US Perception of the Gender Pay Gap in 2021

While there’s a discussion about how wide the gender pay gap currently is, there’s no doubt that it persists in 2021 and more significantly impact women of color. As a society, we still have a long way to go to close the gender pay gap, but knowing how to solve this ongoing problem is more complicated.

According to the most recent survey data from Payscale, in 2021 women still make just $0.82 cents for every dollar men make, meaning the gender pay gap is 18%. More specifically, this figure represents the opportunity pay gap which measures the ratio of women’s to men’s median wages.

How is the gender pay gap perceived?

To gain a clearer understanding of how the pay gap is perceived by Americans today, Resume Genius conducted a 500+-person survey. The survey aimed to uncover views on the gender pay gap, including how it compares to the racial pay gap, whether it’s been affected by COVID-19, attitudes about ways to help encourage equitable pay as well as the future of the pay gap.

In relation to the racial pay gap

When asked whether the gender pay gap or the racial pay gap poses a bigger problem in the United States, 52% of respondents agreed that both are a problem, while 28% said that neither is a problem.

Of the remaining 20% who indicated that one is a bigger problem than the other, 12% chose the gender pay gap and 8% chose the racial pay gap.

Between male and female respondents, women were 6% more likely than men to say that both the gender and racial pay gaps are a problem, while men were slightly more likely to say that neither is a problem.

These results are consistent with Payscale’s findings that while men of color tend to earn less than their white male counterparts, men within each racial group still earn more than the women within the same racial group.

While the racial pay gap is significant, it’s even wider for women of color, with Native American and Hispanic women suffering the largest pay gap.

In relation to COVID-19

When asked whether the economic impact of COVID-19 has contributed to a widening in the gender pay gap, roughly a third of respondents said yes, while the other two-thirds didn’t think it played a significant role.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the gender wage gap actually appears to have fallen by 0.7% during COVID-19.

However, this result is deceptive because it reflects the large number of low-wage earning women who dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic, rather than an overall increase in earned wages. Women of color have been the most severely affected, with disproportionately high numbers of unemployment.

While the current perception seems to be mostly that the pandemic hasn’t had a significant impact on the gender wage gap, it could take years to determine the real effects of COVID-19 on women’s wages. Many women have had to prioritize family and child care in the last couple of years, often at the expense of career growth.

What we do know is that employees who leave the workforce for a year or longer make 39% less than their peers who remain at their jobs, and since women are more likely to minimize hours or quit their jobs to take on household responsibilities, they’re also more likely to earn less than their male colleagues in the future.

What can we do to shrink the gender pay gap?

With nearly three-quarters of respondents in agreement that there is a pay gap problem, it’s clear that we need to find ways to close the gap. Two possibilities for improving equitable pay practices include fostering greater transparency around company pay practice and policy and encouraging women to seek the compensation they deserve by asking for raises and promotions.

Get comfortable with asking for a raise

Asking for a raise is common practice in the workplace and can be an important step toward building a successful career. However, men and women don’t receive equal treatment when it comes to receiving raises, whether due to bias, the motherhood penalty, or the “ask gap”.

When asked whether they feel comfortable asking for a raise, 56% of all respondents said they feel comfortable, while 44% said they feel uncomfortable. More than half of female participants responded that asking for a raise makes them uncomfortable, compared to one-third of male participants.

According to an Indeed survey, women have grown even more uncomfortable with asking for a raise during the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to an increase in pay inequity which will likely become apparent in the coming years.

Discuss your salary among peers

Disclosing salaries without fear of being penalized can contribute to a more open and equitable workplace.

Unfortunately, in American work culture, it’s long been taboo to discuss salaries and is frequently (illegally) discouraged by companies. The residual effects on employee comfort may impact our ability to move forward into a future of greater wage transparency.

When respondents were asked whether they feel comfortable discussing their salaries with coworkers, only 24% said they feel comfortable, while 76% said that they feel uncomfortable.

Additionally, male respondents were 10% more likely than women to say they were comfortable discussing their salaries.

However, Gen Z respondents break from the general public on this topic. In fact, 47% of respondents aged 18-24 are comfortable discussing their salaries, compared with only 22% of respondents over 25 years old. This significant difference suggests that Gen Z may be poised to transform salary discussion culture in the coming years.

Most respondents agree that the gender pay gap will be negatively impacted by companies discouraging open salary discussion, with a greater number of women participants agreeing than men.

The future of the gender pay gap

Views on the future of the gender pay gap are mixed. In response to the question of whether the gender pay gap will cease to exist in their lifetime, 60% of male participants answered positively, compared to 38% of women.

Younger generations are also much more likely to say that the gender pay gap will disappear in their lifetime. One possible reason for this is that they will live longer, but it may also be due to optimism about the cultural shift toward equitable pay practices and greater comfort around wage transparency.

Estimates concerning how long it will take to close the gender pay gap range from 38 years in the US, to 250 years globally. No matter whose projection is most accurate, it’s clear we still have a long way to go.

Many of the problems that give rise to the gender pay gap, such as ingrained biases and a disproportionate burden of household and child care on women, are deeply entrenched social norms and will take time and sustained efforts to overcome.

However, the noticeable perception shift around openness and discussion of wages from Gen Z is encouraging and gives reason to be optimistic that the gender pay gap will close in our lifetime through the support of workplace transparency and fair practice.

10 Rules for Dating in the Nonprofit Sector

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Dozens of people have asked me to address dating within the nonprofit sector, and by dozens of people, I mean one drunk single person at a fundraising gala. This is not a topic that we talk much about, but it is important, because of self-care and blah blah, so I asked the brilliant and attractive people in the NWB Facebook community to help create a list of rules. Here is the list below. Please keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list. Rules may be changed, and new rules may be added.

