The Equity of Risk and Failure


equityHi everyone. It’s Thanksgiving this week, and I usually spend a post listing things for which I am thankful—a meaningful job, awesome colleagues, loving family, The Walking Dead, etc.—but something has been weighing on my mind. Equity. It’s like coconut water; everyone’s drinking it lately (See “Is Equity the new coconut water?”). Diversity, inclusion, and cultural competency meanwhile are like hummus: you can’t attend a meeting without at least one clear plastic container of it.

The problem with Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Here’s the thing: The people of color that I’ve been talking to are getting kind of sick of these terms. We love them, but the dissonance between their usage and actual practice is like getting poked in the eye on a daily basis. Case in point, at panel I was on recently a colleague of color told me that someone contacted her, saying, “Can you help us spread the word about this new job position? We want to diversify our pool of candidates.”

My friend said, “I wanted to ask, Are you trying to just diversify your POOL of candidate, or ACTUAL hires?” We both sighed; thankfully, the wine was plentiful that evening.

This has been happening a lot recently, the usage of these feel-good and trendy terms without serious consideration for the challenging and time-consuming changes that we need to undergo to actualize them. Equity requires the embrace of risk and failure. True equity, and diversity and inclusion, cannot exist without them.

Unfortunately, our field is often frustratingly and ineffectively risk-adverse, paralyzed by thoughts of failure. So yeah, we’ll “diversify the pool of candidates” and then, most likely, select the “most qualified” person anyway, who is often White. I know many organizations who tout equity and inclusiveness whose staff and board are mostly White. They are highly qualified and awesome, but it is jarring when most of their clients are people of color.

Or we’ll “work with communities of color” and then, most likely, select mainstream organizations because these ethnic-led organizations “don’t have the capacity” or “didn’t put in a strong enough proposal.”

The voices of communities of color have been struggling to be heard on almost every single issue. And to everyone’s credit, I don’t feel like people are actually being exclusive. This recent trend of diversity, equity, and inclusion is a testament to the fact that we all recognize both the importance and the lack of engagement of these communities. However, recognition of the problem and talking about it are necessary but not sufficient elements to solving the problems of inequity. We have to be willing to try different stuff, fund differently, and accept a few failures.

Unboxing equity

By now, most of us have seen this graphic above, which displays very clearly the difference between equality and equity. But after we think, “Aw, that’s so cute; all these kids can now watch the game; equity is so magical,” how does it actually translate within our field? Let’s unpack this.

First, I’m not always a big fan of this image, because to the less wise, the short kid is obviously deficient and needs some serious help. The short kid represents entire marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ community, communities of color, poor communities, etc. But this kid can also symbolize individuals such as professionals of color, as well as nonprofits such as communities-of-color-led organizations. These communities and individuals have plenty of strength and assets and is not always just the baby in the group.

But anyway, let’s continue with the metaphor. Since my experience is with communities, people, and nonprofits of color, I’m going to hone in on that for this post today.

Regardless of who this little kid represents, the point is that we are always struggling to see over the fence. We’ll be lucky to get a two-by-four to stand on, much less a whole box, much less TWO boxes. In the case of ethnic-led nonprofits, the argument against giving a whole box to them has always been, “You’re cute, but you guys just don’t have the capacity. If we give you a whole box to stand on, you’ll probably just fall off of it. We can’t give you a large grant. Here’s a small one. Sure, all these problems we’re tackling disproportionately affect your communities, and you have the best connection to them. But come back when you are more organized.”

borgAt a conference I attended last week, funders were congratulating themselves on capacity building around collective impact work. As much as I like collective impact in theory, the reality is that it has more often than not been screwing over communities of color, who cannot access funds to be significantly involved and thus are unintentionally tokenized. (See “Collective Impact: Resistance is futile,” where I compare ineffective CI efforts to the Borg from Star Trek). “Collective impact has been leaving behind many communities of color,” I said from the audience, “how are you addressing building capacity for organizations that are led by these communities so that they can be involved?”

A funder took the microphone to respond. “I wish my organization was one of those with the flexibility to give $5K or 10K grants,” he said, “but we don’t do that. We give larger grants.” And of course, these ethnic nonprofits would never be able to compete for one of these larger grants. They are stuck in the capacity quagmire like college grads who can’t get hired because they have no experience.

The importance of risk and failure

Look, I’m not advocating for people hire staff willy-nilly, or for funders to be throwing money around at random. But the status quo is not working, and holding hands chanting “equity, diversity, and inclusion” without actually doing stuff differently is dangerous because it makes us feel like we’re making progress when we’re not.

Here’s the reality: If we hire less experienced people from communities of color, yes, they will likely require more support, and they may fail more often. If we fund small ethnic nonprofits, yes, they will likely require more support and may fail more often. That kid has not had much experience standing on two boxes. His balance is being tested. He may fall down a couple of times.

