Systems Change and Equity Go Hand-in-Hand

  • By Rachel Mosher-Williams, May 31, 2018

Philanthropy is starting to get much more real about its obligation to address inequity and racism, as emphasized by the GEO National Conference Twitter feed, plenaries and blog reflections. Right off the bat, Dr. Brian Barnes, co-founder of TandemEd, told us to “make the CEO the Chief Equity Officer.” Pia Infante, co-executive director of the Whitman Institute, asked why we are “using only five percent of our water when the house is on fire.” And in what I’d describe as the intensity apex of the conference, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said, “Racism is embedded into every institution in this country. I don’t know if we will ever be free of that.”

I believe systems grantmaking and this systems-level consideration of racial injustice at the GEO National Conference represents a tipping point in the grantmaking community.

Complex, systemic challenges require sophisticated, long-term strategies to address them. The same is true for ending structural racism. With partners like the Schott Foundation for Public Education and BUILD Health Challenge, we are lucky to be learning alongside funders who know that systems change can’t happen without equity, and equity won’t be achieved without systems change.

In a breakout session on learning and evaluation that matches the complexity of systems change, both Dr. John Jackson of Schott and Emily Yu of BUILD discussed their collaboratives’ specific focus on advancing racial equity through comprehensive, systems change work. The Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index is shifting the narrative that kids and teachers are failing to instead focus on the broad obligations of communities to support families so kids can thrive in school and life. BUILD Health Challenge is moving attention, action and resources on health “upstream” from the doctor’s office to the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the places we live, work and play, most or all of which is determined by our income, zip code and race.

One unifying theme emerged from our conversation: Equity is both a long-term goal of, and a mechanism for, systems change. There is a symbiotic relationship between equity and systems change.

This conference was different from other GEO gatherings. While many organizations have vulnerably shared about their equity journeys — like recent blog posts from Frontline Solutions and the Bush Foundation — there was a level of honesty I haven’t seen at a conference before about the role of philanthropy in perpetuating racism and other forms of inequity. Speakers repeatedly pointed out that racism emerged and advanced through the systems that surround us—housing, education, healthcare, banking and criminal justice, just to name a few.

But they didn’t just talk about the “right” way to solve structural racism through grantmaking and influence; they talked about how philanthropy is complicit in maintaining inequity and responsible for creating additional layers of it. Grantmakers, nonprofits and their cross-sector partners are earnestly working to make change within these systems, yet philanthropy’s decades of investment in only “proven” leaders and organizations (code for white) and continued use of complicated grantmaking processes that keep out smaller, grassroots organizations have created a system of inequity and power imbalance within philanthropy itself.

If we want to do intentional work on equity and systems change, we must be willing to do the hard and often uncomfortable internal work as well. Grantmakers should be ready to assess:

  • whether their internal policies and practices perpetuate inequity or advance equity
  • whether their grantmaking policies and practices perpetuate inequity or advance equity
  • how their programmatic investments (grants, partnerships, etc.), financial investments, and thought leadership incorporate data that is disaggregated by race and considers how systemic racism is maintained via policies, regulations, corporate and consumer behavior, and government spending
  • how their organizational culture and leadership explicitly work to dismantle the dominant privilege in the institutions and systems around them (check out the Awake to Woke to Work framework from Equity at the Center to get deep on these efforts)

Approaching systems change with a laser focus on dismantling structural racism and other forms of inequity is, I believe, the future of philanthropic leadership. When I think 20 years into the future, as GEO asked conference attendees to do, I am optimistic that there will be amazing talent available to lead foundations, but philanthropy will have to work to keep itself relevant and appealing to today’s young leaders, activists, scholars and problem-solvers.

These leaders have already put equity at the forefront and aren’t willing to hold social change back while the rest of us catch up. Let’s charge ahead on equity and systems change now to ensure that in 2038, philanthropy is one fewer institution addressing its own racism and one more force in the fight against inequality across the globe.

Rachel Mosher-Williams is the Senior Director of Learning and Impact at Community Wealth Partners, where she leads the evaluation practice, internal learning, and external thought leadership.