10 Rules for Dating in the Nonprofit Sector

Rule 1, the Cardinal Rule of Dating in the Nonprofit Sector: Do not date other people from the nonprofit sector*. Yes, proximity is powerful, especially when so many of us work ridiculous hours and see each other all the time. But resist the temptations. First, because we deserve a decent car and house and occasional access to organic blueberries, and the chances for those things greatly decrease if we only stick with each other. But more importantly, our work depends on the rest of society understanding and appreciating the role that nonprofit plays, so we have to marry outward. It’s not gold digging, it’s thinking of the children.

Rule 2: No matter how radiant they are, never ask a program officer out who may fund your org. Sure, you may have kickass pickup lines like, “Does RFP stand for ‘Really Fine Person?’ You’re definitely an RFP to me” or “So, you’re a program officer, huh? Well, you better arrest yourself, officer, because you just stole my heart” (#nonprofitpickuplines, go make that trend on Twitter). But, you’ll only come off as creepy, and worse, you will jeopardize funding for your organization.

Rule 3: Hell, don’t date current coworkers, clients, donors, board members, auditors, and volunteers. Past volunteers are OK, but make sure they don’t work for a nonprofit, so you don’t violate the Cardinal Rule. Past coworkers may be OK, but only if they have moved outside the sector. Remember this phrase: “When in doubt, don’t ask ‘em out,” which has served me well and saved me from many, many dates throughout my life.

Rule 4: Weigh the potential benefits to your organization when choosing whom to go out with. Consider factors such as donation potential, skills that could benefit a committee or project, and whether the person works at company that matches donations or provides event sponsorships.  Remember, you’re not just dating for yourself, you’re also dating to make the world better. Don’t even consider dating someone who won’t likely volunteer at your organization.

Rule 5: Wait until at least the third date before asking someone to volunteer at your fundraising gala. To do so on the first or second date is ungentlemanly or unladylike. When it is the right time to take your relationship to this level, be respectful, thoughtful, and generous, especially if this is your date’s first time helping out at a gala.

Rule 6: Do not schedule dates on important days at your organizations. Avoid scheduling dates when grants are due, grant reports are due, there’s a board meeting, or it’s the monthly potluck karaoke teambuilding dinner at your ED’s place, since he has spent a lot of time practicing Foreigners’ “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

Rule 7: Ensure your date has been trained on racial equity, gender identity, disability, heterosexism, cultural competency, privilege, power, and intersectionality beforelove2introducing them to your teammates. Don’t even think about inviting them to a team happy hour unless they’ve had time to reflect on their identity and role in undoing the dominant systems of oppression.

Rule 8: Take time for your romantic life. Sure, you’re committed to your work, but find time for yourself and your current or potential relationship. As a colleague puts it, “You are allowed date nights and the occasional missed morning…sheesh!” I agree. Get a romantic life! Sheesh!

Rule 9: Keep your romantic life off social media. Ew! Gross! Who wants to see you holding hands and leaning on each other’s shoulders and stuff?! Gross! Besides, it may decrease the morale of your single coworkers, and we need morale to be high, because thefundraising gala is coming up.

Rule 10: Consider the ramifications to your organization when considering breaking up with someone. If you’ve done a good job, your partner should be well invested in your organization. They’re probably even a donor by now. It is important then to consider the effects this may have on your org if you break up with them. If they don’t give much, then sure, whatever. But if they’ve become a major donor, and especially if they work at a place that has a really strong matching program…are they really all that bad? Come on, no one is perfect.

Send in your thoughts and other rules you think should be added.

*If you’re thinking, “Oh crap, I am with someone from the nonprofit sector, I’ve violated the Cardinal Rule,” well, calm down. You didn’t know. But now that you do know, there is no other choice: One of you has to quit the sector and become an engineer, doctor, lawyer, business owner, marketing exec, software developer, model, or oil tycoon. That’s the only way you can stay together.

Funders, Your Grant Application Process May Be Perpetuating Inequity

Illustration depicting a computer screen capture with a grants concept.

A few weeks ago, a fellow Executive Director of color and a friend of mine, “Maria,” was nearly in tears after failing for a second time to get a small grant. She doesn’t drink, or else I would have offered access to the personal minibar that I keep in my office. A shot of Wild Turkey and a brisk walk always cheer me up after a grant rejection.

“I’m so tired,” Maria said over the phone, “I can’t continue putting in my own money to keep this afloat. Maybe nonprofit is just not for me. It’s too hard.” She had spent over 40 hours on these two grants, and I had spent over 12 hours facilitating part of a board retreat, helping develop the logic model, revising the budgets, editing the narratives, and providing moral support.

The grant was a one-time award for less than 10K, and she had been told repeatedly, by different people at this foundation, that her work was important and much needed.

The purpose of this story is not to call out a particular foundation, but to highlight the fact that the standard grant application process needs a deep overhaul because it is leaving behind too many communities.

This past year, my organization assumes more and more the role of a quasi-funder. Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), was formed to build the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits while simultaneously developing leaders of color. We do this by selecting host sites and then sending emerging leaders of color that we train (and whose wages we pay) to these organizations, where they work full-time for one or more years to build these organizations’ capacity. The ethnic CBOs increase their capacity and effectiveness and ability to be involved at the systems level, and the field has a slew of awesome future nonprofit leaders of color that I will personally help to train to be kick-ass nonprofit warriors. Our inaugural cohort of ten leaders starts this September.

