and I wish this partnership allowed them to compensate us financially at the onset, I think it will put us in a much more competitive position for aligning with potential funders for the long-term. Most importantly, we feel like it’s the right thing to give back to our community and serve our mission.


    As usual a great blog, but us nonprofits need to look in the mirror on this one. We need to stop making those who seek our services waste time to meet our stupid rules. In my community people who experience homelessness are forced to go all over town spending hours to secure shelter..often only for one or two nights. Making people sign up for a lottery in person, requiring meetings with case managers during the day, requiring people to “prove” how they are trying to help themselves, etc. are all activities that benefit the nonprofit but NOT the client. Let’s all not make any rules for our clients unless we are willing to abide by the same rules. How well would any of us do if on top of our day we had to spend 2-3 hours on busses, 2 hours waiting in lines, and another half hour filling out paperwork let alone having to go to different places to eat, shower, etc.

    1. Meredith

      It’s been our experience that funders tend to drive the creation of those rules that take up so much time from our community members. In our program, we want to be open and available to anyone who walks in the door and, consequently, have frequently passed up funding opportunities that would have required us to put in place gatekeeping rules contrary to that basic principle. Consequently, we’re a poorly funded organization. It’s a vicious cycle.

      1. Julie Reiskin

        I agree, I wish those funders would spend a day in the shoes of someone. One thing that may work is to bring a funder with someone on the “journey” as part of a site visit.

        1. Ben Bisbee

          Maybe they should. Maybe one of your engagement opportunities for funders is an experiential event that allows them to experience what a client experiences. I used to be the head of Engagement for the Red Cross and I designed a program called Take Shelter that gave people insight into the shelter experience so they could not only understand it’s model but expose them to the costs, volunteerism and it’s impact.

  3. Jennifer Quiroz

    Thanks for this post! Last year I read a fantastic book, “Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines our Lives” (Mullainathan & Shafir). It was excellent, I highly recommend it. They discuss scarcity in ALL resources–not just money but also the example of time scarcity–and how it affects human brains. Since reading it I have started noticing for myself how my thinking and actions change when I have time scarcity. It was also helpful in thinking through the programs we offer and what we require of our participants/clients. Is the time requirement and the effect it may have on their brain worth it? Or is there something better they could be doing with their “brain space?”

    It also fits perfectly with what Vu is saying here–scarcity affects how people are able to function. AND with the equity lens we know that there are structures in place that cause certain groups to experience more scarcity (people who are low-income, people of color, immigrant communities, etc.). Thanks for highlighting this.

  4. B Nat

    Another timely and relevant post. A 2011 movie, In Time (http://imdb.to/2nCVImy), is the allegorical playing out of this piece on time inequity. After skipping what we thought was a ho-hum sci-fi flick (albeit with Mr. Timberlake), at the insistence of a friend, my spouse and I were astounded at how well the film showed the parallels in so many levels of contemporary society, as well as in our own non-profit sector. Definitely worth watching.
    Thanks Vu.

  5. JL_Laurie

    oh my – so timely.

    Just had this conversation with someone who didn’t believe that the time and space to protest was a privilege and that those most marginalized may not be able to protest because they couldn’t take the time off from caring for someone, working their job or simply couldn’t spend the money on transportation to get to the protest because that $5 had to go to groceries.

    I also had this conversation regarding a community garden I participated in. We were criticized for not working with the people we were growing for. However, it wasn’t exclusion – they were welcome to join anytime. But what we recognized (and what many especially in the food justice community don’t see) is that when you are poor and working two or three jobs, how the hell are you supposed to have time to garden and cook your own food? It struck me as incredibly elitist to assume that people already working just to survive should find time to maintain a garden as a way to stretch their food budget. Our group had the privilege of time and money to spend on a garden, the bounty of which benefited others in the community. That to me was a way to use community resources collaboratively for the benefit of everyone.

    1. corbin1994

      Anyone who has ever done vegetable gardening should know that a small home garden is the best way to get tomatoes that cost at least $7.50 each. Or the way I got approximately 5 small zucchinis out of 4 plants, which probably cost $20 a lb. (Who can’t grow zucchinis? Me apparently.) Thinking that gardening is a way to stretch one’s budget is indeed privileged thinking. I continue to garden because I have time, it’s relaxing, I like dirt, and because I have an adult son who can be made to do the hard work. I get that this is total privilege.

