About the co-authors: We are long-time consultants to nonprofits and philanthropy. We met periodically over the last six months to name and explore the recent, recurring patterns across our consulting practices. This piece came out of our conversations. It humbly builds upon and attempts to amplify the work of leaders and fellow capacity builders who inspire us to evolve our thinking and practices.
Since the uprisings in response to George Floyd’s murder, we have seen unprecedented demand for consulting to nonprofit and philanthropic organizations around race equity. This work exists along a continuum of depth and intended impact: from shorter-term trainings and retreats meant to bring people to a baseline of understanding, to longer-term work that attempts to transform the ways that staff and board members interact with one another and with their constituents, ultimately transforming program design and impact as well. Here, we want to focus on that latter part of the continuum—on the work that goes well beyond “DEI training” and on the kind of work that requires staff and board members to examine their personal identities and habits, and to articulate together an organizational accountability to equity and justice. Specifically, we want to explore how that critically important work is increasingly interacting with—and disrupting—how organizations approach strategy development and planning.
Does a Distinction Between Race Equity and Strategy Work Matter?
As consultants, we witness a widespread frustration, especially among BIPOC staff, at the parsing of language and at ongoing attempts by executive and board leadership to compartmentalize processes into distinguishable “DEI” and “strategic planning” scopes of work. This compartmentalization can suggest how personally disconnected white leaders are from experiences of injustice and marginalization; these distinct scopes of work allow them to create distance from necessary organizational change work and their personal role in it.1 Moreover, in predominantly white-led organizations, it is nearly always the case that BIPOC staff and board members are asked to lead the equity work while the executive director and board chair lead the strategic planning. A fundamental difference in authority to drive change is baked into this process parallelism. The consultant and writer Mistinguette Smith described her experience of this dynamic in “Nonprofit Leadership at a Crossroads”:
A decade of advancing an incomplete “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) approach to dismantling white supremacy in the nonprofit sector has contributed to this painful moment…. This incomplete approach creates “snowcapped” organizations: places where staff of color carry the focus on equity and justice in frontline, mission-related work, while being clustered at the bottom of the institutional hierarchy. They have little voice, inconsistent influence, and lack the power to change the rules about how the organization works. The decision-makers on strategy and resource allocation sit at the top of the organizational hierarchy like the snowcap on a mountain, mostly white and white-haired people over 50…. This snowcap produces predictable cumulative results. I often find myself invited to meetings with nonprofit and philanthropic leaders who want to work on racial equity. But when I arrive, there are seven white folks! And they experience my work with them as tumultuous as an avalanche.
One of the “predictable cumulative results,” as Smith calls them, may in fact be this period we are in now where leaders and consultants are struggling to determine which process—equity or strategy—contains which questions and how those processes should be designed and sequenced. Further, consultants may specialize in one but not both types of project, so often staff and board are having overlapping conversations in concurrent processes. Staff might also sense an avoidant deferral in assurances from executives such as, “We will get to race equity work in a different process; this is strategic planning.” Smith called this a “painful moment” and, indeed, across our practices we are at times witness to or even a part of that pain—and to a palpable exhaustion as staff, leadership, and consultants miss one another’s expectations and struggle to find momentum. (Please also see Andrea Rogers and Tiloma Jayasinghe’s excellent piece, The Hidden Cost of DEI Work—And What to Do About It.)
With such widespread concurrence of equity and strategy projects right now, one of the patterns we are experiencing across our consulting practices is being asked to join or complement processes that have already been designed and may already be underway, either to bring a strategic lens to equity work or to bring an equity lens to strategy work. Also common right now is leaders asking us to partner with other consultants—sometimes consultants with whom we do not yet have a history of collaboration—in an effort to cohere concurrent projects in ways that allow staff and board to feel and trust a connection. These attempts at coherence do not always work, but sometimes they can be fertile learning and experimentation grounds for leaders and consultants alike.
Race Equity Work Is Strategy Work
Regardless of how processes are defined in the near term, it is, we think, self-evident that long-term, transformational work around race equity will affect organizational strategy in profound ways. As our analyses of problems change, our solutions—or strategies—inevitably change. In truth, this is what many white leaders find threatening about transformational race equity work: it results in challenges to their expertise, their signature programs and methods, and even their revenue models. Another way that race equity work is strategic work is in how it can lead to changes in who defines strategy for an organization. As BIPOC people and people with relevant lived experience step into executive and board chair roles in greater numbers, they have the authority to create the strategic changes they had been arguing for from the marginalized equity processes they formerly led.
We see evidence of race equity work as strategy work across the sector now. It manifests in things like fundamentally revised theories of change, bold initiatives and collaboratives, and sometimes, as new leadership. For instance, Hannah Mahon and Luke Newton wrote recently about the radical transformation of a family foundation in Washington D.C., The Pink House Foundation (PHF):
With the recent launch of PHF 3.0, we have shifted from funding 30 individual grant partners and are now instead making 10 large, multi-year grants to grassroots alliances and movement-accountable public foundations, trusting them to redistribute those funds to BIPOC-led grassroots organizations according to their own priorities and visions. Our new model represents not only a deeper alignment of values and practices, but also a deeper alignment of strategy and impact, recognizing that front-line leaders who are immersed in the day-to-day realities of organizing in marginalized communities are in the best position to strategically deploy resources to advance change.