Because small nonprofits have to apply to be partners and host sites in our program, we have started being viewed as somewhat of a funder. (We have the best of both worlds: The joy of having to reject great organizations, and the fundraising-associated night terrors of being a nonprofit). I noticed the shift in dynamics when I was visiting these organizations as part of the review process, and some people seemed visibly nervous. As I mentioned earlier, program officers are instantly 27% more attractive than civilians. Suddenly, my wrinkles were marks of experience, my twitching left eye now charming, and this weird gap between my front two teeth a distinguishing feature. Not only that, but apparently my jokes on those site visits were 100% funnier too!

All of that is to say that I’ve been more sympathetic to the challenges that we brilliant, dashing funders are facing, as well as more cognizant of the elements that have been helping or hindering marginalized communities. (PS: I know the term “marginalized communities” can be controversial, and a future post may focus on this, but for now, let’s continue with this term).


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For the past few years, everyone has been talking about Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Competency. This is good. But when these things do not actually come with profound changes in systems and processes, they can actually cause more harm. Equity, in particular, has been a shiny new concept adopted by many funders. A basic tenet of equity in our line of work is that the communities that are most affected by societal problems are leading the efforts to address these challenges. And yet, many foundations’ application process is deeply inequitable, leaving behind the people and communities who are most affected by the injustices we as a sector are trying to address.

Eight signs that your foundations may be inadvertently perpetuating inequity:

Your application takes more than 10 to 15 hours to complete:  Some grants are ridiculously, hair-tearingly, wall-punchingly time-consuming. An ED friend, who is white, told me her team spent over 70 hours on a single grant once due to the dozens of pages of narrative, a complex budget template, and various attachments. 70 hours. This is a relatively large nonprofit with several staff who are all fluent in English. They didn’t get the grant and were very frustrated. Besides the fact that none of us have 70 hours to waste when there are so many community needs to address, if this grant is difficult for a team that’s fluent in English and in grantwriting, imagine how much harder it will be for an organization led by marginalized communities, who may not be fluent in English, or who may not have writing experience or outside support. If your application is basically a Ph. D. dissertation, you’re perpetuating inequity.

Your LOI is a mini application: An LOI is the first step for many grant applications. Its purpose is for the funder to quickly discern if an organization is a potential good match for its priorities, kind of like samples of naturally fermented sauerkraut at the farmer’s market. It is usually just a two-page letter. But some funders seem to think that this should be an entire grant application and ask for budget attachments, logic models, workplans, resumes, board chair signature, etc. This totally misses the point of the LOI, and an insidious effect is that it creates an extra barrier for grassroots organizations led by communities that are of color, LGBTQ, rural, disabled, etc.

You require more than five attachments: It takes little effort to require something—“Hey, we should ask them to submit three previous years’ budget-to-actuals reports and next year’s budget projections, so we can see how they’ve been growing”— but the repercussions for many communities are significant. For instance, it takes you all of 30 seconds to ask for and look at a Logic Model, but Maria and her team had to spend 10 hours to develop this, since they had never heard of it before. Yes, it was good for them to have it, but the same information could have been obtained by asking “Please tell us about your activities and how they will lead to short-term and long-term results for your clients and community.” The more attachments you require, the more inequitable your process is, because marginalized communities have less time and resources to create the various documents you require.

You require organizations to translate their budget into your format: Yes, there are organizations with crappy budget formats. But a part of the problem may be that funders each require their own budget formats to be used, leading to all sorts of confusion. Most of us in the field would love one standardized budget template that all foundations use. But that is not what’s happening; for every grant application, no matter how big or small, we have to take hours to recombine and move numbers around in order to conform to varying templates. And again, organizations led by communities of color and other marginalized communities will be disproportionately affected, since they have less time. Not every organization has a CFO, one trained in using arcane Excel voodoo magic to get numbers to align perfectly in order to increase their final application score. 

You overly rely on a scorecard to determine funding decisions: Score cards are a quick and simple way to distill complex information: 40 points possible for the narrative, 15 points for the budget, 10 points for the Theory of Change, etc. However, there are critical elements of an organization’s work that cannot be quantified: The value of the organization to its clients, historical traumas the communities it serves have faced, cultural elements of leadership, etc. These things are complex and messy, so we prefer not to deal with them at all. The score card gives us an illusion of objectivity, but it is an illusion, as well as a crutch. Use the score card as a tool for discussion, not as the primary means to make funding decisions. Equity requires us to take the harder path and deal with the messy stuff. 

Your grant is invitation-only: I know some funders are well-meaning, trying to reduce admin costs of processing endless requests so that more funding can go to the community, and trying to save potential grantees’ time. However, organizations led by communities of color, for example, will rarely have the same relationship with you, or run in your circles to eventually build a relationship with you, or have a big enough marketing budget to get noticed by you. The relationship-based funding model is inequitable because marginalized communities in general have fewer relationships with those who have power and resources. Unless you are specifically focused on finding and supporting these communities, your invitation-only process is likely leaving them behind, and you may not know it, because you are invitation-only.

You are rigid in the percentage of an organization’s budget you will fund: Some foundations will fund no more than 15% of an organization’s budget; some only 20%, or whatever. But organizations led by marginalized communities will tend to have smaller budgets, so they will likely get less funding in general. If an organization led by communities of color has a budget of 100K, and you only fund 10% of any budget, then they cannot hope to get over 10K, whereas an organization with a budget of 1 million will be able to get 100K. Applying a rigid fixed percentage means organizations and communities that most need funding will get the least funding. 

