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

 

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.

I never imagined I would have a role as Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusionat FSG or anywhere else. It’s been a learning journey for me, and for our organization.

Efrain Gutierrez described how FSG began awakening to our privilege. This awakening, in parallel with our increasing understanding of what it means to support complex social change efforts, has helped us more tangibly understand what Bill O’Brien meant when he said, “the success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” As John Kania discussed, we can’t contribute to a different vision of our future if that future doesn’t exist in some way in ourselves. FSG had to start with creating space for personal self-examination as well as organizational work.

Some of my earliest memories involve family experiences with discriminationmy parents each hail from different racial, ethnic, and national backgroundsand I’ve long been engaged around issues related to race, gender, sexual identity, and immigration. I always worked to consider equity in my consulting projects, and when FSG decided to test out having a dedicated position to support the change process, I was thrilled to help out. The initial commitment was part-timeI was still working with clientsand temporary, as we worked to better understand what we might need. This may have been to my benefit. Had I fully understood the depth of the work required, I may have shied away from the responsibility!

As a career strategy and evaluation consultant, I felt it would be helpful to clarify an approach that could guide our path forward. I had been with FSG for several years and had a lot of ideas, but also recognized I had never tried to shift an entire organizational culture around equity. There was a lot I didn’t know, so I dug into research—I highly recommend the work of D5 Coalition, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Race Forward, and many more. I studied adult learning methods, and got valuable input from a range of people including Sheri Brady and Paul Schmitz (FSG’s partners in the Collective Impact Forum), Kelly Brown from D5, Sally Yee from Meyer Memorial Trust, and others who shared from their own experiences working to support organizations in shifting their awareness and practices. I was also lucky that the pre-existing team FSG created to design our initial diversity strategy evolved into a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Steering Committee. I had support from many enthusiastic colleagues all around the firm, and I wasn’t tackling this alone.

We developed a 3-part framework to organize our work; in no way has our process been as clean or linear as the graphic may suggest. Also, it pretty quickly became clear that our organizational change effort wasn’t part-time, temporary work. Over time, I ended up shifting from working with clients to focusing fully on our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and building our capacity to deliver more deeply on our mission. We’ve had questions about how we approached this change; I’ve shared below more detail about what we’ve tried so far.

Learning: Setting the foundation from which to build

Because our people had varying levels of experience in examining issues related to equity, we started with some shared language and understanding. We engaged in firmwide trainings and dialogues on topics such as privilege, marginalization, unconscious bias, systemic oppression, and tactics for undoing bias and structural inequities—and how these impact our work both internally and externally.

Given the geographies around the world in which we live and work, we have covered a range of topics such as racial and gender equity as well as religious, caste, and immigration-based oppression. Some of our dialogues have been centralized in support of strengthening our common understanding, while others have been more locally driven by employees wanting to explore a particular topic. We also created space in our internal website to share resources, ask questions, and engage in discussions. In addition to trainings and dialogues offered internally, FSGers are using professional development funds to access other resources such as webinars, books, externally-hosted trainings, conferences, and subscriptions to forums such as Racial Equity Tools.

Not surprisingly, it hasn’t been easy to go through this learning process. On a personal level, I’m continuing to struggle with my own understanding of how my parents’ interracial and cross-national marriage impacted my family and the way I identify and move through the world. The discomfort is worthwhile; it’s also caused some charged situations and affected personal relationships. The same has been true at FSG. We make mistakes; we say things that are problematic and sometimes harmful; we are learning to call each other in.

We are becoming more comfortable with discomfort, and working to undo norms that prioritize harmony over candor and progress. We have seen this as a core set of skills for deepening our capacity. If we never hear we’ve made a mistake, we’re probably not trying hard enough. Giving and receiving feedback gracefully is the only way we can really learn and grow.

Operationalizing: Examining our policies, procedures, and norms

Once we started to make progress on our collective understanding of issues related to equity, we began systematically examining how we were we living up to our values of supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion. What needed to change in our practices as we continued to evolve?

We began with a self-assessment of our internal operations, from communications to finance to recruiting to professional development. We discovered we sometimes had policies or practices in place that led to unintended consequences. For example, we realized that our reimbursement policy around flights advantaged FSGers of higher socioeconomic status because they were only paid back after flights had been completed. Travel costs could add up—and we were asking employees to shoulder the costs until we reimbursed them later. So we adjusted the policy to give FSGers the ability to charge travel directly.

We created tools to help FSGers identify and address potential biases they might have, such as primes to prompt FSGers to consciously consider a number of factors when assessing interview candidates and when writing reviews for or providing feedback to fellow FSGers. For example, “Is it possible that identity factors such as race, gender, ability, etc. may have influenced your perception of the reviewee’s performance?"

