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

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.

The room went silent as Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO and founder of PolicyLink, started to speak at the 2017 Shared Value Leadership Summit. Over 400 corporate leaders listened as she made a clear case for why corporate and societal prosperity hinges on creating opportunities for communities of color. When she finished her opening remarks, the room erupted in applause. This was a first at the Shared Value Leadership Summit, as issues of racial discrimination were rarely discussed in past keynote addresses. This intentional blending of PolicyLink’s equity agenda and our shared value framework is just one example of the ways in which a more explicit focus on equity is showing up in FSG’s work.

The social sector is increasingly recognizing the ways in which racism and other forms of marginalization impact the systems, structures, and issues we are working to address in our work, and FSG is no exception. Over the past several years we have taken several steps to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion within FSG and in the work we do with our clients, partners, and communities. Members of FSG’s leadership have begun examining individual and organizational privilege and power and operationalizing this change within FSG in a number of ways.

Our internal efforts mean little if they’re not translating into changes in how we work. While we still have more to do and expect more change to come, we are seeing encouraging signs that the seeds planted over the past several years are beginning to sprout. Here are some examples:

We are more consistently analyzing disparities and assessing whether impact is equitable.

As Efrain discussed, FSG has long had members of our team who care deeply about justice and bring that perspective to their work. We also have FSGers who care deeply about creating social change but had less experience and skill in explicitly analyzing and addressing bias and structural barriers. Therefore, our first priority was to be more intentional and consistent about how we address equity as part of the work we have always done.

We are working hard to ensure that all members of our team have a baseline understanding of how to analyze and address bias and structural barriers in our work. We are working on recruiting and retention efforts to increase the diversity of our team with respect to demographic and professional backgrounds. We have also worked to identify common “stages” of our consulting projects and to identify considerations and resources at each stage that can help us more deeply and regularly examine disparities, name and assess root causes, and explore whether possible solutions might yield equitable or inequitable outcomes. Last year, we conducted training in all 6 of our offices to practice applying the tool to scenarios involving project scoping, research, stakeholder facilitation, and analysis of recommendations. The training also created space for FSGers to share what we have been learning through their experiences, and to grapple with a range of questions we see coming up in our work.

We have also created space in various internal forums to explicitly share lessons and questions. As one example, our Strategic Learning and Evaluation practice members have allocated space in every meeting agenda to share stories about what they’ve tried and found useful on the topic of equity, where they’ve struggled, or where they are currently grappling with questions and could benefit from ideas from others in the group. During a recent retreat, we discussed culturally responsive evaluation methods, debriefed this informative article on the intersection of culturally responsive and systems-oriented evaluation approaches, and defined several equity-focused learning questions to guide the team’s thinking throughout 2018. The strategic learning and evaluation team also shares resources frequently, such as the tools and guidance put forward by The Equitable Evaluation Projectif you haven’t yet read their framing paper, we highly recommend it.

Of course, we have more work ahead. We continue to build toward a more consistent baseline where all FSGers have high levels of sophistication and experience when talking about and exploring equity.

We are being more intentional about addressing gaps we may have.

We are working to more intentionally and fully engage with people and organizations who understand the issues or communities we are working with and who can complement areas where we may not have important skills or knowledge. For example, our work around collective impact has been an important source of learning. As we published insights observed through projects we had been involved in, we began hearing feedback that we had left out important pieces around community engagement and equity. To be frank, we didn’t fully hear or absorb this input right away.

Thankfully, we had relationships with folks such as Sheri Brady from the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions and Paul Schmitz, formerly with Public Allies. As partners with us in the Collective Impact Forum, they helped us better understand the feedback we were hearing and reckon with why it was so important to be explicit about equity and include people with more direct experience of particular issues as leaders in the change process. Over time and in continued partnership, we have pushed to more clearly focus on equity in the way we talk about and support cross-sector collaboration.

This increased understanding is changing the way we approach projects where we recognize we are missing particular skills or knowledge that might meaningfully impact the work. For example, FSG was invited to help design and structure a complex, multi-stakeholder effort to support high-quality early childhood development and education in Detroit, called Hope Starts Here. While we brought experience in both early childhood and cross-sector systems change efforts, we, our clients, and other local stakeholders involved in the early project conception recognized FSG lacked knowledge of and connections to the local community, as well as specific capacities in communications. Therefore, we partnered with EarlyWorks, a local communications and community engagement firm, to co-design and co-lead the project. This partnership immeasurably strengthened Hope Starts Here by ensuring that the design phase included significant community engagement and that the initiative’s strategies and communications were rooted in the local context. Moreover, FSG learned a tremendous amount from working with EarlyWorks, including new approaches to community engagement, how to more authentically center and listen to community voices in our work, and more broadly, the depth of insight and value that local partners can provide when working in situations where context is as important as content.

We are leveraging our platforms to better spotlight how marginalization hinders progress.

Over the years, FSG has published and contributed to conferences and other learning sessions in order to share what we were learning and to improve practice in the sector more broadly. We now recognize that in many cases, we were not explicit or specific about how to consider and address the impact of historical and structural marginalization as part of this work.

As we move forward, we are committed to using our platforms to better highlight how marginalization of particular groups of people holds us all back from meaningful progress. For example, in 2015, we partnered with the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions and PolicyLink to increase attention to the need for an explicit focus on equity as part of all collective impact efforts, and to share suggestions for how to put this into practice. In 2017, PolicyLink and FSG examined why corporate America has largely failed to realize the substantial business value that can be created by advancing racial equity and how to address this. Our joint report, The Competitive Advantage of Racial Equity, spotlights examples from 12 leading companies such as Gap Inc., PayPal, and Cigna that are using business practices to advance racial equity.

FSGers are also examining events we contribute to or host in efforts to lift up a range of perspectives, particularly from those who work to empower and center underserved communities. For example, last year we were thrilled that Marshall Ganz shared lessons about the critical role that organizing plays in community change efforts when he spoke to over 800 social change practitioners as part of the Collective Impact Forum’s 2017 convening in Boston. This sometimes also means we step aside, or away entirely if we feel a particular platform can be better used to highlight the work of others. When invited to join panel discussions, we are doing a better job of asking who else will participate and suggesting others who might speak instead of us, particularly when we feel there is an imbalance within the panel based on gender, race/ethnicity, direct experience, or other factors.

Our increasing awareness and capacity around equity are also driving us to dig deeper into specific issues and lift up what we are learning. For example, several FSGers are working to shine a stronger light on gender issues, such as the ways in which gender identities impact employees, customers, and ultimately businesses. We are collaborating with companies and researchers to better understand how biases and structures impact retention and progression and continue to share what we are learning, like this data that depicts gender and racial disparities in the way young people experience unemployment.

We are strengthening partnerships in pursuit of justice.

Our increasing emphasis on equity has led us to a range of ways of partnering with others—from collaborating on speaking events to co-delivering on consulting projects. Last year, FSG decided to invest in a dedicated role to more effectively learn from and collaborate with the many people and organizations who have been doing deep equity-guided work for a long time. Efrain Gutierrez and Admas Kanyagia, 2 long-time champions of diversity, equity, and inclusion within our consulting practice, stepped up as Associate Director and Director of Equity Partnerships, respectively. Admas has since left to support CSR and philanthropy for a technology company in the Bay Area, where she lives—a tremendous opportunity to influence change in her local community.

Our hope is that the equity partnerships work can help FSG continue to drive to even greater impact in the work we do. More specifically, we aim to:

  1. Increase FSG’s attendance at conferences and forums where equity is centered so we can listen and learn
  2. Deepen FSG’s partnerships with national and local practitioners to both offer and receive complementary capabilities in our consulting and field-building work
  3. Collaborate with others in our spheres of influence to advance ideas that explicitly examine equity as a core element of social sector strategies and approaches

Over the past year, we have been able to attend more forums and learn from those who have paved the way for current equity conversations in philanthropy, like the affinity groups members of Change Philanthropy. Interactions with movement leaders have helped us deepen our understanding and skills, while also serving as an important source of feedback for FSG. At times, this feedback can be challenging—we have been confronted with valuable input about where we are suited to play a role and where it may be more helpful for us to step back or away. Yet it is precisely that kind of dialogue and engagement that can help us continue to improve our practice as we work to address historical injustices and improve outcomes for all.

We are in this together.

While Efrain provides focused support around our partnership efforts, many others around the firm continue to attend conferences and engage in dialogues, develop relationships, and experiment with new models for creating impact together with people outside of FSG. FSG is also not alone—we need to learn from and support the many leaders who have worked to eradicate structural inequities for decades. We aim to lift up what is being learned across the field and put it into practice ourselves. We hope to work with community leaders, nonprofit practitioners, funders, business leaders, and other stakeholders aiming to break down systemic barriers in pursuit of a more just and equitable future for everyone.

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