2021 Washington State Nonprofits Conference: Thursday

This is post 3 of 8 in the series “Washington State Nonprofit Conference Field Notes”

The Washington State Nonprofit Conference is the primary statewide conference for nonprofits in Washington State. I’ve attended many times, and publish notes about the sessions I attend.

The two sessions I attended Thursday made me think a lot about perspective and positionality. I found both presentations I went to very engaging and full of new ideas and reframings that certainly furthered my thinking on the subjects (the role of the nonprofit sector and “DEI” training). I thought all four speakers had so much experience and knowledge that I benefited from hearing from!

And also during both presentations, I could not help but think back to the opening keynote that outlined the nonprofit sector’s role in propping up a capitalist society. The sector is a necessary balance to the for-profit sector, but it simultaneously covers up and distracts from the severe failings of corporations and government.

It is difficult to fully comprehend, but I have to wonder how our own connections and attachments to nonprofits and the sector make it harder to challenge the deep structural inequalities that impede transformation to a more equitable society.

I don’t have a tidy conclusion or summary thought here, but it was a theme on my mind as I listened throughout the day.

Keynote Conversation: The Place of Nonprofits

Jen Masaoka (CEO, California Association of Nonprofits), Jon Pratt (ED, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits), and Laura Pierce (ED, Washington Nonprofits)

In Laura’s words, this was “a hopefully provocative conversation.”

Why are nonprofits important and what is their unique value add?

  • Jon: People have come to understand that in global market-based economies, a third-sector is required to balance and make up for things not taken care of by corporations and governments. It can also be a place to innovate new models and ways of change. (Thinking back to Day 1’s keynote, I fear that by siloing nonprofits into a separate sector, society-wide equitable change is not possible if only driven by nonprofits.)
  • Jan raised that one nice thing about nonprofits is that they don’t require large amounts of capital (corporations) or people (politics) behind your ideas. This makes the sector an interesting place for movements to be birthed and grow.

What do nonprofits want and need right now? Jan says, “the same things we’ve always wanted: more money and less paperwork.” Jon adds the need for reducing resource dependency (conditions attached to funding) is required to allow nonprofits to do their work and make real change.

On increasing inequality and the need for philanthropy reform:

  • Jan: Nonprofits are angry and frustrated with government and private funders but are muzzling themselves to avoid angering the people who pay for their work. Increasingly we are seeing concentration of resources among nonprofits and a loss of the “middle class” of nonprofits. (Later, she returned to this point and provided a really useful metaphor. We need a rich ecosystem of nonprofits. If we favor specific causes, models, etc., we risk losing the “biodiversity” of the nonprofit sector which will be unequal and unhealthy.) Proposals to reform Donor Advised Funds (DAFs) in California have encountered a massive backlash.
  • Jon: He’s seeing DAFs are increasingly driving the direction of nonprofits. Jon’s organization and a few others founded GrantAdvisor to collect anonymous reviews of grant-makers. They’ve collected the top complaints from reviews and are working with funders to improve their processes.
  • That includes a new #FixTheForm campaign that improves the experience of applying for grants. Some of the top complaints (which are really basic user experience issues!):
    • Inability to see application forms before applying.
    • Inability to save form and come back.
    • Disconnect between how onerous an application is and the amount of funding it actually provides.

Jan smartly compared the “nonprofit industrial complex” with the political “beltway” with a bubble of influence and over-built infrastructure.

An emerging movement in Washington state also working for funder reform is from the BIPOC Executive Directors Coalition of Washington State.

Jan compared the challenges of COVID for nonprofits to natural disasters: Wealthy organizations can afford to rebuild, but not everyone can. This may further inequality among nonprofits. COVID has also shown that private funding pales in comparison to what the government can do: “One law is worth a thousand grant proposals.”

Jan makes another interesting point that the funding models of black-led organizations are more likely to rely on government funding rather than private donations. Capacity-building organizations have largely focused themselves on the needs, expectations, and funding models of white-led (“mainstream”) organizations.

Jan shared a striking story about minimum wage increases: Philanthropy organizations widely supported the California minimum wage increase. Yet, when it passed and organizations with large staffs of wage workers suddenly had big increases to their budget, almost no organizations were willing to immediately increase their funding to make up for the suddenly increased wages.

Jon adds that early nonprofits were usually membership based with dues-paying members and elected boards. This kept organizations much more accountable to the communities they serve.

