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The Importance of Framing for Foundations Engaging on Equity

A senior leader from a small family foundation recently told me the story of when her organization first began conversations about racial equity and its role in the foundation’s work. She described the session—facilitated by an external consultant—as “tense” and “aggressive,” triggering a wide range of emotions and reactions for trustees and staff. Following the session, the foundation instituted a moratorium on external consultants and conversations about how the Foundation might advance racial equity stalled.

This story is all too familiar. It highlights the fears and risks many foundation staff and leaders carry daily as they seek to make their philanthropic institutions more equitable. And it reminds us of a very simple old adage—it’s not always what you say, but how you say it.

Over the past few years, FSG has been on its own journey to bring a stronger equity focus to our work, both internally and externally. We have built, and continue to refine, an internal library of resources that support equity analysis with clients and partners. From disaggregating data that highlights disparities across demographic groups to sharing power with those most impacted by social challenges, we draw from the work of field leaders, partners, and friends. And we strive to apply these tools to each project.

We know, however, that analysis, pattern recognition, and insights on their own are insufficient. This analysis must be married with effective framing that builds buy-in and support across stakeholders, each likely at different stages on their own journey to understanding and embracing the concepts of equity. We are becoming intentional about how we pursue our analysis and insights and how we frame them. We are beginning to ask ourselves, our clients, and our partners, how do we frame this work to maintain the productive engagement that advances outcomes and results?

The answer to this nuanced question is that it varies. Every organization is different, and as any transformation expert will attest, navigating unique organizational norms is critical to any change effort. Hence, I pose the question not to provide a simple solution, but to highlight the need for all of us to ask this question as a critical step on the path to equitable systems change.

Equity Framing Tools

As many of us across the field bring an equity analysis to our giving and problem-solving, how do we also build our understanding of ways to frame that analysis to build buy-in and support? FSG has started to find three framing tools particularly useful.

Adult Learning Theory

When I reflect on the “tense” and “aggressive” dynamic that can creep into many racial equity conversations, I’m reminded of the fight-or-flight response, our biological response to a real or perceived threat. It shuts down our learning centers and focuses the body on survival. It triggers defensiveness, sweating, tears and a range of emotions. This is what Robin DiAngelo, one of the critical friends that have supported FSG’s learning journey, describes as “white fragility.” This response, however, does not typically trigger deeper learning and can often derail a strategic planning workshop. So how might we apply the concepts and best practices from adult learning theory to how we frame race-conscious conversations?

One can use disorienting dilemmas—experiences, stories, and data that do not fit into a person’s current beliefs about the world—to activate critical reflection for session participants and provide ample time for that reflection in facilitation. Following the core principles of andragogy, you can present your equity analysis as problem-centered vs. content-oriented, encouraging active participation and collaboration to develop solutions. You can highlight both the immediate value and long-term impact of equity-grounded strategies and solutions, intentionally mapping the links to participant’s work or personal lives. FSG is still building our fluency in these strategies, but we think they hold tremendous potential for maintaining productive engagement across session participants.

Targeted Universalism

Originally developed by professor and critical race scholar john a. powell, targeted universalism is an inclusive approach for implementing population-level interventions. It departs from the dichotomy of universal vs. targeted approaches and instead presents a blended option: set universal goals (e.g., 100% math proficiency for among all eighth-grade students) that are achieved by deploying targeted approaches that address the varying needs and circumstances of each group (e.g. provide ELL-specific math tutoring).

Many organizations, including FSG, have written about this simple yet powerful concept. We applied it in our collective impact work with the Staten Island Foundation. Today, we continue to use targeted universalism across client types and sectors. In a world of increased division and othering across many lines of difference, we recognize the need to establish “big tents,” where many diverse stakeholders may seem themselves reflected. We also hear the concern that prioritizing or favoring any one of these stakeholder groups could cause further division or even deepen historic stereotypes. In these instances and many more, we have found targeted universalism as an effective frame. We frame our equity analysis to demonstrate how it is impossible to achieve universal, population-level goals without targeted, differentiated strategies that are responsive to the needs, experiences, and contexts of different population segments.

Science of Human Development

A few years ago, I co-facilitated a workshop on the basics of brain science for a group of school, district, and community leaders exploring how trauma-informed learning environments might boost student success. We highlighted how the brain is remarkably malleable throughout life and how strong, trusting relationships are essential to learning and development. Following the session, a former gang member approached my co-presenter and me. He shared that while he never knew the brain science, the tactics and strategies we presented were the same as those intuitively used throughout gang culture. He went on to say that “if this science helps more people understand what all kids need, then I’m all for it.”

The science of human development holds tremendous potential for helping us understand social challenges and their impacts on our brains and bodies, both individually and collectively. When we “teach” the basics of this science and use our equity analysis to demonstrate how it shows up in context, we can create an entry point to an equity-focused conversation that might otherwise be challenging. For example, a growing body of scientific evidence supports that individuals are remarkably variable, changing dramatically over time, even moment-to-moment. If we use this science to debunk the myth of the “average student,” then we can build support for differentiated strategies that help unlock the potential of every child. Similarly, a synthesis of neurobiology, developmental psychology and a variety of other scientific disciplines demonstrates that skill development—from basic fractions to high-order reasoning—is inextricably linked to our context (i.e., the environments and relationships to which we are exposed). Applying this science, we can see that a giving strategy implemented broadly without regard and understanding for local context is unlikely to achieve intended outcomes. In both cases, we open the door to an equity-grounded conversation by utilizing an unexpected frame.

A former teacher turned grantmaker helped jumpstart my thinking on how to get creative and flexible in framing issues of equity. Familiar with the story shared at the opening of this post, she talked about the desire for tools, similar to the ones she used as a math teacher, to maintain a productive struggle around issues of race and equity with her foundation leadership. As we all learn together and continue to share resources we’re testing, we’d love to hear whether these ideas resonate with field leaders, partners, and friends grappling with similar challenges. In that spirit of learning, what framing tools have you found effective in maintaining a productive struggle? Share your thoughts on my LinkedIn post.

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John Harper

Managing Director