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Sep 11, 2020
Posted Under: President's letter

The work of change is loud and strong and in the street. It is also quiet and subtle and continuous. It is inside and outside. It is in a person’s head and body and soul and woven throughout an institution’s culture – glimmering in its people, practices, and principals. It is personal and collective. It is not about better or worse ways. It is not about ending or stopping but about starting and momentum. It is about the commitment to change. It will take all of us. Some things will be simple and obvious, but mostly it is hard, and it is worth it.

We each begin this journey in different places so the idea that there is one way might be a good way to sell something or promise a tool to fix “it.” But likely you know as we know that change is transformational, not transactional – a single tool or a single anything is something but not everything you need for change.

Many nonprofits are deeply rooted in the work of social justice, social change, economic justice, and racial justice. Together they work to dismantle the systemic oppression that impedes far too many. Hundreds of thousands more nonprofits are not specifically doing this work, but they and all of us could also be threads in this fabric. Maybe you never thought about it before – how your nonprofit mission could be part of undoing oppressive systems that are the backdrop for so much of how we operate. Maybe it all sounds like mission drift, or maybe it feels just too big to start. I hear that frequently. No judgment. Or maybe you are ready and inspired to start, but you just want the tools. I hear this frequently, too. For you, here are four (of many) easily accessible tools. None of them are big and grand, but instead, they are quiet, real, and oh so powerful if done with intention.

I offer these four tools for several reasons. First, we have worked with them ourselves. I don’t ever want Foraker to be the kind of place that says, “take my advice, I am not using it.” We either have done these things, or we are still doing them. Second, there is a theory in change management that I often call “go slow to go fast.” Others call it the 90/10 rule, or the “iceberg principle,” or even a “flywheel” (thanks, Jim Collins). This is the idea that change – real change – is slow, persistent work that builds momentum over time until it ignites and becomes the norm. It is the slowness and the consistency, not the glitzy that makes the effort stick. But what others see is the result – the 10% – the tip of the iceberg. They see the surface, not the system that’s operating below it. They see the shiny surface, but not the hard work. I highlight this because some of you right now might be looking at others and thinking “how did they do that? They make it look so easy.” The reality is they did hard work, too, and they are still doing it.

Finally, I am starting with these four tools because I know that using them will look different for each of you. You might say, they each have a built-in “messy feature” that invites each of you to go on your own organizational journey. Consider messy a good sign that you are on the right track in finding the way for your team to engage. Messy also means that you are likely closer to moving past the “polite stage” and diving more deeply with your team. It is okay to be messy because let’s face it, this is hard and likely uncomfortable work for many. Let’s get messy.

Tool One – Share a Personal Story

Salad bowls and melting pots. This is a conversation I used to have with my mom. It sounds funny in this context but let me explain. My mom grew up understanding that as Jewish people our safety meant we blended in (what some call assimilation). The melting pot metaphor was the idea that we came from different places and survival was about blending and mixing until we all were just called “American.” The idea of a salad bowl, of course, is one that celebrates our diverse nature – one that says we are in the “bowl” together, but we are different and that is good. I could go on and talk in great depth about the positive and negative connotations of both concepts as I am reminded that this conversation in our family spanned decades. But instead, I simply want to highlight its core gift – the conversation about identity. This is the tool I invite us all to find – the tool of telling one’s own personal story.

Truly one of the best ways to start the work of understanding diversity is to know yourself and to listen and know other people’s personal stories more deeply. This tool is designed to help people listen and learn about how someone’s life experience and perspective is different (or not) from our own. It can help us know each other at a deeper level and in so doing help us find empathy. If done well, it can help us see and understand the strength of our differences. For almost 20 years we have been talking about sharing mission moments at your board and staff meetings. This is a different kind of mission moment but with a similar format. The key ingredients to success include 1) space and time in a meeting, 2) a safe invitation for the storyteller to participate, and 3) framing and context for the listeners.

Whether your board and staff culture is a salad bowl or melting pot, this is an opportunity to know your ingredients and know what comes next. I can tell you that with each story we are hearing in our own board room we are drawn-in, inspired, and ready for more. Want to learn about using story sharing? Check out this handout and feel free to expand it and make it your own.

Tool Two – Write Down Your Intentions

In previous articles, I have covered an important tool of knowing your “why” as a fundamental step in diversifying your board and staff. Writing down your “why” is also an essential step in your overall commitment to creating a welcoming and inclusive workplace. It can also underscore your commitment to how you implement your mission within your community and how you choose to engage in systemic change for true equity to stick. Starting with how your core values drive your intentions is an excellent way to capture the “why” behind your intentions.

This tool is about crafting a powerful and simple one-page document that helps you and your team know YOUR words. It can help you reground, reset, and regroup when you need it the most. At Foraker, we have just completed this internal intentions document. It is a living document and can grow and change as we continue to learn. Importantly for us, it captured what was true and what we wanted to be truer. It wasn’t a wish list. It wasn’t someone else’s intentions. It is ours based on who we are, how we show up, and how we do the work. Also importantly, it isn’t an external declaration. Those likely have a place in this work, too, but for now, I invite you to work closely with your team and capture your own intentions document. Know that the written draft is the culmination of many discussions, and it is not a perfect finished document. The next step after you complete your one-page document is about embedding it into your other policy documents and your daily practice.

Tool Three – Revise Your Employee Handbook

If you have staff, you most likely have an employee manual. If you don’t yet, you can start one with this tool in mind. If you do, then perhaps it is time to refocus your lens. An employee manual or handbook articulates the organizational culture an employee can expect and also offers one stop for all the policies a person might encounter during their employment. Unfortunately, too often this document is borrowed from another organization for expediency, which means that it is not right for the number of employees and complexity of your organization, nor does it appropriately or adequately reflect the culture and intentions of your mission.

Even if you have your own, and you have done the initial work of crafting it, this tool is still for you. It is about reviewing your words and policies, those that exist and those that are missing, through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. If done carefully this can be a significant turning point in your commitment as an organization to a more inclusive workplace. As you might have guessed, there are many layers to this work that can take you to the heart of systemic injustice. How deeply you go and how much you adapt, shift, or change is up to each of you.

Nothing new from us on this – support is what it is all about. And, our friends at the Building Movement Project have released even more data to help us know we have more work to do, especially when it comes to supporting leaders of color. What we know is that formal and informal support in the form of mentors, coaches, and professional development for staff truly matters when it comes to leadership advancement. What we also see is that instead of being essential, support is seen as a luxury for the few. It is time to make it a priority if what you want is a welcoming workplace with a diverse team, not the disconnect we see now. What we know is these tools are wanted by your workforce. We also know support works. Since we are focused right now on the simple tools, not the grand gestures, consider what is possible given where you are and the budget you have to create a more inclusive and supportive work culture.

Tool Four – Let Support Be Real

Contrary to the belief of some, money is not a barrier. A few free ways to implement the tools of support include: 1) If you are the staff leader or board chair, invite people into the decision process, especially the people you don’t invite now because of unconscious bias or job or board title. 2) If you are the staff leader or board chair, listen to the less heard voices and perspectives. 3) Offer peer support teams as an option for how you do business. In its simplest form, these are small teams who come together across job functions to be sounding boards and support to one another. 4) Reflect the importance of support in the employee evaluation process and professional development goals. Brainstorm together how to make it happen. These are just a few ways. There are so many more. The key to this tool is to make it a priority, not just a luxury for a few.

I’ve outlined just four tools of many. All possible. All accessible. All available. For those who say, “just give me a tool,” well here you go. For those who have done all these and want more, much more is available. No matter where you are in the journey, we are ready to walk with you. Let’s go.