FSG’s Awakening to Privilege: Reflections on Our Equity Journey

Over the past several years, FSG has made a number of changes to bring greater focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion principles into the work we do with our clients, partners, and communities. We are early in our journey and are sharing our experiences in the spirit of learning—both for us and for other organizations that may similarly be early in their own efforts to focus more on equity as part of social change.

In this blog series, we highlight what is surfacing as we go—internally within FSG and how this is showing up in our work. We are grateful for the guidance so many in the field are sharing and look forward to continued dialogue with and learning from all of you who are working in pursuit of just and equitable outcomes for all people.

Having been part of FSG for more than 7 years, I have seen some of the most critical aspects of what I call “FSG’s awakening to privilege” and I want to share some reflections on this journey. Many white-led, upper-middle-class institutions in philanthropy, including FSG, are exploring how they can authentically embed equity in their practices. As a professional with social justice values working in one of these privileged institutions, I believe our organizations have the responsibility to share their journeys, learn from each other, and listen to those who have been doing social justice work for decades.

Our journey has definitely not been easy as we have had to reckon with our assumptions, biases, and the ways FSG has benefited—and continues to benefit from—different types of privilege (like white, class, and male privilege). There is a lot we need to do, but we hope that our authentic engagement and hard work will allow us to continue to learn from our mistakes and make progress. I hope these reflections contribute to the ongoing dialogue on how to embed equity in the social sector and work together towards justice for all.

It was hard for us to start talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion at work but voices from queer employees and employees of color together with external feedback created a sense of urgency.

When I started working at FSG in 2010, it was not the norm to talk about issues of race and social justice openly and as part of our work. FSG had affirming policies for some underserved groups—for example, offering health insurance to my same-sex partner when it was not popular or mandatory—but conversations about race and class were not common. In discussions related to our work, I noticed how some of my team members showed discomfort when I brought up concepts such as white supremacy or systemic oppression.

After I’d been at FSG a few months, a bottom-up movement started to emerge. A few newcomers to the firm, mostly LGBTQ and folks of color, started to talk amongst ourselves and with leadership about the need to have internal conversations related to race, gender, and class. We found a leader in our head of HR at the time, and with her support, we started a series of quarterly “Diversity Dialogues.”

These discussions offered a dedicated space for FSGers, particularly those less familiar with their privilege, to learn about the realities of underserved communities and face their personal privilege. The dialogues also created a space for folks of color and LGBTQ folks to talk about negative situations they had experienced at the firm. Overall, these dialogues were the first step for many FSGers in getting more comfortable feeling uncomfortable—which is not something commonly celebrated in white, upper-middle class business or academic environments.

One loud and clear takeaway was the need to diversify our staff. Input from our clients confirmed this and fueled our sense of urgency. We received strong feedback from a national foundation regarding the need to increase our racial diversity. Around the same time, community organizations began asking us to include Latinx or Black team members on our consulting teams when working with predominantly Latinx or Black communities because they knew it would make the work stronger. These outside perspectives were critical in helping us, and particularly our leadership, see that we were lacking the diversity needed to do our best work.

Motivated by this internal and external feedback, FSG took immediate action: we started processes to increase the diversity of our Board and began a conversation with Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), a pipeline program for young leaders of color, to bring more diverse candidates to the firm. Little by little, the firm started to look different. I was excited about our progress but also recognized that we still had a long way to go.

Diversity without inclusion does not work

We spent the initial phase of our DEI journey getting comfortable talking about equity, looking at our perceptions, biases, and assumptions, and finding ways to diversify our Board and staff. Despite those efforts, we stumbled when it came to really changing our culture and internal norms in a way that supported inclusion. This was very evident when we contracted a well-known equity advisory firm to help us develop our diversity strategy. From the very beginning of our engagement, we questioned whether they had the ability to help us develop the strategy. There was a sense that “they did not get us,” without a reflection of whether we were the ones who didn’t get them.

Behind this was a series of assumptions about “the best way” to work and how we defined competency. FSG’s culture, as in many other privileged organizations in the social sector, had rigid unwritten rules and assumptions around “professionalism,” “quality,” and “efficiency” that were based on upper-middle class, white dominant culture. This culture affected our ability to work or communicate in ways that were different, which eroded our relationship with our advisors and our ability to trust their guidance. When we commented that they “worked differently,” we were, in fact, questioning their methods; when we expressed things weren’t moving fast enough, we were, in fact, questioning their process.

This experience opened the door for an internal conversation on how to create a more inclusive culture at FSG. Our inability to appreciate different ways of effective working and being was not only affecting our relationships with partners but also our ability to retain employees of color. I and fellow employees of color started sharing our experiences feeling ignored or inadequate during meetings if we didn’t do things “the FSG way.”

