A Practical Approach to Moving the Needle on Racial Justice and Equity

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement last year, a number of corporations organized donations to racial-justice causes and put out statements supporting the ideals of equity and inclusion. A positive development, to be sure, and there’s no question that the short-term impact was significant: In June 2020, our internal research found that donations to causes supporting racial justice and equity totaled $166 million and made up 55% of the giving that was processed through our platform. That’s a 15-fold increase over the previous month. 

By December, however, we found that this number had dropped to just 5%. A disappointing trend.

Clearly, we have work to do. Saying you want to be a part of the solution, even making a donation, is a great first step, but it’s the easiest step. Creating lasting change around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), both in the workplace and the world at large, requires more than a single statement or action. It requires a long-term, well-resourced strategy. 

Recently, I participated in a webinar discussion with Kristin Jarrett, lead associate of community impact and philanthropy at Booz Allen Hamilton, and Stephanie Ellis-Smith, co-founder of Give Blck, a database geared toward promoting racial equity in giving. Our discussion was about what companies can do to weave racial justice and equity into the fabric of their corporate purpose programs and the fabric of their workplaces. Not just when issues are in the news. Not just during annual awareness times like Black History Month. But every day. Here are some of the key takeaways:

Step 1: Be honest about your baseline.

When it comes to DEI, organizations really need to first understand where they are starting from. This is so important because it directly relates to which issues you’re best equipped to focus on — successfully. 

For example, if your company still has a lot of DEI work to do internally, focus on that first. If you feel like you’ve got a handle on internal issues, then focus on empowering your people to make change externally in the community, and so forth. A comment that Jarrett made really stuck with me: “As a company, you can’t decide to create incredible change in your community if you have not taken care of the people [within your organization] who feel unheard or disenfranchised. It’s really important to take care of home first, and I think when you empower people, when they feel heard, when they feel supported, they’re better able to show up and do incredible work that moves the needle where it’s most needed.”   

Step 2: Listen, learn, and lean into discomfort

Listening and learning are part of taking action. At my company for example, prior to the events of last year we created an employee resource group whose main focus is on education, awareness, and connection around the issues that are important to our Black employees. Following the events of last summer, we also hosted a five-part table talk series with guest speakers that allowed people to learn about concepts like unconscious bias, allyship, power, privilege, and the history of slavery and racism in all spheres of our world, including education, public policy, housing, employment, and politics. 

This opened the door to very open, honest, and authentic conversations in-house, which in turn ended up lighting a fire among our people to go out into the world and share what they were learning and be a part of social change in their communities. 

Listening, learning, and leaning into the discomfort is also really critical to establishing successful relationships with nonprofit partners, which includes being thoughtful about how you engage with nonprofit organizations and cognizant of their already stretched-thin internal resources. 

So before jumping into a relationship with a partner, it’s critical to do your homework to learn about their mission and, when you do engage, to listen carefully for what they really, truly need — not what you think they need or is convenient for you to fund. Said Ellis-Smith: “You want to make sure you’re not unduly leaning on them for work that you could be doing internally yourself.” 

Step 3: Get specific about objectives. 

Racism and systemic inequalities are big, complicated issues that have been generations in the making. Trying to address them as a single monolithic problem is impossible. You really need to get specific about which aspects of these issues you want to — and can — address (housing, criminal justice, education, as examples). Then create a blueprint for how you will do it. 

For example, Booz Allen last summer announced a six-dimension race and social equity agenda, with one of those dimensions focused on making racial and social equity a major element of the firm’s corporate philanthropy. Working across the organization, with employees and with the firm’s African American Network, Booz Allen identified four organizations working to advance racial and social equity to build giving, volunteering.

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To keep momentum moving, this spring the company also provided employees the opportunity to recommend and capture support for nonprofits operating in their local communities. Following the success of the giving campaign, Booz Allen started digging in deeper by identifying pro bono projects, skills-based volunteering opportunities, and really activating their people to get involved. 

As Jarrett points out, “Maybe you want to earmark 20% of your grant funding to support communities of color, or maybe you want to identify nonprofit partners to build a long-term relationship that includes financial support and employee engagement.” Details matter. 

So does specificity. “Whatever your goal,” Jarrett adds, “There should be some tie-in with the work and capabilities of your organization. For example, if you’re a financial institution, maybe you could create a program to provide grants to small Black-owned businesses.” 

Step 4: Ensure you have necessary resources.

This one is pretty basic and should go without saying, but the most specific objective in the world will not advance very far without dedicated resources. Before moving forward, make sure your plan is funded, staffed, that there’s an accountability structure in place, a timeline to meet key goals, measurable benchmarks, and that you have buy-in at the executive level. 

Ellis-Smith said it best: “In our society, we pay for what we value and put money behind the things we think are important.” 

Additionally, don’t forget about another incredibly valuable resource — your people. Many of them are eager to help, so engage them early and often in brainstorming ideas, sharing their skills as volunteers and as mentors, and leveraging their expertise in pro bono work.  

One final thought: We must keep going. Racism and systemic inequality are not problems that we can solve overnight or that go away when protests aren’t in the news. Making progress is going to take long-term, dedicated action across many fronts. Strategies will have to be made, adjusted, repeated, and adapted over time. We have a tremendous opportunity to change the trajectory of our world if we continue taking action. It will take time, effort, pivoting, ongoing listening, and collaboration. Change will eventually come, but we can’t take our foot off the gas.  

Janelle St. Omer is regional vice president at Benevity, where she oversees new corporate partnerships across the Eastern seaboard in North America and helps companies optimize the impacts of their programs through best practices, innovative approaches, and engaging nonprofits. She is also the chair of Benevity’s Belongings Champions group and Black Employee Network, as well as being an ambassador for Not Myself Today.

Before Benevity, Janelle was the VP of business and community dvelopment at Volunteer Canada, managed the launch of the employee volunteer program at TD Bank Group, and managed fundraising campaigns for corporations in the finance sector at United Way Toronto. She holds a Certificate in Corporate Citizenship Practice from Boston College, is currently pursuing her MBA and is a member of the Emerging Leaders Network Through Civic Action.

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