Laura added that Washington Nonprofits has a large amount of its programs funded by the state’s nonprofit registration fees. However, it has relatively fewer members than other state nonprofit coalitions. The membership fees are an important source of unrestricted funding for advocacy and showing the power of the sector. (Join Washington Nonprofits today!)

(I had to leave 15 minutes before the end, so I’m sure I missed some other interesting nuggets!)

How and Why Not to “Do DEI”

Stephen Tan, Valtas Group

DEI = Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for anyone not familiar.

This session was interestingly about organizations that should not attempt to “do DEI” and also bad reasons organizations use to not “do DEI.” He then went on to talk about the best forms of DEI training and education he has seen.

People who say “we should do DEI” are often only thinking about diversity (demographics), not equity and inclusion. Not much better, some assume that increasing diversity will cause equity and inclusion to improve (it won’t by itself and can even make things worse when done carelessly).

DiversityThe composition of the board and staff reflects the demographic heterogeneity of the communities the organization serves and operated in.HR & Board Development Issue
EquityOrganizational structure, procedures, and allocation of resources promote justice, impartiality, and fairness.Structure & Process Issue
InclusionDecision-making is conducted with the full, fair, participation of all who — by position, title, or role — deserve a voice in such decisions.Organizational Culture Issue

Some people are starting to switch DEI to be EDI, moving equity to the front to focus people on that over diversity. (Or EDI&B, where “B” is for Belonging.) Other additions have been IDEA (for “Accessibility”) or JEDI (for “Justice”). He encourages us not to focus too much on words and focus the purpose of coming up with the words. An acronym can be helpful, but shouldn’t be a distraction.

What is the purpose of DEI and what is the outcome of a successful outcome?

It’s a decision to share power by elevating voices and perspectives that aren’t in the organization and changing internal culture so new voices are heard and valued. Many organizations are afraid of sharing power and don’t want to do that.

Organizations with tight inner circles, top-down decision making, or founders that hold all the power, often can’t change their culture to be equitable and inclusive while those structures and people remain in place. He thinks these organization’s shouldn’t “do DEI” if they are unwilling to change how power is distributed and used in their organization.

Bad reasons not to “do DEI”

  • “DEI won’t help us perform better.” (This has been thoroughly debunked by research on diverse companies’ profitability.)
  • “DEI is just a trend.” (It is not.)
  • “DEI has become too controversial, adversarial, and political.” (This is true and also a terrible reason to avoid it.)
  • “DEI is just reverse discrimination.” (It is not.)
  • “DEI will stifle our carefree organization culture.”
  • “DEI is mission drift. Other organizations are better suited to do this work.” (If you think that, you don’t understand the purpose of DEI. See above. It makes you a better organization.)
  • “We’ve already tried to recruit qualified, diverse employees and directors; they just don’t exist.” (Check your networks and assumptions about qualifications.)
  • “We don’t see color. Our hiring process is already race-neutral. We’re a meritocracy.” (“Where to I start with this. 🙄 This is very unlikely.” I would personally add: If you organization isn’t diverse, is your hiring process really race-neutral?)

An audience members asked a (extremely good) question about where “anti-racism” fits into this. Anti-racism isn’t just a way of reframing DEI but a way of expanding the work and becoming more activist to make structural change.

Asked to expand on “meritocracy”: DEI is a recognition that a country founded on ideals of individual merit has resulted in a society that is not consistent with that principle.

Effective DEI Training

The American Psychological Association did a meta-analysis of the most effective types of diversity training over time. Best trainings targeted awareness and skills development and happened over time.

He highlighted that some organizations fail by barely starting this process and focusing on basic awareness education. Interestingly, some other organizations do a little education and then just straight to anti-racist activism. (He highlighted the number of organizations that have jumped straight to the books How to Be Anti-Racist or White Fragility without teaching people first about implicit bias or institutional racism. This can be counter-productive by losing people by pushing them too far too fast. (It’s pedagogically unsound.)

He recommended these specific types of trainings for implementing DEI that he thinks is most effective:

Level 1, Training for Awareness and Knowledge: Terms & Definitions, Organizational Values & Goals, Cultural Sensitivity, Unconscious/Implicit Bias, Facilitated Town Halls. Level 2, Skills: Intercultural communication, accommodation, "belonging", Inclusive recruitment and hiring, inclusive management and leadership. Level 3, Action & Advocacy: Allyship, Anti-oppression, Community & sector engagement

While a few personal tasks kept me from the other sessions of the day, the two I went to were extremely interesting and engaging. This third and final day cemented the value of this conference experience for me!

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