Achieving equity is a current pursuit among many in philanthropy, and one that is often referred to as a journey. To be clear, there is no end-of-the-road and the starting point varies, but there are ways to know if we are moving forward on the path.

Racial equity specifically is about a persistent effort to manage change daily in our institutions. Equity work requires foundations and their leadership to be ambidextrous – simultaneously paying attention to what’s happening inside the organization with our people, culture, and policies and outside the organization in the social, political, and cultural environment. This is especially true for philanthropic institutions whose constituents (grantees) are directly impacted by the issues they work on and in many cases are responding to urgent conditions in the world that persistently maintain inequity through racist policies, practices, and conditions.

At Borealis Philanthropy, our Racial Equity Initiatives are focused on advancing racial equity within nonprofits and philanthropy through the Racial Equity to Accelerate Change (REACH) and Racial Equity in Philanthropy (REP) Funds. We have invested in nonprofits and philanthropy because we believe when racial equity is fully integrated into the policies and practices of these sectors, communities of color will have the resources they need to build power for social change. For donors who are committed to ensuring racial equity remains at the forefront of philanthropy, these funds are a valuable resource.

Our racial equity work has caused us to reflect on how to know we are making progress. Supporting and following the work of our REACH and REP grantees has helped us identify some indicators of progress that institutions are gaining momentum in their equity transformation. The following themes reflect shifts we see in foundations, philanthropy serving organizations, and nonprofits that are moving the work of equity forward. Here’s what donors should look for when working with an organization:

  • An authorizing culture: In an authorizing culture there are visible signals to staff and board that equity is a priority for the organization, allowing team members to actively and intentionally pursue equity. For example, the organization allocates resources, both human and financial, to activities that support equity. The institution has put in writing and made public and easily accessible their commitment to equity. Leadership at the staff and board level consistently lift up the values of equity when they are speaking publicly and internally.
  • Accountability: The institution has gone through a process to understand where there are gaps between aspirations and practices of equity. This could be done through a formal audit or assessment that looks at policies, practices, and culture to understand where equity is embedded and where inequities may be persisting. Part of this process requires foundations to ask constituents and external stakeholders for feedback to understand their experience and perception on equitable practices. Accountability also includes having a way to measure progress. Results from the audit and partner feedback lead to setting benchmarks and developing a strategy to monitor progress towards closing gaps.
  • Vulnerability: Organizations making the most significant progress in practicing equity have leaders who are ready to be vulnerable. Vulnerability means there is a willingness among leadership to admit they don’t have all the answers, to own when they may have done harm, to understand they might fail, and to be open to self-exploration. Self-exploration is even more critical for white leaders who must understand the need to do their homework on historical and institutional inequities and their own white privilege. Leadership’s willingness to be vulnerable makes room for a more courageous culture where people feel incentivized to resist status quo and be innovative in their work, especially as it relates to implementing equity in practice.
  • Learning culture: Organizations that make the time and space for learning about equity have a deeper commitment to actively pursuing equity. Learning can take place in many forms including reading groups, training, and cross-team learning dialogues. Regardless of the modality, the most important elements of a learning towards equity culture are there are multiple ways to engage, the organization is meeting people where they are, and the offerings are consistent and not one-off opportunities.
  • Reflective practice: In organizations that are deeply engaged in equity work we start to see a shift in internal dialogue to be one of inquiry and reflection. At every step, staff and leadership are asking: Does this feel like equity? If the answer is ‘no’ there is more space and time given for inclusive dialogue dedicated to making improvements or course correction.

Pursuing racial equity work is a long-term commitment, requiring continuous improvement.  Our racial equity work at Borealis is rooted in a vision where life outcomes for individuals and communities of color are not predicted by race, and where changing institutional policies and practices will lead to sustained investment in community-driven organizing and advocacy on social justice issues.

We hold to the truth that when communities facing the greatest inequities have the resources they need to carry out strategies that demolish racist policies and practices, the benefits of their work impact ALL communities and we will achieve a world where every individual and community is healthy, safe, and thriving.


Original contribution by Maya Thornell-Sandifor, Director of Racial Equity Initiatives at Borealis Philanthropy. Contact us to learn more about our Racial Equity Initiatives.