Your application takes more than six months to process: I know grant processes that take nine months to a year before applicants hear anything. Usually this is because the funders want to do a really thorough job considering every application. That’s commendable, but a lot can happen in nine months: Strategies change, cashflow dwindle, staff get laid off, babies are born, critical programs fold. The bigger, stronger organizations may be able to weather these various tumultuous changes, but many smaller organizations led by communities most affected by inequity, they in general have less buffer. The longer you take to make a decision, the less accessible and helpful you are to communities that are most affected by inequity.

Making the grant application process more equitable

In many ways, our grant application process is very similar to our hiring process, but it seems to be even more complicated: “We have a job opening available. To apply, please submit your cover, resume, credit history, personal budget, diploma, copy of driver’s license, professional development plan, three writing samples, work plan for your first 12 months on the job, your family tree, and five letters of recommendations.” We have archaic and inequitable hiring practices, and we wonder why we don’t have enough people of color in the field. We have archaic and inequitable grant processes, and we wonder why we don’t have enough organizations led by marginalized communities at various tables.

So, what should you do? Here are some suggestions, gathered with help from some of my hair-pulling, rapidly-aging, occasionally wall-punching colleagues:

Require most attachments AFTER you’ve decided to fund an organization. Once we organizations know we have a high likelihood of getting funded, we will clock-474128_640gladly polish the logic model, create a theory of change diagram, compile 12 years of budget reports, make a shoebox diorama of our relationships to other orgs, write and perform a puppet play explaining our evaluation model, or whatever else you need. This will save everyone’s time and sanity and will greatly help organizations led by marginalized communities, since they don’t have much time to spare.

Provide technical assistance throughout the process: Help organizations make their case. Give feedback and provide support, especially for stuff you require. You might be thinking, “But, that’s not fair to organizations that don’t get the feedback and support.” I would say that fairness often gets in the way of equity. If we want to support communities of color, and LGBTQ, disabled, and rural communities, we must focus more attention and resources on them.

Segment your grant into two or more tracks, one for larger organizations, one for smaller organizations: It is inequitable and ineffective to expect small organizations who have few staff and likely no grantwriters to compete with established organizations who have dedicated grantwriting support. They will always be left in the dust. Have the big orgs compete with one another, and the small orgs compete with one another. (Note: Do not give less to the applicants in the smaller-orgs track; if anything, give more.)

Fund a larger percentage of smaller orgs’ budgets: Nonprofits founded and led by marginalized communities tend to have smaller budgets, so the funding they receive is critical. Dispense with the whole “we only fund 10% of your budget” thing. If an organization led by marginalized communities does important work, if it’s fulfilling a need that no one else is addressing, why not fund 30% or 50% or even 100% of its work? This support, especially in the beginning, is critical to ensuring these organizations gain their bearing, create infrastructure, develop a track record, and survive long enough to get other funding. 

Create a simple renewal process: You already have a relationship with a grantee. Why make them jump through the same hoops and waste time when they should be focused on delivering services.

Ask applicants how much time they spent working on your grant:  Maybe ask this instead of the irritating sustainability question. Analyze to see if there’s a pattern between organizations led by marginalized communities and those that are not. Or run through your own application process by creating a fictional nonprofit and actually writing a grant. I’m willing to bet that most foundations have never had to experience what it’s like to apply to their own grants. 

And of course, stop being invitation-only. And give general operating funds, and give significant amounts that can help organizations grow. (Check out last’s weeks list of 12 awesome things funders are doing as they all help increase equity)

Less paternalism, more partnership

Overall, our grant application process needs to change. As much as we say that individual donors provide the largest chunk of funds for nonprofits, the reality is that this does not always apply to grassroots organizations led by communities that are of color, LGBTQ, disabled, rural, etc. These organizations usually have a stronger reliance on foundation support until they can establish a strong base of individual donors, which may take several years.

After I hung up with Maria, I chugged a small bottle of Wild Turkey from my mini bar and called up the program officer, who has been a great advocate for communities and leaders of color. The review team didn’t find some of the things she wrote to align with the grant’s priorities, I was told. That’s fine, I said, but why make a small grant so hard? Well, she replied, this is usually one of the first grants that small orgs seek out, and we want to make sure they develop some grantwriting skills; trial by fire, etc.

After venting to a colleague about how exhausting another grant was, I was told that the foundation designed this process to be challenging on purpose, in order to “help” nonprofits gain experience with difficult grants.

In each of the above scenarios, funders are well-meaning. But honestly, you’re just creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, where you perpetuate a difficult system and get others to navigate it, instead of questioning why it needs to be so difficult in the first place. If your foundation prides itself on a tough application process, it is priding itself for perpetuating inequity. You are proud of inadvertently leaving the communities most affected by injustice behind. If your process causes good people to want to quit nonprofit, something is wrong. And if these good people also happen to rank among the few leaders from marginalized communities doing this type of work, something is seriously wrong.

To achieve equity, we must focus on both content as well as process. The content in philanthropy has started shifting more and more toward equity, diversity, inclusion, etc. This is really great. But if the process doesn’t simultaneously shift, we’re not going to get anywhere. We must dispense with the belief that all organizations and communities have the same amount of time, and a full-time finance person, and a professional grantwriter. We must start to treat nonprofits, especially the ones led by leaders from marginalized communities, as partners, and support them to grow. The well-meaning paternalism of many grant application processes needs to stop.

These are all tall orders, and I am learning it the hard way, as my organization figures out our own process. We decided to accept handwritten applications, for example, and actually got an applicant who hand-wrote the application! But, I am positive we can do it. After all, we funders and quasi-funders are good-looking and smart, we can figure this out.