But here’s another side to that reality: Those staff from communities of color are critical when working with communities of color, and our field does a lot of work with communities of color, to put it mildly. You can hire a less experienced staff of color and train them on technical skills. But you cannot teach someone to be a person of color. Believe me, I tried it; it was uncomfortable for everyone. So if your org works with clients of color, take some risks in your hiring. Don’t just “diversify the pool.”

The same goes for ethnic-led nonprofits. Again, these organizations are the most effective in connecting to their communities, and they do it on shoe-string budgets. Since they have the strongest relationships, they are constantly asked to help with outreach, to sit on advisory teams, and to do other stuff for free. Then when they try to get more significant support, the response has historically been, “You don’t have the capacity” followed by “but why don’t you join the Cultural Competency workgroup of our awesome collective impact effort!”

A bright spot

There was a ray of hope at this workshop on capacity building and collective impact. “While we can’t fund these smaller ethnic-led CBOs,” said the program officer, “we could, however, potentially fund your organization as an intermediary.” My organization, Rainier Valley Corps, I had explained to the room earlier, recruits cohorts of passionate but inexperienced immigrant/refugee leaders, train and support them on nonprofit leadership, and send them to work full-time at ethnic-led nonprofits for a year or two to help these organizations build their capacity; these emerging leaders simultaneously gain hands-on experience needed for them to remain in the field and gradually become effective nonprofit leaders. Both will be lifted out of the capacity and experience quagmire.

Ten years ago, I was sent through a program similar to Rainier Valley Corps to an ethnic-led nonprofit called the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA). Although it had been around for 25 years, VFA had a budget of less than 50K, no full-time staff, and served hundreds of clients through volunteers. For years, no funders would invest in the organization. Meanwhile, I was one of these passionate but inexperienced young professionals. I remember calling up and talking to a program officer of the Gates Foundation for the first time. I sat in my car, stuttering. “It’s OK,” said the program officer, “I was in your shoes once. Just calm down and tell me about your organization.”

That program officer took a risk and funded VFA. And not just a 5K or 10K grant, but a 180K grant over three years, which was unheard of for a tiny community-of-color-led organization with a budget of $30,000 or so. We went to other foundations to leverage additional support. United Way of King County came in with another significant grant, followed by the City of Seattle. A year or two later, Social Venture Partners supported VFA with a significant multi-year grant. The Seattle Foundation, Medina, and other funders stepped in. The board hired me to lead the org as its first ED.

These foundations took a risk to fund this tiny, unproven ethnic nonprofit and its inexperienced staff. VFA is now reaching a million in operating budget, has several full-time staff, and serves thousands every year. It’s building the very first Vietnamese dual-language preschool in the state, and it’s been involved in registering hundreds of people to vote.

Even better, as it grew, VFA helped to found the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), which is one of the few education advocacy efforts led by communities of color. It has also helped to found the Youth Development Executives of King County (YDEKC), an important collective impact effort to advance the youth development field. And it has been leading the development of Rainier Valley Corps, which will create an effective model for building the capacity of immigrant/refugee nonprofits and raise the voices of these marginalized communities on every policy area.

Funders’ willingness to invest in and take risk with VFA has directly resulted in all sorts of awesome things. It has resulted in the Vietnamese community being genuinely involved in several collective impact efforts, and not the superficial and tokenizing involvement that are too common these days.

Give that kid a box!


It’s Thanksgiving, and as I reflect on the things for which I am thankful—a wonderful family, good health, a job I love, an organization I believe in, the most amazing colleagues ever (staff, board, volunteers), and the best readers any nonprofit blogger could ask for (and Tofurky, I’m thankful for Tofurky)—this year I am extremely grateful for those foundations and especially those early program officers (Ken, Muriel, Sindy, Lori, Mike, Caroline, Eunice) who took a risk advocating for me and for my organization. VFA would not be where we are today without your chance-taking and support. And personally, you enabled me to remain in a field I’m proud of and do work that I care about.

But still, it continues to be an uphill battle. For example, even as I work to build Rainier Valley Corps, already I run into funders who say things like, “Well, what’s your track record? You’re too new. You’re too small. You’re unproven. How do we know this is going to work? You’re asking for too much money.” All the while they have been talking about Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; granting tiny amounts to communities of color; and wondering why these communities are not developing their capacity and being involved at the systemic level.

If we want true equity, we must embrace risk and failure. Give that short kid two boxes! Don’t just “include” or “engage” him in stuff. Don’t just ask him to join your board or your “cultural competency” committee or something. Don’t just stand around chanting equity and inclusion while the kid scrambles trying to stack several tiny pieces of wood together to elevate himself a few inches. And be willing to accept that if you do give him a box, he may at first and on occasion fall off it.

But it is worth it. Because what we are doing around engaging and empowering communities of color has not been very effective, and the challenges facing these and other communities are more and more pressing. It is better to take a risk on something that has a 50% chance of success, than keep status quo and have a 100% chance of failure.

Let me know your thoughts, and please feel free to disagree.

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