Nonprofit Sector

Social Justice Onboarding and Employee Resource Groups: How We’re Aligning Around Racial Equity

September 7, 2021

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.

Have you ever said a phrase so many times it begins to lose its meaning? That was us in 2018, and the phrase, unfortunately, was DEI – diversity, equity, and inclusion. The phrase seemed to be trending across the social sector as we were making it a part of the way we worked, and we wanted to make sure we were living it, not just saying it. 

We put lot of work into living it. NFF hosted book clubs for staff to read and discuss Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth and Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law. We held monthly Equity in Action forums at which we discussed topics like the COVID-19 pandemic’s unequal effects on women and people of color. We gave each office a pool of money to spend on equity-related knowledge building. We developed a DEI action plan. We revised the DEI action plan. We hired diversity consultant after diversity consultant. We created an Identity Style Guide. We unveiled a strategy with ambitious targets for creating a more racially equitable organization and social sector. We formed a Social Innovation and Equity Council (SIEC) to support the organization in weaving that strategy into the fiber of our enterprise. 

Despite all this, we still weren’t on the same page on racial equity. People come to NFF from many different backgrounds and bring varying levels of experience. While more than half our staff identifies as people of color and three-quarters identifies as female, we comprise dozens of intersecting identities of race, class, and gender. How could we develop a shared language for our work and a shared outlook to move us forward? 

Our solution was to develop a Social Justice Onboarding program: a mandatory curriculum for all staff that would provide the opportunity to normalize a common language, level-set how we think about social justice and community engagement, and support the interpersonal and cultural orientations we have at NFF. Now nearing the conclusion of the first phase of our onboarding curriculum, we’re sharing the story of our journey and what we’ve learned so far. 

Our Social Justice Onboarding curriculum

The Social Justice Onboarding program has two goals: 

  1. Orient NFF around social justice and community engagement. 
  2. Support an anti-racist culture

Racism and inequality manifest in many different ways. Therefore, the SIEC designed a curriculum that would give NFF employees a baseline understanding of racial equity concepts that are deeply connected to our work but that staff members often struggle to articulate and apply – such as how systemic racism has created a racial wealth gap, and how asset framing can support communities by focusing on their potential in the face of structural challenges.  

The SIEC spent nine months gathering myriad sources – including articles, excerpts from books, podcasts, and videos – narrowing them down to roughly 35 hours of content, and organizing them into five modules, each structured loosely around a specific topic within the broader umbrellas of systemic racism and racial equity. 

Here’s a sample of what we’re reading, watching, and listening to: 

Importantly, NFF treats the onboarding with the same level of rigor as daily work. Staff complete the readings and meetings on work time, not as extracurricular activities. This is a direct investment in our employees that we hope will build knowledge of and sensitivity to systems of oppression. In addition to supporting staff in day-to-day work as we navigate toward NFF’s strategic goals, the onboarding is a growth opportunity for many people who have not had the opportunity to engage with these ideas before. 

Employee Resource Groups

For such sensitive and important topics, how we covered them proved to be just as important as what we covered. Concurrently with the launch of our Social Justice Onboarding program, NFF also established Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) based on self-reported racial identity. The ERGs provide staff with supported space for discussions and additional learning, as well as an avenue to connect with teammates while working from home. All staff are required to participate in the ERGs, which meet once per month (at minimum) to discuss Social Justice Onboarding materials.  

Bringing together employees with similar backgrounds or interests can have a powerful influence in the workplace. These groups can promote a company's diversity and inclusion efforts and allow for networking, mentorships, and other opportunities for professional and personal development. 

After the first round of onboarding wraps up later this month, we hope ERGs will continue to foster dialogue, grow understanding, and build a stronger, more equitable organization for years to come. 

Lessons so far

We have now nearly completed our first round of Social Justice Onboarding. So far, feedback on the content and structure of the social justice onboarding has been encouraging. Specifically, staff have told us: 

  • The content gives people helpful reference points for the unjust systems we encounter as a US-based nonprofit and community development financial institution (CDFI) – and offers a road map for how we can make those unjust systems more equitable. 
  • Many appreciate the safe space of ERGs to process information, share experiences, and support one another. 
  • The ERGs are generating new ideas about how we can work more equitably with one another and within the nonprofit sector. 

While staff have generally reacted positively, we’ve identified several challenges that we plan to address in future social justice work at NFF.  

  • It is a lot of material to get through each month. 
  • There is not enough time in the one-hour meetings to discuss the entire curriculum. 
  • This is heavy material, and it brings up a lot of feelings for people that can take time or be difficult to process; it’s not the norm for a work environment.  

Our goal is to create spaces where people feel comfortable to share or take care of themselves as we explore challenging topics. We’re using forums open to all staff to come back together as a group and discuss what we’re learning and what we’re feeling. (This is an important facet of ERGs, in fact – that groups get back together with the larger organization.) We’ve also brought in a facilitator to help us as an organization work through the grief that comes up in this work and how to build a culture of collective care with one another. 

Once we all complete the curriculum, we will continue to provide spaces for staff to dive deeper into issues of racial equity and social justice and develop trust and rapport with one another. We hope this will support a broader culture shift towards being more inclusive and supportive across our many differences, creating a stronger NFF. 

Our work is only just beginning. Equity work requires constant engagement, but we hope our social justice onboarding program will align us so we can grow better together as an intermediary that centers equity in work with clients and partners.