The Problem with Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

The people of color that I’ve been talking to are getting kind of sick of the equity, diversity, and inclusion terms use by nonprofits. We love them, but the dissonance between their usage and actual practice is like getting poked in the eye on a daily basis. Case in point, at a panel I was on recently, a colleague of color told me that someone contacted her, saying, “Can you help us spread the word about this new job position? We want to diversify our pool of candidates.”

My friend said, “I wanted to ask, Are you trying to just diversify your POOL of candidate, or ACTUAL hires?” We both sighed; thankfully, the wine was plentiful that evening.

equityThis has been happening a lot recently, the usage of these feel-good and trendy terms without serious consideration for the challenging and time-consuming changes that we need to undergo to actualize them. Equity requires the embrace of risk and failure. True equity, and diversity and inclusion, cannot exist without them.

Unfortunately, our field is often frustratingly and ineffectively risk-adverse, paralyzed by thoughts of failure. So yeah, we’ll “diversify the pool of candidates” and then, most likely, select the “most qualified” person anyway, who is often White. I know many organizations who tout equity and inclusiveness whose staff and board are mostly White. They are highly qualified and awesome, but it is jarring when most of their clients are people of color.

Or we’ll “work with communities of color” and then, most likely, select mainstream organizations because these ethnic-led organizations “don’t have the capacity” or “didn’t put in a strong enough proposal.”

The voices of communities of color have been struggling to be heard on almost every single issue. And to everyone’s credit, I don’t feel like people are actually being exclusive. This recent trend of diversity, equity, and inclusion is a testament to the fact that we all recognize both the importance and the lack of engagement of these communities. However, recognition of the problem and talking about it are necessary but not sufficient elements to solving the problems of inequity. We have to be willing to try different stuff, fund differently, and accept a few failures.

Unboxing equity

By now, most of us have seen this graphic above, which displays very clearly the difference between equality and equity. But after we think, “Aw, that’s so cute; all these kids can now watch the game; equity is so magical,” how does it actually translate within our field? Let’s unpack this.

First, I’m not always a big fan of this image, because to the less wise, the short kid is obviously deficient and needs some serious help. The short kid represents entire marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ community, communities of color, poor communities, etc. But this kid can also symbolize individuals such as professionals of color, as well as nonprofits such as ethnic-led organizations. These communities and individuals have plenty of strength and assets and is not always just the baby in the group.

But anyway, let’s continue with the metaphor. Since my experience is with communities, people, and nonprofits of color, I’m going to hone in on that for this post today.

Regardless of who this little kid represents, the point is that we are always struggling to see over the fence. We’ll be lucky to get a two-by-four to stand on, much less a whole box, much less TWO boxes. In the case of ethnic-led nonprofits, the argument against giving a whole box to them has always been, “You’re cute, but you guys just don’t have the capacity. If we give you a whole box to stand on, you’ll probably just fall off of it. We can’t give you a large grant. Here’s a small one. Sure, all these problems we’re tackling disproportionately affect your communities, and you have the best connection to them. But come back when you are more organized.”

At a recent conference I attended, funders were congratulating themselves on capacity building around collective impact work. As much as I like collective impact in theory, the reality is that it has more often than not been screwing over communities of color, who cannot access funds to be significantly involved and thus are unintentionally tokenized. (See “Collective Impact: Resistance is futile,” where I compare ineffective CI efforts to the Borg from Star Trek).

“Collective impact has been leaving behind many communities of color,” I said from the audience, “how are you addressing building capacity for organizations that are led by these communities so that they can be involved?”

A funder took the microphone to respond. “I wish my organization was one of those with the flexibility to give $5K or 10K grants,” he said, “but we don’t do that. We give larger grants.” And of course, these ethnic-led nonprofits would never be able to compete for one of these larger grants. They are stuck in the capacity quagmire like college grads who can’t get hired because they have no experience.

The importance of risk and failure

Look, I’m not advocating for people hire staff willy-nilly, or for funders to be throwing money around at random. But the status quo is not working, and holding hands chanting “equity, diversity, and inclusion” without actually doing stuff differently is dangerous because it makes us feel like we’re making progress when we’re not.

Here’s the reality: If we hire less experienced people from communities of color, yes, they will likely require more support, and they may fail more often. If we fund small ethnic-led nonprofits, yes, they will likely require more support and may fail more often. That kid has not had much experience standing on two boxes. His balance is being tested. He may fall down a couple of times.

But here’s another side to that reality: Those staff from communities of color are critical when working with communities of color, and our field does a lot of work with communities of color, to put it mildly. You can hire a less experienced staff of color and train them on technical skills. But you cannot teach someone to be a person of color. Believe me, I tried it; it was uncomfortable for everyone. So if your org works with clients of color, take some risks in your hiring. Don’t just “diversify the pool.”

Ethnic-led nonprofits organizations are the most effective in connecting to their communities, and they do it on shoe-string budgets. Since they have the strongest relationships, they are constantly asked to help with outreach, to sit on advisory teams, and to do other stuff for free. Then when they try to get more significant support, the response has historically been, “You don’t have the capacity” followed by “but why don’t you join the Cultural Competency workgroup of our awesome collective impact effort!”

Let me know your thoughts, and also check out my previous article on building capacity for communities of color.

Are You or Your Org Guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement

A while ago, I was talking to a friend, another Executive Director, and he said, “Have you noticed that everyone is getting paid to engage us communities of color except us communities of color?” Sigh. Yes, I have noticed. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and have come up with a term to describe it. Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE). This is when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.

In Seattle, if you’re a person of color and you walk down a dark alley late at night and you feel like you’re being followed, it’s probably someone trying to do some community engagement.