We changed our job descriptions, recruiting channels, and interview protocols, including a partnership with Sponsors for Educational Opportunity to work with interns from underrepresented backgrounds. As a result, more people of color and people of different educational and professional backgrounds are joining FSG, which is pushing us to adapt our culture to be more inclusive (e.g., we are working to better cultivate and honor the wider range of skills and experiences people are bringing to our work).  

As has been true in our client work, we couldn’t develop a strategy and expect it to remain static, especially when striving toward transformative, systems-oriented change. Our self-assessment helped us see we needed guidance, and we brought in Management Assistance Group (MAG). MAG conducted a comprehensive review of our current levels of awareness and capacity regarding equity; our policies, procedures, and norms; our approaches to learning and partnership; opportunities to more effectively leverage our talent; leadership styles and needs; approaches to our consulting and field-building work; how we define success and accountability; and our culture.

In line with their focus on deep equity, MAG provided us with nuanced findings, some of which were hard to face, and a targeted set of recommendations. This has helped us refine our approach in a number of ways, including driving a focus on equity deeper among various functional areas within the firm. For example, we examined the ways in which we historically defined “competence” and have refined the tools we use for assessing employee performance to more explicitly and consistently include skills and abilities aligned with a focus on equity, systems thinking, and adaptive leadership. We have also redefined our organizational values and clarified our vision for how we can more deeply focus on equity in the work we do in the world. MAG’s support has opened up possibilities that we couldn’t have seen or been prepared for when we first got started.

Thankfully, we’ve also benefited from the capacity of FSGers across teams and offices as we continue to implement the recommendations from MAG. In particular, while support from leadership has been critical, we wouldn’t be where we are without energy from the ground up. I might be the only person with “diversity, equity, and inclusion” in my title, but my role has never been to “do the DEI work” alone; it’s been to strengthen the capacity of and connect dots between every single person at FSG to contribute to greater diversity, equity, and inclusion within the firm and in our consulting and field-building work.

FSGers have come together to convene around areas of interest, and today we have a range of self-organized and active affinity groups covering identities such as African Diaspora, Latinx, Asian American Pacific Islander, parents, and FSGers with disabilities. We also have several gender circles, groups of FSGers who come together to discuss issues related to different gender identities. In addition to serving as safe spaces where employees can come together in community, the groups strengthen relationships, foster deeper awareness and learning, and surface ideas to strengthen our internally- and externally-facing work.

While we are making progress, we continue to have work ahead of us; the increased attention and dialogue is surfacing questions about the ways in which we are living into our values and identifying continued areas where we may be able to do more.

Partnering: Bringing equity in more consistently as part of our approach

Only after starting to make progress on learning and operationalizing could we really begin to drive a focus on equity more consistently in our work with others. We continue to build relationships with people who strengthen our field-building efforts and with whom we can collaborate in our consulting projects (such as PolicyLink). We have also examined how we work and developed a tool to break down consulting projects into 8 common “stages,” with relevant equity-focused suggestions and resources for each.

We are becoming a stronger strategy, evaluation, and research firm by more consistently examining equity as part of the work we do, and by doing a better job of highlighting the skills and perspectives of the many people and organizations that have been doing deep, equity-focused work for a long time. While we are earliest in our journey along this piece, we are seeing some indicators that the internal work we’ve been doing is affecting the way we show up externally

Ultimately, this is a journey and not a destination. We are learning that pursuing equity means continually examining outcomes and ways of being, not thinking you’re “there” and then getting complacent. We have made some progress; our demographics have changed at all levels including our leadership and Board. Most notably our conversations and language have changed substantially. Three years ago, it was not common to hear discussions about privilege, racism, or gender inequity. Today, it is uncommon not to hear people questioning how marginalization, power, and inequitable political, legal, or social structures might be contributing to the social issues we are tackling in our work. FSGers across the firm are sharing resources, ideas, and questions regularly through our internal website. That said, power dynamics still exist within the firm, and it is not always comfortable to raise questions or concerns, particularly if they are focused on FSG itself. We are continuing to work toward improved communication and feedback loops. We have a lot more to learn, continued changes ahead, and will most certainly make mistakes.

As the daughter of multi-racial immigrants, I’m just so very grateful. To my fellow FSGers who engage so authentically, teach me more every day, and bring the same drive for impact they’ve always had to tackle what for some of us is a less-explored frontier. To the many friends, clients, and critics who have deepened my awareness and ability. And to the many of you who will continue to push me and FSG forward. In particular, I’m grateful to Sheryl Petty from Management Assistance Group, who continues to shape my thinking and approach in invaluable ways. We can’t achieve the world we want—where we can no longer predict someone’s likely life outcomes based on how they identify (or are identified by others)—unless we’re doing it together. We welcome your thoughts and questions—we continue to have a lot to learn. Please reach out to me if you would like to connect.  

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

Veronica Borgonovi

Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion