Leadership,Talent Published Date, 2022

Dialogue About Race Is Here To Stay: Tips For Nonprofit Leaders

Created By: Tisha L. Hyter
June 22, 2021

Human nature has a funny way of marking time: certain numbers on the calendar remind us of births, deaths, and anniversaries. All of a sudden, what seemed like just an ordinary Monday can become a date that echoes in history. May 25, 2020, the day George Floyd was murdered, is one of those moments where everyone remembers where they were and many asked themselves, “What can I do?”. As both a prophecy as well as a challenge, Floyd’s daughter Gianna boldly proclaimed our new truth: that her “Daddy changed the world!”

In the days and months that followed, the fight for racial equity gained unprecedented momentum, first in the streets and then spreading throughout the culture. Many Black Americans like myself hoped it was more than a moment. We foresaw it sparking a sustainable and transformative movement.

At Orr Group, we have the privilege and responsibility of ensuring that nonprofits gain generous support for their missions. Whether it’s Public Allies, which develops young leaders, FUSE Corps, which collaborates with local governments to help urban communities, Echoing Green discovering and investing in social entrepreneurs or any of our other partner organizations, racial equity has taken on a new urgency in the sector. This isn’t a fad or a trend. It’s how nonprofits demand diverse voices as well as solutions from proximate leaders and enlightened funders.

For me, philanthropy stands at the intersection of means and mission, so it’s an honor that I get to call this viewpoint “work”. What follows is my advice for nonprofit executives trying to keep up with the ongoing dialogue on race, but really, these tips might be useful for anybody whose life or livelihood depends on social change (i.e., everyone).

1)   READ UP ON RACE.

The list of titles covering race grows longer every month; Ibram X. Kendi’s groundbreaking How to Be an Anti-Racist (2019) may be the most well-known. Here are three others that have opened my eyes in recent years:

  • Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020). The author takes a concept commonly regarded as limited to India and shows just how much it fits America’s racial landscape—historically and today. Wilkerson is particularly astute on the topic of unconscious bias, writing, “As much as 80 percent of white Americans hold unconscious bias against Black Americans, bias so automatic that it kicks in before a person can process it.” Many Americans hold no explicit racial prejudices. They have Black friends, vote for Black candidates, and would never use racial epithets, but they nonetheless hold implicit bias deep in their subconscious. Which means we—all of us—have work to do. “We are responsible,” she writes, “for recognizing that… what has gone before us grants us advantages or burdens through no effort or fault of our own, gains and deficits that others who do not look like us often do not share.”
  • Emmanuel Acho’s Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man (2020). Written by the Nigerian American football player and commentator, this book patiently, nonjudgmentally breaks down issues like white privilege and cultural appropriation. His advice on talking about race applies more generally to any sensitive topic: “Figure out when to step back and quiet down. If you’re normally quiet, you might want to challenge yourself to step up in a conversation. If you normally share a lot, you might want to challenge yourself to step back and do more listening.”
  • Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others (2017). This slender but wide-ranging collection of lectures by the Nobel Prizewinning novelist is an excellent guide through American literature and culture. Reflecting on her career, she writes, “Narrative fiction provides a controlled wilderness, an opportunity to be and to become the Other. The stranger. With sympathy, clarity, and the risk of self-examination.”

Depending on your tastes and style of learning, you might find novels or podcasts more illuminating. Community-Centric Fundraising has a great collection of thoughts, ideas and voices; I’d love to hear your recommendations, too!

2)   EMBRACE THE CONVERSATION.

Of course, reading is just a starting point. Talking with colleagues within and beyond your organization takes courage and humility. When I share stories from my childhood and personal life in a business setting, it’s more than small talk. I am bringing my whole self so that I can authentically speak on the power of generosity.  When we sit down and discuss the social and racial issues of the past year and brainstorm together on how to address inequities, we make progress toward understanding the historical roots of Floyd’s murder and the factors that continue to oppress Black people in our country. Devote serious time to serious conversations about how we—as nonprofit professionals, as a firm, as a sector—make lasting change. This is how philanthropy earns its reputation as an accelerator for change.

3)   CHANGE THE WAY YOU DO BUSINESS.

Learning is important, talking is necessary, but doing matters. Identifying unquestioned habits in your organization and then undoing the ones that are holding us back requires persistence and imagination. Recognize that more people with lived experience will be joining the sector and make room for them. At Orr Group, our commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is changing the status quo both internally and within the nonprofit community we serve. Leadership, staff, communications, and partnerships are coming into alignment with our Core Values. My Orr Group colleagues have written about “balancing the power between funders and nonprofit organizations.” Brandolon Barnett has an excellent essay in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about corporate social responsibility expanding to recognize: “the scope of the challenges we face as a society and allow[ing] more diverse voices within our communities to participate in important conversations.”

4)   DON’T LOSE SIGHT OF YOUR MISSION; JUST BE PREPARED FOR ONGOING CHANGE.

Last year showed us how technology, health, and society spun the world at an incredibly fast pace; strategies had to keep up or risk the consequences. The “business of philanthropy” has always been Orr Group’s strong suit: because of that, we tell our client partners, “We’ll handle the drive, so you can focus on the dream.” Our work should be guided by the memory of George Floyd and all the other men, women, and children whose lives have been cut short by injustice. Nobody can predict how an event will reverberate through history; what can start as an ordinary day for someone can turn into an extraordinary call to action and it’s our responsibility to follow examples like the late Congressman and Activist John Lewis by getting into “Good trouble!”.

As your North Star, we must always remember that the word philanthropy derives from the Greek words for love and humanity. So, let’s stay focused on racial equity. Let’s all keep fighting for those who are systematically-disadvantaged. Let’s continue to work together toward true liberty and justice for all.

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