“Psst…hey buddy—Go Hawks!—you want to attend a summit? It’s about economic inequity. We need your voice.” “Daddy, I’m scared!” “Stay calm, Timmy; don’t look him in the eye.” “Come on, help a guy out! Here, you each get some compostable sticky dots to vote on our top three priorities! You can vote on different priorities, or, if you like, you put more than one dot on—” “Run, Timmy!”

This is why you should never take your kid down a dark alley in Seattle.

Needs Assessment, Ownership and Community Engagement

There are several reasons why TDCE happens. First, the nonprofit sector has all sorts of unwritten rules designed to be successfully navigated only by mainstream organizations (See “The game of nonprofit, and how it leaves some communities behind.”) Second, 90% of funding in the nonprofit world is relationship-based, which screws over marginalized communities, who have much fewer relationships with funders and decision-makers. Third, due to existing definitions, many organizations led by marginalized groups “don’t have the capacity.” They’re “small and disorganized,” they are “not ready to be leaders in these efforts.” Fourth, community engagement has been seen as the icing on the cake, and not an essential ingredient, so it is always last to be considered. Fifth, many funders and decision-makers focus on sexy short-term gains, not effective long-term investments.

Look, I’m not saying anyone is intentionally trying to discriminate against certain communities. Everyone is well-intentioned. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competency have risen to the front of people’s minds. Organizations are scrambling to talk about these issues, to diversify their board, to get community input. That is all great and all, but it has only been leading to marginalized communities being irritated and frustrated. Every single week, we leaders of color get asked to provide input, to join an advisory committee, attend a summit, to fill out a survey. Because of this well-intentioned mandate to engage with communities, we get bombarded with requests to do stuff for free.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement is pretty dangerous, for several reasons. When people who are most affected by issues are not funded and trusted to lead the efforts to address them:

It perpetuates the Capacity Paradox. The Capacity Paradox is when an organization cannot get significant funding because it has limited capacity, so it cannot develop its capacity, which leads it to not being able to get significant funding, which means it can’t develop its capacity. This greatly affects organizations led by communities of color and other marginalized communities. And then they can’t be as involved, which leads to ineffective efforts to tackle issues. (See “Capacity building for communities of color: The paradigm must shift.”)

It’s annoying as hell. In every single issue, I keep seeing larger, well-connected organizations getting significant funding but are not effective at engagement. So they pester us smaller ethnic-led orgs to help. I was asked by a collective impact backbone org to be involved with planning a summit to engage communities of color. I advised them not to do it, and told them that I’ve been to far too many summits that suck (See: “Community Engagement 101: Why most summits suck.”) Next thing I knew, they organized the summit anyway, asked my organization to help with outreach, and asked me personally to translate their outreach material into Vietnamese! All for free, of course! (“Run, Timmy!!”)

It’s intrinsically wrong. We, above any other field, must act on the belief that people most affected by inequities must be leaders in the movement. It is the right thing to do. Imagine a group of men leading an effort and making important decisions on women’s issues like reproductive health, and then asking women to come give feedback at a meeting. Or a bunch of idiots who don’t know anything about science leading a committee on climate change and asking scientists to come testify about global warming. These scenarios are ridiculous, which is why they happen in Congress.

Most importantly, it doesn’t work and is even counterproductive. If TDCE actually works, then we’d have little to argue about. But it does not. Well-intentioned but useless and sometimes even harmful stuff get voted on and implemented. For example, at a meeting I was invited to someone said, “We need to put 100% of funding into early learning instead of splitting it among early learning and youth development” and I had to remind them that “Many immigrant and refugee kids get here when they’re older than 5, so they’d be screwed if you only invest in early learning. We need to support the entire continuum of kids’ development.” (See “Youth Development, why it is just as important as early learning“) Unfortunately, by the time a mainstream organization finally gets to that community feedback forum or summit to get feedback on their well-intentioned but crappy plan or policy, it is too late.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement sucks and is insulting. The sector needs to stop only supporting major organizations and hope that magically the people disproportionately affected whom we don’t fund will join in. Or at the very least, we should stop whining about it when they don’t. We organizations led by marginalized communities are tired and irritated at excuses like “We can’t invest in you guys because you’re too small,” coupled with the constant requests for us to be involved. Don’t just give three drops of water to your rainbow carrots, wonder why they aren’t growing, and then whine about the lack of color in your salad.

As I said, everyone is well-intentioned. But Trickle-Down Community Engagement is harmful, and we need to all be aware of it and put a stop to it:

Funders: Review your investments for every priority. Are the issues you are trying to address disproportionately affecting some groups? Are those groups getting equitably funded and supported or are you just giving them token funding? Are they leading the effort or just playing bit parts on the side? If you are funding mainstream organizations to address challenges affecting marginalized communities, look at their budget request to see how much of it is to be shared with partner organizations that are led by affected communities. Stop being fooled by well-intentioned mainstream efforts that claim to represent marginalized communities but that are only tokenizing and using them. I’ve seen a well-funded coalition list over 80 diverse organizations as member, but on closer examination, several of these groups aren’t aware that they are members, or they no longer even exist!

Donors: See above paragraph. In addition, know that organizations led by marginalized communities tend to be smaller, so they need your support more. Unfortunately, they don’t have the same relationship with you or the same marketing and development capacity as bigger and better known organizations. Seek them out. Your support matters.

Mainstream organizations: Sorry, it seems like I’ve been beating up on you a lot. That’s not my intentions. You guys do awesome stuff and play critical roles. But review your projects and budgets, and examine your role and the dynamics you are contributing to. Are you building in funding to share with community partners, or are you just asking people to do stuff for free in the name of “community engagement”? Are you siphoning funding to address issues that other nonprofits should be tackling but they don’t yet have the capacity? Are you mentoring smaller nonprofits through strategic partnerships? Are you serving as an advocate for these groups, since you have better relationships with funders?

