Equity: eq·ui·ty | Pronounced: ˈekwədē/

What is equity? It’s a noun, a buzzword in philanthropy, an investment term, a branch of law, a value of shares issued from a company. Had you asked me 2 years ago what equity meant, I would have told you with confidence that it means equal outcomes regardless of race, gender, ability, class, etc. But I’m learning that it means more than that, and to be honest it’s a hard thing to put words on. Tina Bailey, my co-leader of the Equity Team at Triangle Community Foundation says it more clearly. “I personally believe there is no real definition of equity, because how can society determine what’s fair to someone else?… It’s not our job to determine if what we believe to be true is actually true. It’s our job to make sure what we believe does not make others feel mistreated or inferior because of what they believe to be true.”

So I can’t tell you exactly how I define equity yet, but I do think it is very much a conversation needed within philanthropy.

Why do I think funders need to talk about equity?

1. Because philanthropic institutions hold power and resources, two tools which help reverse the systems that perpetuate inequity. Power and resources can be used in many ways (and often for good!), but these tools often exist to the funder’s advantage.

2. Because I’m not sure philanthropy would exist if there was not systemic financial inequity. If funders do our jobs right, the problems that plague our communities will be eradicated and we eventually put ourselves out of business.

3. Because philanthropy has a responsibility to the public and nonprofits, however the bread crumbs of accountability from funder to community impacted by systemic inequity may be hard to follow. Power imbalances play a large role here. Can you imagine how the script would flip if funders applied to nonprofits to be allowed to fund them?

4. Because funders are not typically representative of those experiencing poverty. Let’s daydream for a moment here — what if affordable housing funding was decided by individuals who have experienced housing insecurity? Lived experience is an expertise you cannot learn in school and something that holds tremendous value. In my role it’s my job to hold up other’s voices. I trust that someday I will see those directly impacted making the actual funding decisions.

5. Because intention doesn’t equal impact. Despite best intentions, implicit bias is still a reality for everyone, including funders. It’s especially important for funders to know and name this, as our implicit bias has a much larger impact than we may realize (see #1).

6. Because I wonder if funders aren’t careful — is it possible that we could end up serving the problems of inequity instead of making the change our communities need and nonprofits are creating?

#realtalk: I chose to go into the nonprofit sector because I wanted to make a difference. I’ll take the liberty to speak on behalf of all my colleagues at the Foundation and say that we are incredibly proud of what we do. Given that intention, it is personally very challenging for me to consider that there’s a chance I may not have my job if poverty did not exist. Learning that intention is not the same as impact is very much a part of this journey.

How does this show up at Triangle Community Foundation?

While this conversation is never complete, the Foundation has made (mostly internal) changes be more equitable based on feedback from nonprofits, research and best practices in philanthropy. To “lift the hood”:

- We fund four focus areas (Community Development, Environmental Conservation, Regional Arts and Youth Literacy) because our community told us these are the places we should focus.

- We try to let those with stories speak for themselves. Whether that’s a donor who grant with equity in mind or a student who received a life-changing scholarship, we focus on the individuals who benefited and the nonprofit ecosystem that supported them.

- Our focus areas specifically support grantees that work with underfunded populations — and we are trying to better understand why these groups are consistently left out of the conversation. (For example, a recent internal evaluation showed that the LGBTQ+ population is underrepresented in our grant programs. We’re working to change that.)

- We collaborate to be more effective at solving the problems that exist. For example, we started a collaborative of scholarship providers in the Triangle, so that if we do not have an appropriate scholarship for a student, we can redirect them to someone who does.

- We have conversations about representation — both in our organization and the organizations that we support through discretionary funds. More on that soon.

- We learn with our donors about systemic inequity — this past year we’ve been on that journey specifically focusing on women.

- We ask for feedback from grantees while clearly stating that their feedback is confidential and will not impact any future funding opportunities. The more we ask those questions, the more we build trust with the nonprofits doing the work on the ground, the more constructive feedback about their grantee experience we get, the more we can adjust our process to better work for them.

Triangle Community Foundation wants you to know that we are committing to this work because it directly connects to the wellbeing of every resident in the Triangle. We intend to be more equitable and we want to see the measurable impact those shifts can have within the Triangle. If I’m being honest, I want to see the impact within myself too.

We’re starting with an internal team co-lead by Tina Bailey and myself. We have a lot of work to do. There are many opportunities within internal policies as well as our grantmaking and our Equity Team will be working to walk towards equity within all facets of our organization. We’re asking ourselves hard questions slowly and multiple times. For these conversations to solve (not serve) these problems, we recognize our journey will be slow and steady.

A wise woman (Tina Bailey again here) brings it all home with this statement: “We could fight back and forth about whether equity is about fairness or impartiality towards others that are different than we are. But the real question is would it matter? Will determining an accurate definition of what equity is, change that fact someone is going to feel they have been treated unfairly or impartial? Why can’t we just accept that society as a whole has biases and there are differences in our upbringing, our beliefs, and our interpretations of reality? Why can’t we as society make a promise to not allow these differences to interfere with the way we see others, but as a way in which we can help other? My way is not wrong. Your way is not wrong. But when we use it to disqualify another human being we all lose. “

This post was written for the Foundation by Laurel Shulman, Donor Services Officer.