  6. Bob Wright

    A point worth emphasizing–just because you use volunteers on the staff, their time is no less valuable. Don’t waste their time on something you wouldn’t have paid staff do as a waste time. Saying ROI sounds so formal in the NWB blog (I love their informality!), but that’s the point–make sure the effort is worth the hoped for benefit. Time is always precious.

  7. Brian

    Great post, Vu, and an important contribution to an under-discussed aspect of modern life. Hopefully one of these days the toddler can guest-author a blog to defend himself…

  8. beast

    So as a rural non-profit I have been told over and over that I should or shouldn’t do certain things. Here’s the deal. Its my time and my choices. Yes, I know the upcoming grant review panel I have been asked to sit on…I am only being asked so they can say they had someone from “rural” there. I get it. They are offering to pay my gas, which is nice. But I would do it for free–because I need the experience being on the other side of the equation. I want to learn their process so I can be better at my job. I have the right to say no…because for me this is not a 20-30 minute drive to be on the panel….its 6 hours one way. But the experience for the potential to educate, to be educated. Priceless.

  9. Abigail Soto

    Thank you for this reminder and inspiration, Vu. Your note to donors about understanding that a smaller or minority led organization may not have the time or resources to send acknowledgments quickly has inspired me to look for a volunteer opportunity to help an organization with this issue. I manage donor gift records for my day job and can certainly volunteer my skills for another organization.

  10. Allison

    Great post. However, you really can’t talk about time scarcity without talking about the invisible workload of women. REALLY. I mean, talk about inequity in the workplace. Women and especially women of color are disproportionally affected by expectations of unpaid and undervalued labor. As a care-giver of two children, I hope that you would understand this. Here’s a helpful article if anyone is interested in adding women to the conversation.


    1. Keneta

      Thanks for bringing up this profound issue. Transportation is another layer–that three-transfer commute burden tends to fall on people with low incomes. You and I can take a second to add these topics in without expecting Vu to cover every important angle. Sad to say there are just too many related issues and, frankly, who has the time?

  11. Anonymous11

    My favorite lines: “If your grant is less than 10K, it honestly should not be more than a 3-page narrative and one or two attachments. Or even better, just accept a grant proposal that they already spent 30 hours writing for another foundation.” Yes!

  12. klee14452

    This is a timely and great discussion. The author is spot on in describing challenges in nonprofit management especially as it relates to funding for grassroots and emerging nonprofits. Philanthropists and established foundations seem to apply the same criteria for operations to small nonprofit organizations as to larger ones that have access to more resources and staff, For this reason, a recent focus on community engagement/enhancement has benefited smaller nonprofits who are present in planning, facilitating discussions, and providing data. Though time consuming, this too is a necessary stage in developing awareness for nonprofit management at a variety of infrastructural levels which also require funding for operations as well as program implementation from nonprofit donors. Philanthropists and foundations must begin to alter their thoughts and percentages for cost of administration versus cost of programs. Emerging organizations will have administration cost that expand as organizations increase in sophistication which may also mean both high administration and programming expenses via hiring staff and working with consultants. Building capacity means increases in organizational expenses. High administration percentages should not penalize grassroots and emerging organizations, as they presently do, rather should signal to donors and funders that organizations are attempting to develop infrastructures to more successfully meet the needs of their constituents. Further, funding flexibility should permit some organizations to fail in their new short-term attempts without long-term repercussions during the implementation of sustainable strategies to move nonprofit organizations further.

  13. Brenda Hillhouse

    Brilliant! A light bulb idea — time as a limited resource! We are all so busy that we don’t take time to realize that. Man, is your blog valuable — certainly to us in this sector, but I am sending this post to all my friends, too! Thank you, Vu! Keep up the stellar work!

  14. Justus Eisfeld

    As always spot on. I’d like to add another example: Some organizations that charge for something (for example conference fees) will waive that fee if you put in volunteer labor. I don’t think I need to go any further on how that impacts the ability of poor people to attend conferences etc.

  15. kristen

    Such a good topic, Vu, and one that I had not really thought about before. It is distressing to think about how people and organizations in the position of having something (money, power, time, transportation) can be so unaware of the plight of those who have none or very little and the struggles they have to balance due to that inequity. So I love the idea of simplifying grant applications based on the level of funding – funders should be aware of both 1) how much time is wasted by all of the organizations preparing the required grant-specific documents for small grants; and 2) how critical their small grants are for organizations that are ineligible for larger grants. Small non-profits can play such a crucial role to the individuals they come in contact with – so how can we help them get the funding they need? Perhaps develop a common grant application form that is accepted by many funding agencies (including both public and private agencies) for grants that are, say, $5k and under?

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