Hearing that many employees were feeling excluded from our culture was a very painful experience for many, particularly for those who have worked so hard to build FSG. We started to try to identify the parts of our culture that are important and valuable to our clients (e.g., quality of our products, effective facilitation) and the elements of our culture that are more related to style and could be different for different people and still be effective (e.g., how to conduct a meeting, how to talk to clients, how to provide feedback). We also started hiring more folks with non-MBA degrees who were working in other fields in the social sector. This helped us bring other ways of thinking and diversified the skillsets we offer which allowed us to appeal to different kinds of clients with varied needs.

Over time, we again found ourselves needing external guidance and our ability to create a more inclusive culture was tested a second time. This time we engaged Management Assistance Group (MAG) to help us refine our internal DEI strategy. MAG also worked a bit differently than us, and again, our ability to listen to tough messages and be open to other ways of being and working was tested. While we did try to be more open, we failed. Throughout the process, we continued to question their methods, request different formats for the deliverables, and express concern about timelines and the pace of change.

We had a powerful conversation with MAG where they expressed how difficult it was to engage with us because we were treating them as if their approaches were not up to our standards when in truth, they were just different. As I was hearing MAG’s feedback, I started to relate; our advisors were feeling the same way I, and many folks of color, felt every day. This was a wakeup call for many of us, to recognize how white dominant culture was impacting how we engage with support providers. We had several meetings on how to change our culture in ways that would allow us to welcome and learn from multiple ways of working.

Under the leadership of our Director of DEI, Veronica Borgonovi, we continued working with MAG and continue to practice being open, listening, and valuing different ways of working. We also engaged our leadership team in a White Fragility Training that was transformational for many of them, particularly those who benefited most from white, male, class privilege. The training was extended to all staff in our U.S. offices. We have created other avenues for culture change such as affinity groups, local office discussions, and DEI champions. All these mechanisms started to shift our culture into a more inclusive workplace.

Connecting DEI to our ability to do our work right elevated the relevance of our needed transformation

Many at FSG were excited about our internal work and our conversations about culture but nothing was more effective in creating a sense of ownership than connecting DEI to our ability to be effective consultants in the social sector. MAG left us with a valuable gift—we came out from our engagement with them with a clear rationale behind why DEI was important for our work at FSG. In addition to the moral argument, which everyone agreed was important, we were able to articulate how furthering our understanding of equity concepts made us more effective consultants and partners. Understanding systemic oppression, racism, and power dynamics helps us develop more appropriate strategies and evaluations for our clients.

This was an important step for the firm because that allowed us to articulate why it was important to invest in our equity journey more intentionally. It also energized our staff because they were able to more deeply see a direct relationship between our work around diversity, equity, and inclusion and their ability to better support our clients and the communities we serve. It also allowed us to start institutionalizing equity into our processes and structures.

FSG today

Today’s FSG is a different place from the one I first joined. Our staff, leadership, and board are increasingly diverse. Conversations have changed since 2010; many of our staff are deeply engaging in discussions about bias, privilege, structural oppression, and designing targeted and appropriate strategies. We’ve increased the diversity of experiences, skills, and thought in our hiring, have expanded notions of “quality,” and are getting better at accepting different, effective ways of being, knowing, and doing.

Of course, we continue to have work ahead. For example, some of our consultants wonder whether they have the skills to do the work as we start to focus more on equity in our strategy and evaluation work; we are doing learning sessions around the firm about how we are focusing on equity in our projects. Some FSGers have questioned whether the firm’s stance on equity leaves space for conservative perspectives. Our leadership has been clear that centering on equity does not fall only on one side of a political divide. We can have different ways of getting to a more just society—what is important is that we are all living by the same core values.

I’ve seen FSGers become more humble as we better understand that learning about equity, power, and privilege is a continuous process. We can’t always see all perspectives; we can always listen, watch for what we don’t know, and consider alternative voices and solutions.

It is so important to me and many others across the firm that FSG shows up in equity conversations with consistency and integrity. As we move forward we have to continue to respect, honor, and follow the lead of the many people and organizations that have been carrying the weight of doing this work for decades. I’m extremely proud of the work we have done and the transformation I have seen, and I’m grateful for the many FSGers involved in FSG’s equity journey. I’m confident that our efforts will make the work we do even stronger.

Read How FSG is Learning, Operationalizing, and Partnering in Pursuit of Equity >

Read When Intention Meets Practice: How Equity is Showing Up More in Our Work >


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