Organizations led by marginalized communities: Learn when to say yes and when to say no. I’ve seen too many small nonprofits agree to do outreach, to be partners, to even run programs for tiny amounts of funding. I’ve done it myself. My last organization, when it was much smaller, partnered with a bigger org who could not reach students of color. They asked us to organize a 2-hour workshop for over 100 diverse kids each month for a year. You know how much we got to do that? $2500 total, and we had to itemize and have receipts for every pencil we bought! The big organization who “partnered” with us got all the credit, of course. All of us can be so naïve, signing on to coalitions without researching first, lending our names to summits without due diligence, doing outreach and translation for free. It just perpetuates a terrible and ineffective system that continues to leave our communities behind. Learn to say no, to give feedback firmly, and to build strategic relationships.

Equity, diversity, inclusion, community engagement, etc. those are all good, but they can also be irritating, misleading, and even harmful if not done right. Trickle-Down Community Engagement is an example of good-intention poorly executed. If we want marginalized communities to be engaged, we need to fund and support them directly to be engaged. Community Engagement cannot be the icing on the chocolate cake of equity and social justice. It is the chocolate!

Prison Reform and Race Equity

Too many people are incarcerated in the United States, particularly people of color. With nearly 1.5 million Americans in prison in 2012, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the world, far exceeding runners-up Russia and Rwanda. Despite comprising only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

People of color have been disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration. While African-Americans and Latinos make up 15 and 17 percent of the population, respectively, they account for 38 and 23 percent of the prison population. Currently, African-American men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in their lifetimes and Latino men have a 1 in 6 chance. These figures are overwhelming compared to the rate of incarceration for White men, who have an overall 1 in 17 chance of ever going to prison in their lifetime.

Racial inequality in incarceration is particularly evident for drug offenses. Currently, two-thirds of all people in prisons for drug offenses are either African American or Latino. According to Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, “These figures are far out of proportion to the degree that these groups use or sell drugs”. For example, a 2011 survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that White Americans use every category of illegal drugs at significantly higher rates than African-Americans or Latinos, yet they are far less likely to be convicted for drug offenses.

incarc rate by race & gender - webWar on Drugs & Race

Advocates for prison downsizing agree that mass incarceration and its disparate impact on communities of color can be directly attributed to policies stemming from the “War on Drugs.” In response to rising drug use in the 1980s, law enforcement and sentencing shifted dramatically to a punitive “hard on drugs” approach encouraging the imprisonment of low-level, non-violent drug users and sellers. Since then, the prison population has increased five-fold and incarceration for drug offenses has gone up 1,100 percent. With as few as 40,000 drug offenders serving prison sentences in 1980, this number has snowballed to over half a million in 20092. Lengths of prison terms have also dramatically increased.   In 1986, drug offenders spent an average of 22 months in federal prison; by 2004, sentences for similar crimes were nearly 3 times longer. In sum, over the past 40 years more and more people have been arrested and sent to prison, while fewer and fewer have been released or diverted.

prison jail drug web-1

Racial bias, discrimination, and unequal treatment under the law have also characterized the United State’s anti-drug crime agenda. As the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project explains, “By 1980, the link between minorities, drugs, and crime was firmly cemented in American rhetoric and anti-drug policy.” Evidence of discrepancies in the treatment of people of color in the criminal justice system has been well documented.

  • For example, federal sentencing guidelines from 1986 to 2010 held that 5 grams of crack cocaine, a substance more readily available in communities of color, was equivalent to 500 grams of powder cocaine, a substance consider chemically identical to crack cocaine but more readily available in White communities.
  • Further, the Sentencing Project cites that people of color are more likely to be targeted and racially profiled by law enforcement resulting in higher initial entry into the criminal justice system.
  • In addition, legal scholars Fishman and Schazenback found in 2012 that prosecutor are significantly more likely to pursue the maximum length of sentence for minority defendants, while judges are more likely to convict these defendants and agree to longer sentences.

Though not explicitly racist, many anti-drug policies and implementation strategies echo the American Legal System’s long legacy of racial injustice, continuing the American tradition of targeted injustice against people and communities of color.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Policy

The most notorious and influential policy resulting from the War on Drugs are federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. Mandatory drug minimums are judicial guidelines requiring convicted drug offenders to serve an automatic and standard minimum length of time in prison- regardless of criminal context. These policies are rooted in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which first established the national drug schedule, followed by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which outlined punishments for federal crimes. The resulting mandatory minimums are “triggered” by specific quantities of eight controlled substances, including heroine, crack and powder cocaine, marijuana, with increasing minimums for large quantities and aggravating factors such as weapon procession or drug trafficking (mandatory minimums are also triggered from LSD, PCP, methamphetamine, and propanamide.). Unlike the majority of crimes in the U.S., for which judges determine sentence length on a case-by-case basis, mandatory minimums intentionally restrict judicial discretion7.

However, mandatory minimums were not considered controversial until the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. With this omnibus drug bill, President Reagan significantly increased the length of minimum sentences while reducing the quantities of controlled substances that trigger the minimum. These guidelines form the basis for our current federal drug sentencing and require either a five or ten-year sentence without parole for the majority of convictions9. Due to aggravating circumstances, some offenders can be sentenced to life in prison without parole. These changes had major implications for first time and low-level offenders. For example, before 1986, simple possession would have required offenders to pay a fine. After 1986, these same individuals could be sentenced to a federal penitentiary for a minimum of two, three, or five years for the least severe offense depending on the substance.

