Why working toward equity takes more than a checklist

In my neighborhood in Philadelphia, the effort to improve a physically dangerous, unattractive thoroughfare has come to illustrate one of the biggest challenges facing philanthropists who wish to infuse racial equity into their work: how to move past checklist fixes and address the underlying biases that shape their approach. 

Washington Avenue runs across the city, including through some of the more diverse sections of the city home to immigrant and historically Black neighborhoods, as well as neighborhoods in various stages of gentrification. For years, the city has been considering a variety of redesigns to make the corridor safer for bikers and pedestrians, many of whom do not live in those neighborhoods. Most recently, the city proposed a plan to add a protected bike lane, among other changes. 

While a safer, more beautiful Washington Ave is positive for the city at-large, by focusing only on near-term discrete goals (e.g., adding a bike lane), the city missed an opportunity to both improve the Washington Ave corridor, and address longstanding challenges intertwined with the roadway that affect the quality of life for historically underserved residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. The challenges around Washington Ave are more nuanced than pedestrian safety, and acknowledging that creates an opportunity for more comprehensive solutions, driven by those who will be impacted most.

To their credit, city planners have tried to take an equity-centered approach in the redesign process from the beginning. They have done the kinds of things that philanthropists do when trying to center equity in their giving: 

  • They studied how the goal — a safer experience for pedestrians — will impact underprivileged communities around the roadway. 
  • They thought about how to target infrastructure investments in ways that benefit historically underserved neighborhoods. 
  • They solicited input from numerous community groups, seeking to hear from both newer and long-time residents who are often overlooked. 

In effect, they have checked many of the boxes one must check when trying to pursue solutions that are grounded in equity. But, when you dig deeper, you also see subtle biases at play in the city’s approach to improve safety on Washington Ave:

  • A bias toward explicit objectives over unintended consequences (e.g. the inevitable displacement of long-term residents);
  • A bias toward expedient relief over long-term transformation; and perhaps most importantly;
  • A bias toward embracing simple solutions over addressing complexity. 

These biases shape how decision-makers see the problem, and, in turn, the solutions they champion. For example, a bias toward finding simple solutions makes it easy to miss the interconnectedness of this roadway with Philadelphia’s affordable housing challenges, with a long-time dearth of investment in Black and Brown businesses, and with problems like food deserts and public school catchment areas.

The same dynamic emerges for funders who wish to more deeply infuse equity into their giving. 

I frequently field calls from philanthropists who want to conduct an equity audit of their grantmaking, diversify their board, and do listening sessions with communities of color. While these are helpful tasks, they are limited in their effectiveness. 

For funders to more fully infuse equity into their giving, they must recognize that how they approach the work matters as much, if not more, than what they do. Instead of focusing on discrete steps to achieve equity, they must make more fundamental shifts in their approach. Forward-thinking funders: 

  1. Let go of “simple” solutions. Funders love a discrete problem with straightforward solutions. Unfortunately, most problems worth solving simply do not lend themselves to siloed approaches.
  2. Expand their understanding of the problem they are trying to solve beyond their own experience. Building recognition of the issue from the lived experience of those most impacted (and building sustained, authentic relationships with those individuals) will shift how funders perceive the problem and, in turn, potential solutions. 
  3. Embrace ambiguity, complexity, and risk in their grantmaking. Solving big, interconnected problems isn’t easy. If funders are serious about meaningful change, they have to get serious about taking risks in their giving.
  4. Pay attention to unintended consequences of the solutions they champion. Funders must give unintended outcomes the same weight as those they are driving toward if they truly care more about how their interventions impact communities than how well they address specific problems.
  5. Understand that process matters, continually. Too often, funders think of “community engagement” as a discrete step in the planning process. Finding ways to meaningfully engage stakeholders in real decision-making along the entire lifecycle of the work is critical. When those most impacted are contributing to, or even better, making the decisions, equity becomes the entire process rather than the box to check off at the end of it. 

These kinds of shifts are not one-time actions that can be checked off a list. I wish it was that easy. But the truth is, achieving real equity in philanthropy is not easy either. 

When funders and leaders in any space — including city planners in my hometown — focus less on achieving equity by checking a set of boxes and more on shifting underlying attitudes, they will be better positioned to drive real transformation.