So You Want to Hire an Equity Consultant

By Kerrien Suarez with the support of Ericka Hines

This is the first in a two-part series of recommendations designed to help nonprofit and philanthropic organizations engage consultants to build a Race Equity Culture.

Leaders find the process of hiring a race equity consultant to be fraught with challenges. So many organizations make critical missteps in the process that Fakequity wrote a blog about how not to screw it up. The increasing number of training and capacity building options available, the complexity of assessing organizational readiness, the question of when and with whom to begin the work: Individually and collectively, these issues can lead to months (sometimes years) of delays. This leads to a type of “analysis paralysis” that practitioners recognize as a means of tactically avoiding beginning the work itself.

  • How/where do you find a consultant?

Building on themes from the “What Would an Equity Consultant Do?” panel at the 2018 Equity in the Center Summit (video can be found here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three), the following is a list of tools and resources that address these questions. They are designed to orient leaders to the process and demands of the work, and support organizations in identifying, retaining and successfully partnering with a race equity consultant. Many tools included below are indexed on the Racial Equity Tools website, a list of 1900+ resources curated by Center for Assessment and Policy Development, MP Associates and World Trust Educational Services.

Budget wisely. Building a Race Equity Culture requires a significant investment of time and financial resources over years. Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture includes some cost benchmarks:

Note: Organizations A and C are nonprofits; Organization B is a foundation

Allocate enough funding to cover a consultant’s support for at least a year, and include it in the organizational budget. Intentional, sustained work (at the four levels on which racism exists: personal/internalized, interpersonal, institutional, structural) over 12 to 18 months drives a depth of action and change that can yield meaningful shifts in culture. Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE, negotiated an arrangement with a team of consultants who designed a timeline and action plan that spanned two calendar years, but was funded across three budget years to manage costs.

An equity line item in the organizational budget can fund external consultant support as well as training from race equity capacity building organizations (such as Race Forward, Interaction Institute for Social Change, People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training or Racial Equity Institute). Doing a training to establish a shared language and context on race and structural racism is generally a precursor to engaging a consultant whose support will help the organization prioritize equity as a sustainably funded initiative within a multi-year strategic plan.

Do your homework on the equity project types and processes consultants support. Talk to colleagues whose work with consultants has yielded measurable action and culture change on race equity, and get their input on project goals, scope and pacing. Review this tool from the Denver Foundation’s Inclusiveness Project, which was designed to help nonprofit organizations scope a project and hire a consultant. It includes the following:

  • Exercises to help organizations decide the project elements for which they require support

A note on RFP’s: Fakequity highlights they can be a “waste of time and money”, especially for consultants (often of color) asked to submit detailed plans from which ideas are extracted and used to inform work with someone else. White dominant organizational culture dictates that RFP’s are frequently a requirement for expenditures over a certain dollar amount, or for processes outside of the organization’s previous project experience. Doing racial equity change work fundamentally challenges white dominant culture, and forces an organization to consider how the RFP timeline and process, as well as how relationships built with potential thought partners as part of it, must shift to center people and communities of color, and accountability to them.

Be realistic about what you can accomplish within your budget and timeline. Often, when organizations seek consultant support for this work, the scope is not realistically aligned to the budget or calendar. The work almost always costs more and takes longer than organizations expect or would hope. There is a sense of urgency around achieving measurable “outcomes,” which takes years in race equity work, and this characteristic is a core component of how white supremacy culture manifests in organizations.

The desire for urgency (and its origin) should be explicitly named as part of a process to intentionally socialize the length of time the work will take, as well as the amount of discomfort individuals, the organization and funders who so often push for “results” will experience.

When scoping the project, consider what it takes to go from lifting a five pound weight to bench-pressing 100. The Denver Foundation tool or the Purpose Outcomes Process (POP) planning model can be helpful here, as can feedback from colleagues on their project scope/goals, and whether they were ultimately accomplished on budget and in what period of time. During the interview process, it is also advisable to ask candidates how confident they are in achieving the desired scope on time and budget, and which potential challenges they foresee (consider it a red flag if someone says they don’t foresee any).

Do your homework on the consultant and understand their values. Check with colleagues for referrals to consultants they trust, then check their references and ensure they have a proven track record of leading engagements of the type, scope and length you need. Review this list of sample interview questions to ask consultants created by the Denver Foundation to begin formulating what is important to evaluate in a company that is going to be supporting your DEI efforts. Ensure you have a clear understanding of the lived experience that brings the consultant to this work and of the values that ground them in it. Be aware of how those values align with those of your organization. RoadMap, a national team of 76 social justice-minded consultants, articulates key values and principles that both guide their work and support learning, quality and client satisfaction.

As part of the dialogue to understand a consultant’s values, clarify their definitions of and approach to diversity, inclusion and equity versus the work of racial equity and racial justice. Often referred to jointly as DEI, diversity, inclusion and equity are distinct concepts that engage different sets of personal behaviors/beliefs and organizational policies/processes to drive different outcomes. The distinctions between diversity, race equity and racial justice approaches are deeply connected to values, and speak to whether a consultant will take a transactional or transformational approach to shifting a white dominant organization’s status quo. These will also indicate whether the consultant centers people of color and accountability to communities of color as critical principles underlying not only the engagement, but organizing and movement building for equity and justice (ABFE’s framework for Responsive Philanthropy in Black Communities and the Anti-Racist Principles from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond are examples). For more context on the distinction between race equity and racial justice, and the role philanthropy has played in cultivating an environment in which many nonprofit and foundation leaders are scrambling to build capacity for the internal work, read this Philanthropy News Digest interview with the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity.

Equity in the Center thanks its Resource Mapping Working Group, co-chaired by CHANGE Philanthropy’s Carly Hare and Building Movement Project’s Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, for its support in curating Woke@Work. We are grateful to Leniece Flowers Brissett, Maggie Potapchuk, Carly Hare, Yolanda Caldera-Durant, Kelly Opot and Caitlin Duffy for their feedback on and recommended resources. Part two of this series will be published in early 2019. Until then, stay connected to Equity in the Center via, Twitter and Facebook.

We work to shift mindsets, practices, and systems within the social sector to increase race equity.