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Addressing Challenges on the Journey to Equity, Inclusion, and Justice

Last fall we asked our clients to share the work they’re doing in the areas of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion and, no surprise, they went above and beyond. We are truly inspired by their responses and our follow up conversations, and look forward to sharing these stories with you in a series of blog articles to provide practical ideas for your organization and community.

There's no doubt that pursuing equity, inclusion, and justice (EIJ) is hard, long-term work. It's important to acknowledge that we will face many challenges along the way and make mistakes. That's OK. What matters is that we show up courageously with a willingness to learn.

In this final post of our series of articles about EIJ, we'll share common challenges our clients have faced and the lessons they have learned to help you and you organization on your own journey.

Conquering Our Fears

One of the biggest hurdles to this work is overcoming people's fears. So many are scared of doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, or causing more damage.

Diego Zegarra, Vice President of Equity and Impact at Park City Community Foundation (PCCF), suggests that we need to change the narrative to a culture that values learning and normalized making mistakes. He credits PCCF's leader for helping establish this culture within their foundation.

Zegarra explains, "When the CEO or executive director shows up with a willingness to be vulnerable, it gives license to other folks to do the same thing, knowing that a mistake will not show up in their annual performance review. It's freeing."

Zegarra emphasizes that just showing up for the conversation is critical.

"If this work could move forward just with people of color, we would have done it a long time ago," states Zegarra. "But, it requires white allies in the room to help carry the work because a lot of them hold power and have positions that are tied to purse strings.

Creating Shared Definitions

Clients of all types and sizes identified a lack of common language and terminology as a barrier to EIJ conversations, and agreed that creating shared definitions is a critical step in helping organizations going forward.

Understanding Equity vs. Equality

How does equity differ from equality, and why is it important to understand this distinction?

Zegarra explains, "Where the rubber meets the road is when we define equity vs. equality. Some folks think equity is access. But it's not about access."

To illustrate the difference, Zegarra shared a helpful example: 

"There are five kids at the table at lunchtime and I have five apples. Equality would say that everybody gets an apple, one each. Equality focuses on the input—the apple. But, equity requires us to understand the communities that we are working with and know where these kids are coming from. It acknowledges that everyone starts from a different place. Jimmy had an amazing breakfast because his parents are working from home. Sally did not because her parents had to go to work early. Maybe Jimmy can do with half an apple and Sally needs more. Equity focuses on the outcome—nobody goes hungry. Equity requires us to understand and acknowledge that everyone starts from a different place."

Organizations that have a shared understanding of the definition of equity can better adjust their processes to learn where impacted communities are starting from and create programs designed specifically to address these inequities. 

Redefining Smart and Knowledgeable

As organizations work to include new voices and lived experiences on their boards, it's important to understand what type of knowledge is needed.

Zegarra explains, "As organizations, we've equated wealth with knowledge and smarts. Some people think that if you have more money, you're smarter. We have to redefine 'smart' and 'knowledgeable.' For example, people experiencing poverty today know much more about putting food on the table than a room of wealthy men."

Equating lived experience, rather than wealth, with knowledge and smarts can help organizations better understand how to include new voices as members of their staff, boards, and grants committees.

Acknowledging our Biases

Acknowledging that we all have unconscious biases in an important step at the beginning of the equity journey.

Zegarra explains the challenge, "There are still folks that refuse to acknowledge their biases because we have aligned biases with not being a good person."

However, creating this self-awareness is critical to being open to feedback and learning. Once we recognize that we all have these biases, we can better understand the need to bring new voices to the room to help us identify unconscious bias and adjust our policies, processes, and programs accordingly.

Ann Kvach, Program Officer at Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville in Alabama agrees, "We have to continue looking at ourselves and be open to feedback, trying to do what we can, and encouraging others to join us on this journey."

Creating Inclusion Without Tokenism

Every couple of weeks, Diego Zegarra receives a call from a nonprofit or government agency that is interested in diversifying their committees or boards. However, Zegarra warns against tokenism.

He explains, "I want to be there for my great brain and ideas and the value that I bring to the table. I think that's how everybody wants to be seen."

Zegarra emphasizes the need to intentionally seek out opportunities to meet people with different lived experiences and invest time in developing relationships that will help bring new voices to the room. This enables more authentic inclusion, as opposed to recruiting people simply based on demographics to meet diversity quotas.

Meshayla Cox, Racial Equity and Inclusion Senior Consultant with the Montana Racial Equity Project, the nonprofit organization Foundant hired to guide our organization through our own EIJ journey, speaks to the difference between diversity, equity, and inclusion and how that understanding can help an organization avoid unintended tokenism.

Cox explains, "At MTREP, we don't use the 'D,' we're 'EIJ.' We believe [the word diversity] has come to represent something smaller. It's less focused on direct action and the people we bring into the organization. We believe diversity is built into true equity and true inclusion, and that justice for all will be the result. We don't want to focus on a numbers game because it pushed us into an action bias. We want to get, get, get things done, but we're not actually creating the conditions for someone to do well."

Committing Resources

As always, limited resources is one of the biggest challenges, particularly for smaller organizations with fewer staff and lower budgets.

"You're going to hear people say, 'We don't have the time for this,' or 'We don't have funding for this.' says Diego Zegarra. "When we talk about equity and inclusion, nobody's thinking about putting money into it, but that's what it takes—resources and time."

Zegarra invites organizations to make a line item for equity and inclusion. He explains "It's a commitment to showing up for these conversations. The deliverable is your learning. Once we know enough and feel courageous enough, we can start looking at our policies, practices, and protocols that form our organizational culture and start looking at the outcomes that we want to achieve."


We will face many challenges as we continue on the journey to equity and inclusion, but it's critical that we courageously show up for the conversation, no matter what our fears. Taking the time to establish shared definitions within your organization and community, acknowledging biases, intentionally investing time in new relationships to avoid tokenism, and committing the required time and resources can all help make it possible to create lasting and meaningful change.

Additional Resources

Read the first three posts in this series: 

Also don't miss Who's at the Table?: Resilient Philanthropy Through Inclusive, Equitable Practice. Hear our client panel provide valuable insights as they share their journeys, their missteps, their fears, and their celebrations in a very special educational webinar featuring an expert facilitator from Montana Racial Equity Project.

About the Author

For more than a decade, Foundant Technologies has specialized exclusively in making philanthropy easier and more impactful through intuitive technology solutions. All of our cloud-based solutions focus on grantmaker, grantseeker, scholarship provider and community foundation needs with the goal to make day-to-day tasks streamlined and help maximize the impact of the philanthropic community.

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