Op-ed: Here’s what equity looks like in the workplace


By Sharon Stapel
President & Executive Director, Nonprofit New York

Have you seen - or maybe even made - that promotional video that shows your nonprofit, its leadership, its staff, and the clients that it serves? Many are incredibly moving, and most show the hard, strong work that nonprofits do. And nearly all of them tell the same story: white leaders showcasing the incredible work of staff of color, many of whom are one paycheck away from being a client.

This is because of systemic racism.

The nonprofit sector was set up to give “charity” to poor folks. It worked within a legal system that dehumanized people while creating systemic barriers (voter exclusion/suppression, Jim Crow laws, redlining, mass incarceration) that relegated black and brown people to poverty. The capitalized white wealth then used some of that wealth to “help” communities of color, but with far less money than is necessary to correct the systemic injustice and wealth distribution. Much of the sector, thanks largely to the Civil Rights Movement, has begun to evolve into organizations that fight this systemic racism. This work is supported by “charitable” support.

This is true, despite the sincere and good intentions of leaders who want to pay staff more, but rely on government funding that pays pennies on the dollar, restricts how that money can be used, and largely ignores the organization’s infrastructure needs, including paying staff a living wage. This is true, despite the fact that most nonprofits are doing mission work that is focused on dismantling inequality and promoting equity. Building equity into the workplace means not just shifting resources, but also power, to disrupt systemic racism and provide more and better opportunities for staff of color.

Here’s what equity would look like in the workplace: investments in more staff, so each person can have a reasonable workload; just compensation; decent hours; work/life balance; and diverse and inclusive practices. Professional development; intentional leadership paths; and opportunities to increase worker expertise and authority. Adequate health and retirement benefits to ensure the health of nonprofit workers during and after their careers; diverse staff, Board members, and volunteers at all stages of an organization’s work.

Some of this costs money. Just compensation, decent hours, health and other benefits cost money. Here, our work (both within Nonprofit New York, and within each nonprofit throughout the sector) is to unite as a sector and demand that funding cover the true cost of our work. United, we would have more power than we could imagine. Letting the funders set the rules (whether government or private) has gotten us to this point; but imagine what would happen if we all stood together and said “no.” After the initial chaos, the choice would be to pay us what it costs to run our programs (see footnote #1). This is an organizing strategy that has been necessary and successful whenever we have brought about the societal change that we need - but it is one that the nonprofit sector, which often does not even identify itself as a sector, has not yet embraced.

Some of this work does not cost money. But it does cost power. And by that I mean a shift of power from the C-suite to staff. It can be culture shifts, such as prohibiting email on time off, promoting and encouraging people to take time off, flexing schedules, allowing folks to work from home when it’s practical - giving up the power of micromanaging staff. It can be increased transparency and conversation, such as quarterly AMAs (see footnote #2) with the C-suite - this allows staff to begin to think of themselves in the leadership role; but it requires that the C-suite give up the power of information. It can look like giving staff more authority in their job and to trust that staff have the expertise to make the right decision - and supporting them as they learn; this means giving up the power of decision-making. It can be creating opportunities for people to learn new things, by shadowing their colleagues, or having more time to go to training. While time is certainly money, in all of these instances, the time invested will result in increased expertise, efficiency and productivity, and job satisfaction.

Strategizing about all of this begins with the will to do it. At Nonprofit New York we - and our Leadership Council - have that will. Join us. We have, and can generate, power to demand what we need. But while we are doing that organizing and strategy work to unite the sector, we can make changes that will create more equitable workplaces that are aligned with our values and our mission, are more innovative, and more successful for all.

We just have to start.


Footnote #1: And let’s talk about whether money does, in fact, grow on trees. I am in good company when I say there is plenty of money to go around in private philanthropy; for the government, it is a matter of shifting priorities to increase funding for social issues, which is very easy to do. (That last phrase was a joke.)
Footenote #2: "Ask Me Anything."