In 1994, Congress approved the “Safety Valve” exception to mandatory minimums. These provisions allow prosecutors to refrain from requesting mandatory minimums for defendants found guilty of low-level offenses, such as simple procession or intent, while meeting certain case key criteria. These requirements include a lack of criminal history, violence, weapon procession, as well as limited involvement in drug enterprise and full compliance with sharing information with law enforcement.

Most recently, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine. Previously, 1 gram of crack cocaine was held to the same standards as 100 grams of powder cocaine. After 2010, this gap was amended to a 1 in 17 ratio. While this ruling represents a positive step towards sentencing equality, a disparity between the two substances remains.

11-18-1to100-disparity2Policy Shortcomings

Despite the efforts of the Fair Sentencing Act and Safety Valve procedures, federal mandatory drug minimums continue to support an unsustainably large and racially disproportionate prison population. These shortcomings are highlighted when considering the two primary intentions of the mandatory minimums- both of which have failed to be realized.

First, mandatory minimums were intended to reduce major drug trafficking. Rather, these procedures have been used to incarcerate low-level offenders. As penalties are determined by the quantity of drugs involved, this broad policy fails to recognize the function or threat of the individuals who are typically arrested and charged with drug trafficking. For example, a currier may be carrying large quantities of a substance but often represents the least culpable participant in an international drug selling organization. In the Sentencing Commissions September 2013 report to Congress, they reported the category of drug offenders most often subject to mandatory minimums are street level dealers, many levels away from major suppliers and trade leaders. As their report explains, “While Congress appears to have intended to impose these mandatory penalties on ‘major’ or ‘serious’ drug traffickers, in practice the penalties have swept more broadly.”

Second, mandatory minimums were intended to reduce sentencing disparity. The original authors believed limiting judicial discretion and fixing sentence range would result in uniformed prison terms. However, contemporary research indicates the opposite has occurred because sentencing guidelines continue to require a tremendous amount of judicial discretion while doing little to address the issue of racial inequity head on. For example, judges must decide if a mandatory sentence can be triggered in the first place and if any aggravating circumstances can be proven to increase the sentence above the minimum.

According to a national study conducted at Northwestern University, defendants of color were significantly more likely to qualify for mandatory minimums and aggravating circumstances compared to white defendants, and were also less likely to qualify for Safety Vales exemptions. Their findings indicate 41.1 percent of Latino offenders were subject to minimum guidelines compared to only 28 percent of White defendants. Further, 70 percent of drug cases involving white offenders proved aggravating circumstances, as compared to 88.4 percent of cases involving African-American offenders. Qualitative data from the Northwestern study indicate a number of judges would have preferred to reduce the sentences for people of color, in particular, due to mitigating circumstances but were unable to due to restrictions in judicial discretion. As the conclusion explain,

In short, our findings suggest that judicial discretion does not contribute to, and may in fact mitigate, racial disparities in Guidelines sentencing. Policy makers interested in redressing racial disparity today should pay much closer attention to the effects of mandatory minimums and their effect on prosecutorial and judicial discretion.”

The Smarter Sentencing Act

In light of growing national awareness about the current state of crisis in our prison system, not limited to a failed War on Drugs, overcrowded facilities, skyrocketing recidivism rates, and irrefutable racial inequity, federal policy makers, think tanks, and Attorney General Eric Holder have been pouring over the issue of sentencing reform for the better part of two years. The current status of this effort is a bill known as “The Smarter Sentencing Act” submitted to the Senate floor by the Judiciary Committee on January 30, 2014.

If approved, the Smarter Sentencing Act would:

  • Reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and direct the US Sentencing Commission to lower sentencing guidelines accordingly;
  • Give judges more leeway to ignore mandatory minimums in cases with mitigating factors;
  • Make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine from 100:1 t0 18:1 by reducing the amount of crack triggering five and ten year mandatory minimums from 5 and 28 grams respectively to 50 and 280 grams. This act also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for possessing five grams of crack. However, the Fair Sentencing Act only applied to offenders prosecuted after 2010. The Smarter Sentencing Act would retroactively reduce the sentences of individuals currently serving sentences based on the old crack cocaine sentencing guideline.

The Smarter Sentencing Act is a step in the right direction and is likely to have a major positive impact on the prison population if passed. In particular, the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act is likely to reduce the over-representation of people of color in the prison system. However this act is not enough. In particular, a disparity between crack and powder cocaine continues to exist. In addition, only a small cross-section of the sentencing guidelines will be reformatted.

As social workers, we must remain active in the fight to end mass incarceration and the over-representation of people of color in the criminal justice system. We must be creative and vigilant in creating new solutions to prison reform. According the Urban Institute’s “Stemming the Tides” report, here are some suggestions for additional “Front-End Changes” (i.e. reducing the number of people committed to prison and reducing their sentence length) and “Back-End Changes” (i.e. increasing the number of people released from prison and reducing recidivism).

Front-End Changes

  • Reduce all drug sentencing minimums by half
  • Increase access to Safety Valves exceptions
  • Increase the use of drug treatment diversion
  • Increase access to community-based drug treatment and services to prevent drug crime

Back-End Changes

  • Apply all current and future sentencing guideline reductions retroactively
  • Increase use of Early Release programs for good behavior and negative drug tests, as well as for the terminally ill and inmates over 70 years old
  • Increase transition and re-entry services and begin services prior to release date
  • Increase the use of probation and house-arrest

What are your thoughts on prison reform? How can we reduce the prison population, increase racial equity, and find an alternative approach to drug treatment? How can we, as social workers, be more involved in this fight for justice? Share your thoughts and comments below!

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