Nonprofit Sector

How NFF’s Social Innovation and Equity Council Was Born

July 16, 2020

This blog is part of an ongoing series written by members of NFF's Social Innovation and Equity Council exploring how equity shows up in their work.

In 2016, Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) was at a crossroads. The senseless murder of Alton Sterling combined with the presidential election that was mocked across the globe prompted NFF to question how our business practices contributed to, and even perpetuated, systemic racism. Staff and the leadership team were grappling with what needed to change at NFF, from policies to practices. So, NFF made a formal commitment to better align our work with racial equity efforts in the sector and kicked off this process during an all-staff retreat in fall 2016.   

Since then, we have been trying to figure out who we are, who we want to be, and how to deeply integrate racial equity according to our values – all while making sure our business model continues to support and sustain our organization. We began our work in earnest with a wide range of actions and activities, including:

  • Hiring a full-time staff member dedicated to furthering our equity efforts
  • Providing a variety of trainings, workshops, and dialogues on asset framing, presenting our written and visual content in a more equitable manner, racial equity in grantmaking, and more 
  • Supporting additional learning through staff-led activities (e.g., informal discussions on race and current events, book clubs, artistic performances, and even a walking tour that highlighted the role of race and racism in the history of a famous NY neighborhood)
  • Developing an additional core value, Equity in Action, to help hold us accountable and ensure that our work matched our aspirations  
  • Advocating for and receiving money from the annual budget for peer-to-peer learning
  • Implementing a work plan to build on these efforts  
  • Making equity the primary focus of our all-staff retreat in 2019

We also received funding to collaborate with another Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) to examine how our lending practice can further equity within the CDFI sector and help create better economic and health outcomes for communities across the country.  

“It became apparent early on that the NFF team was expected to jump from idea to action without taking the time required to digest concepts of racial equity. The initial action plan approached our equity work as a project versus recognizing and understanding that this is an organizational culture shift that required a deeper engagement from all levels of the organization.”

Lacy Serros - Senior Associate, Equity in Action and Project Leader, SIEC

At the end of this first phase of our equity journey, we saw a shift in individual commitment. We increased knowledge, engagement, and the external sharing of our efforts, progress, and challenges, both publicly and in conversations with partners. However, the work was only just starting. One individual could not be the sole voice for change, and the whole enterprise had to be able to see their role in the implementation.

NFF leadership was more committed than ever to racial equity but stumbled when trying to define and implement this new organizational priority. Some junior staff members of color wrote an internal diversity, equity, and inclusion newsletter, which was overridden by a white person in a senior leadership position and distributed with factual errors and a disregard for the mental and emotional labor that went into its development. A team of NFF consultants began an engagement with a group of Black-led nonprofits who indicted NFF’s privileged history and accused those consultants of not having the ability and understanding to effectively engage with them. They referenced NFF's historical ideology about using financial metrics as the sole determinant of an organization’s health. While we had broadened our thinking to give more weight to a nonprofit's intellectual, social, and people strengths, we realized that in order to outline NFF’s equitable future, we needed to address our past.  

How can an organization that desires to be more equitable, critically examine its internal and external practices – especially when most of its products and resources remain inaccessible to a large portion of the very social sector it wants to support?  The answer: Pull together a group of staff that are committed to helping the organization grow and change; create guidelines, rules, roles, and goals; and develop a process to raise and address issues of inequity, as well as field requests from the rest of the staff.

“When we hit the crossroads of what was next for NFF, I knew that we had to take a bold action that would be designed to overcome the warnings we saw everywhere about why DEI projects didn’t work, so I proposed the Social Innovation and Equity Council. Having a diverse, enterprise-wide group with the ability to implement policy and procedure that centers equity, supports individual and enterprise accountability, and elevates positive change was crucial.”

Trella Walker - Director, Advisory Services and Team Leader, SIEC

Thus, the NFF Social Innovation and Equity Council (SIEC) was born. The SIEC is made up of eight NFF team members of varying tenures, levels, departments, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and genders. We were nominated by our peers and then completed a formal application outlining our interest and commitment. Each of us agreed to give 10 to 40 percent of our time, depending on role, to both supporting NFF in its pursuit of centering equity in the organization, and holding the enterprise accountable for making the changes necessary to ensure that centering equity actually happens.

We are building the plane while we fly it. We’ve had to develop everything from the ground up, from our different role descriptions to processes for determining which projects we’re going to tackle. The SIEC has only been operating for three months, and we’ve already had some big wins. We developed and administered a $250,000 COVID-19 recovery grant fund, helped create an accessible Spanish-language resources page on our website, and completed in-depth research about which populations are most affected by COVID-19. This last project was crucial to help ground the work of our organization as we ramped up our operations to be responsive to nonprofits impacted by the pandemic.

We are currently developing an equity framework toolkit that will be used to examine internal and external products, processes, systems, and procedures to determine where inequity may exist. This analysis will set the precedent for change throughout the enterprise.      

The murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd indicate that the world around us hasn’t changed much since 2016, but NFF is in a completely different place. It hasn’t always been easy, and not everyone has been on board with all the changes we’re trying make. It requires that all who engage are willing to examine themselves, their work, and the implications of that work. At the end of the day, we are driven by the desire to create true impact, and we must start with ourselves. We call for things to be done differently, so it is our responsibility to lead the change – as individuals, as the SIEC, and as NFF.

"That the Social Innovation and Equity Council even exists is a testament to NFF leadership's desire to provide the resources and infrastructure to truly prioritize equity, both internally and externally. To be given the space and autonomy to not only explore the ways in which our organization could be more equitable, but also put plans and actions into place to make those changes happen, is extremely rewarding."

Tiffany Langston - Director, Knowledge & Communications and Media Manager, SIEC