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What can a consultant do to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion?

It’s become fashionable for people and institutions in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector to reflect — and in some cases — act on principles of equity, diversity and inclusion. These conversations lead to conversations about staffing and board makeup, as well as programmatic and grantmaking policies and goals. For example, Funders Together to End Homelessness, an organization I serve as a board member, recently released its Commitment to Racial Equity. Many funders and organizations have declared that they are working with an “equity lens” and reflecting on how it affects their processes and operations (e.g. see the recent article by Claire Peeps on invitation only grantmaking).

As I’ve transitioned into consulting over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about how I can stay true to these important principles, even when I don’t have an organizational context from which to hold me accountable. Obviously, my individual perspectives, actions and integrity are important, and I’ve written recently about my own white male privilege and things I’m working on to advance racial and gender equity. Beyond those, however, how else can I advance equity through my consulting? Since I largely consult on program strategy with nonprofits and foundations, I can certainly raise questions about equity, diversity and inclusion and make recommendations on how to address structural forms of discrimination. That is an important contribution I can make as a consultant, but I recently had an epiphany in how else I can stay true to these principles.

A foundation reached out to me several months ago about submitting a proposal for a project to conduct research and provide recommendations to inform a grantmaking strategy tied to a particular geographic region. With training in social science and urban planning and 25 years experience in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, this is something I was very comfortable doing. But before responding to the request for proposal, it hit me: if I’m going to be studying and making recommendations about a particular community, shouldn’t I really be involving someone from that community in my work? I had someone in mind, a person who grew up and lives in the area I would be studying and has had life experience (and therefore expertise) related to the issues the foundation wanted to address. Thankfully, this person was interested and joined me as part of the consulting team and added a richness to the proposal, providing key feedback and great ideas on community-based research.

As consultants who rely on contracts for our livelihood, it can be difficult to think about bringing in people who may not have the same level of training or traditional consulting skills. But I am committed to trying my best to involve people with lived expertise as much as I can. Not only is it consistent with my values; I believe it will — as in the case of this place-based initiative — lead to better analysis and work on my part. To my fellow consultants, I encourage you to think about widening your professional circle to “nontraditional” partners. To organizations that hire consultants, please think about how you can encourage equity and lived expertise as part of your requests for proposal. Together, we can hopefully make more real the adage, “nothing about us, without us.”

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