Urban Wire How to Overcome Inequities and Disparities in the Growing Social Sector Infrastructure
Faith Mitchell
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Following the murder of George Floyd and nationwide protests in 2020, America began a racial reckoning. As a result, the private and philanthropic sectors made unprecedented commitments to racial equity.

Major growth in the support system for the social sector, which we refer to as the social sector infrastructure, reflects this change. Our new research, which included conversations with more than 100 infrastructure providers, funders, and users, underscored that this expansion was fueled in part by an increase in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) services, research, leadership development, and other key infrastructure services that center equity.

But despite this new growth in equity-related services, people of color engaged in the social sector infrastructure continue to face unique barriers and inequities. Our study suggests the sector can prioritize two solutions to help the infrastructure better prioritize all its members.

What inequities do people of color and communities marginalized with respect to geographic location, language, disability, sexual orientation, and social classface?

They experience inequities and disparities in the following areas:

  • Amounts of funding: Participants observed that less funding is directed toward organizations led by people of color and other marginalized groups than toward white-led organizations. Data that show nonprofits led by people of color have smaller endowments and get less funding than nonprofits led by white leaders underscore these qualitative findings.
  • Types of funding: Participants also said people of color-led organizations aren’t getting the kinds of resources that build organizational strength, such as general operating support, funding to set up an endowment, or leadership support.
  • Incorporation status: Groups that don’t have IRS tax-exempt status are disproportionately led by people of color. These groups are often overlooked by those infrastructure providers that don’t serve small, volunteer-led, and unincorporated groups.
  • Leadership and staff: There was a general consensus among participants that the diversity of social sector infrastructure organizations’ staff and leadership with respect to race, religion, ethnicity, and lived experience was uneven. We heard that diversity is more apparent in certain components of infrastructure, such as providers who offer DEI training or support building the racial justice movement, but less so in other infrastructure fields, such as philanthropy or technology support. Recent data support this observation.

In a more diverse infrastructure, social sector providers need greater cultural competence

People in the social sector value working with infrastructure providers who can prioritize needs, but many feel misunderstood. When we surveyed more than 200 people who identify as part of the social sector, 84 percent indicated that an infrastructure provider’s understanding of their organization and its identity is what most influences them when selecting a provider. But when asked which obstacles they face to accessing infrastructure supports, nearly 50 percent answered, “We don’t think service providers understand our needs.”

A recent Building Movement Project (PDF) study of community-based organizations underscores the importance of culturally experienced providers. It posits that while Black, Indigenous and People of Color- (BIPOC) and white-led local organizations have similar infrastructure needs, BIPOC-led organizations have a harder time “finding providers that are representatives of the communities [they] serve… who have a track record of working with BIPOC-led organizations,” and have “expertise in addressing racism and other systems of oppression.” The same study showed that BIPOC-led and white-led organizations have differing needs. For example, while white-led organizations typically face internal DEI issues, BIPOC-led organizations face external ones.

Addressing inequities and disparities

Our study puts forth a set of objectives to help remedy these inequities. Two are especially relevant to infrastructure providers led by and serving people of color and other marginalized communities:

  • Ensure infrastructure providers have adequate financial resources, have the flexibility to spend these resources to meet the needs of infrastructure users, and don’t face undue reporting and other burdens from the funding they receive. This requires equipping infrastructure providers with adequate and flexible resources to reduce fees and increase access to services among people of color and other marginalized communities; ensuring social sector organizations led by and serving people of color and other marginalized communities have the resources they need to afford infrastructure services; and giving organizations in people of color and other marginalized communities the freedom to do what they believe will best meet the needs of the community they serve.
  • Adopt inclusive practices that ensure infrastructure providers offer services that meet the needs of all social sector organizations, especially those led by and serving people of color and other marginalized communities. Appreciating community context and identity came up as a key recommendation for how infrastructure providers can help address inequities and disparities in the sector. This also highlights the importance of infrastructure providers hiring leaders and staff with that same lived experience and track record. And finally, advocating for the needs of smaller organizations that serve marginalized populations and communities of color can be another step to meeting the needs of all social sector entities.

Envisioning a more equitable social sector infrastructure

We hope that the findings from our study can help shed a light on the inequities within the social sector and its infrastructure and provide initial steps for infrastructure providers and funders to take to work toward a more equitable and inclusive system.

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Research Areas Nonprofits and philanthropy
Tags Charitable giving Foundations and philanthropy Nonprofit data and statistics Nonprofit sector trends Social sector infrastructure Race and equity in grantmaking Race, gender, class, and ethnicity Racial and ethnic disparities
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy
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