For some time now, I have been thinking about how we can be clearer with the terms we use in philanthropy and nonprofit circles. We seem to adopt new terms without much thought about what they mean, or the implications of adopting them as part of our programs, strategic plans, or “branding” efforts. Two frequently-used terms without sufficient clarity, reflection, or accountability are sustainability and equity. These two concepts are intricately connected and deserve our attention.

At the Sewall Foundation — led by the mission to improve the wellbeing of people, animals, and the environment — we work from the belief that equity is only attainable when we fully engage with our social, economic, historical, and environmental context.


Let’s start with sustainability: while generally used to refer to the ability to maintain a certain rate or level of operations, or, not depleting natural resources, sustainability has long been understood to be a more complex and nuanced concept than either a purely ecological or economic perspective provides.

In the nonprofit context, sustainability primarily focuses on “the concepts of financial sustainability, as well as leadership succession planning, adaptability, and strategic planning.” According to the Council of Nonprofits, “for charitable nonprofits, the phrase ‘sustainability’ is commonly used to describe a nonprofit that is able to sustain itself over the long term, perpetuating its ability to fulfill its mission.”

In adopting such a narrow use and application of the term sustainability, we miss out on an opportunity to bring a more cohesive approach to how we work and plan for the future in nonprofit and philanthropic contexts. Furthermore, the term sustainability, as used by funders, has been weaponized to essentialize nonprofits to their financial well-being and deepen the harmful proselytization of wealth as wisdom and financial success as the best indicator of doing good work.


Equity can be generally understood to be the fair distribution of opportunities, resources, and power, with consideration of current and historical contexts. An important aspect of equity, which distinguishes it from equality approaches, is the recognition that we are each situated differently in society as a result of the interaction of social, economic, and political systems, and we must therefore tailor approaches (equity as process) to achieve equity for all populations (equity as outcome). Simply put, equity is about justice and fairness and about how power operates within a particular society or institution.

Read the full article about defining sustainability and equity by Gabriela Alcalde at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.