Particularly notice the shared primacy and proximity of the words “values,” “practices,” “strategy,” and “impact,” as well as the directive source of their strategic shifts: “front-line leaders in marginalized communities.” Equity analysis and practices are so embedded in their new strategies that they are indeed indistinguishable.
Approaching Strategy Anew
The necessary blurring of equity and strategy work is indicative of a long-overdue revisiting of strategic planning itself. In their immediate and constituent-centric responses to COVID-19 and the uprisings for racial justice, nonprofits and philanthropies demonstrated that they can in fact develop and implement strategies quickly. That “responsiveness” is more often the judicious tapping of organizational core competencies than the verboten opposite of “strategic.” Over the last two years, leaders have made and executed bold decisions in a matter of weeks or even days that would normally have been subject to months of articulation, revision, and approval processes. These strategic decisions were made, of course, without the benefit of detailed, predictive strategic plans.
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It is not a new idea to disentangle strategic thinking from organizational planning. David La Piana did it very convincingly in his 2008 book, The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution. But, alas, it is still far too common for leaders to contain strategic thinking to episodic, high-stakes, top-down planning processes. We know intellectually that our staff need daily proximity to and influence over the evolving “why and to what ends” of our organization’s programs if we want those programs to be cutting-edge. We know that our boards will never be the strategic thought-partners we say we want them to be without their own appropriate version of that access and influence. We know that the wildly unpredictable political and economic context means that we have to actually be nimble, not just profess to be. And especially after the last two years, we know that staff and community stakeholders are going to push. To insist. To demand that leaders engage the hard questions about organizational purpose and direction, including internal and external race equity commitments—that they not bury these questions in opaque planning processes but address them frankly in the here and now.
What if We Prioritized Equity and Strategy Practices Even Over Planning Processes?
We believe that the notion of practices—articulated well by a number of progressive capacity builders (see the recommended resources below)—offers an opportunity for leaders to move through this stuck period, this “painful moment,” as Mistinguette Smith called it. Weyam Ghadbian and Jovida Ross have a very useful definition of practices in their compelling new guide, Moving Towards Each Other: A Conflict Workbook: “Our agreements for how we’ll move together. This could include agreements about roles, decision-making, and navigating conflicts, as well as celebrations and mutual support.” In other words, these are the everyday ways that we interact with care and intention towards what we are building together.
What if we prioritize equity and strategy practices even over planning processes? Here, “even over” is reference to a prioritization technique used when a group needs—as we so often do—to prioritize among two good things. This resource from Brave New Work was highlighted by Ghadbian and Ross—and their collaborator Ingrid Benedict—in a recent NPQ article. We are inspired to apply it here like this: everyone learning and trying on equitable practices even over a beautifully crafted equity plan. Or, designing an organization’s structures and systems around core strategies even over every-three-year strategic planning processes.
Traditionally, we love planning processes in nonprofits and philanthropy: strategic planning, business planning, equity planning. And at their best, we believe that processes can be a critical tool. We believe in courageously designed processes that allow groups to go deep on the specific questions they face in real time, whether those questions are about organizational vision, purpose, values, programming, or financial sustainability. But processes are also extremely vulnerable to habits of white supremacy, aren’t they? In dismantling Racism, Tema Okun, outlines fifteen characteristics of white supremacy culture: “perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, only one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, i’m the only one, progress is bigger/more, objectivity, and right to comfort.” Please reread that list if it’s new to you. It is uncanny—and profoundly disturbing—how accurately this list describes the worst forms and experiences of traditional planning processes, isn’t it?
Our view is that organizations need courageous processes at key junctures to articulate and align around their shared analyses and intentions, but that without an emphasis on learning and implementing new practices that embody any plan’s “worship of the written word,” we are going in circles. Staff and community will not take comfort in a plan’s updated words if they are not also experiencing the organization as different because of real shifts in both practices and their resulting work products. Frustration and unproductive conflict will persist. Trust in leadership will wane. Talented people will leave organizations seeking the opportunity to be different, not just describe aspirations of being different.
Towards an Integration: Equity, Strategy, Process, and Practice
Last year, the three of us were part of an NPQ webinar called, Strategic Planning: What Now? The strategic planning story that Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, shared has stayed with us and informed this article. Smith described the unpredictable and transformational effects on her organization of letting go of old strategic planning habits and centering the voices of constituents even over the expertise of leadership. This included her and her board stepping out of an urgency-to-finish mindset as they increasingly understood how much there was to learn and incorporate. At the time of the webinar, they were a year into a process of deep community listening designed in partnership with the strategic facilitation group, Collaborative Labs. “It began a journey that we are still on,” Smith says. “We have not produced the document called ‘the strategic plan’ yet. But it has been changing our organization at each iteration.” Indeed, what we need from leaders and consultants now is the willingness and capacity to work towards an integrative approach to organizational change. One that acknowledges the direct interplay of race equity and organizational strategy work as well as the essential coupling of new practices with courageous processes.
Recommended Reading on Equity/Strategy Practices
- Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
- Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups
- Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation
- Moving Towards Each Other: A Conflict Workbook
- The Ladder of Inference
1. We gratefully acknowledge Milika Miller, Senior Program and Data Manager at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, for contributing this idea.