4 Tips for Centering Equity & Inclusion

Part 2 of our Conversation with April Walker of Philanthropy for the People


A few months ago, we published a Q&A with April Walker of Philanthropy for the People, in which April provided her perspective on centering equity and inclusion in nonprofits, and the limitations of institutional philanthropy in the pursuit of equity. As promised, we are back with more ideas and strategies from April for our readers!

Centering equity and inclusion in any manner of organization is a long-term effort that requires financial resources and buy-in from both staff and leadership. Unfortunately, equity has become a co-opted term, and the work so jargonized, that it is often difficult to tell what efforts are substantive and which are performative.

For this reason, we bring you four practical tips for meaningfully centering equity in your nonprofit. We hope that these tips help you in navigating the complex yet essential process of resetting your organization’s culture with a focus on equity.

Tip 1: Embrace Discomfort. April says: “You can’t gold star or checklist your way through [equity work]. You’re looking to exist in a very messy, uncomfortable space where you have to get comfortable not having the right answers and saying the wrong thing.”

Centering equity in your organization is not linear work. You will need to get used to engaging in uncomfortable conversations, grappling with hard truths about where your organization is falling short, and examining your biases, both explicit and implicit.

As Dr. Ella Washington, an organizational psychologist, explains, this work is about “making cultural changes, finding new ways to influence people, and making difficult decisions,” which requires an “intentional, nuanced approach.” It is impossible to change a culture, with all its systems, values, and traditions overnight, so be prepared to roll up your sleeves and embrace the uncertainty and challenge!

Tip 2: Pay Employees a Living Wage. April says: “I urge people to ask, ‘What does our organizational budget look like with everybody at this organization earning a living wage? What does our budget look like with everybody at this organization having quality healthcare benefits? What does our budget look like with everybody having access to professional development?’”

A nonprofit’s most valuable resource is its staff—without their day-to-day efforts, it would be impossible to achieve any funded outputs or outcomes. Yet, workers in the nonprofit sector remain vastly undercompensated, and many of them identify as members of the most marginalized communities. Boards and funders have also enabled this disparity by focusing on the bottom-line of financials and failing to treat the people who do the work as part of the work itself. But this need not be the case! What if funders played a bigger role in helping nonprofits to better invest in the talent that drives them?

Some funders are starting to wake up to the implications of supporting nonprofits that undercompensate their staff. Dr. Adriane Johnson-Williams, a program officer at the Pyramid Peak Foundation, noted an inconsistency inherent in this approach to philanthropy:

I took it upon myself to tell agency heads I could not in good conscience support a budget that didn’t pay people appropriately, and I backed that up with funding recommendations to support those budgets . . . We would need far less philanthropy in Memphis if we had higher wages. In deciding which programs to fund, if I had taken their board-approved budgets as presented, I would reinforce an expectation that people working in the nonprofit sector deserve less. I would have co-signed the myth that work in the nonprofit sector feeds the soul, so it doesn’t have to feed or clothe or house the body.”

Likewise, nonprofit governance can play an important role in changing compensation practices. The Center for Progressive Reform is an example of a nonprofit that committed to a multi-step process to reach the goal of paying its staff more than a living wage. To do so certainly took advance planning and didn’t happen overnight. First they worked with their board to establish a contingency fund to augment salaries to mitigate inflation; they also upgraded benefits packages, and partnered with Living Wage for US to conduct an individual assessment and achieve certification.

Beyond pay, it is also imperative to provide equitable opportunities for professional development, as well as more intangible measures such as mentorship and networking for staff.

Tip 3: Hold Leadership and Governance Accountable. April says: “Equity and inclusion also need to be baked into everyone’s performance evaluation, including the executive director’s and board members.”

We hold organizational leaders accountable for other job performance measures, so why should helping to shift workplace culture to advance equity be treated any differently? While we want to be careful not to equate progress with overly-simplified metrics, there are ways to thoughtfully gauge and measure progress over time. Doing so also reinforces the message that everyone at the organization is tasked with this work (see more on this point below).

Creating a culture of accountability in leadership and governance is key to sustaining momentum for long-range, deep-seated work. In the absence of such a culture, “any effort to prevent racial harm or provide proper redress when it occurs will fall short . . . and deepen distrust and disconnection among staff”; it can also impact employee retention and team performance.

Tip 4: Avoid Tokenization. April says: “Everyone at the organization should be doing equity work so that they can figure out what being an active ally actually looks like.”

There are a number of reasons why an organization should ensure that everyone shares in the work of centering equity. First, this work involves transforming workplace culture—if large segments of your organization aren’t engaged, how can a true shift take place?

Additionally, those who experience the most inequity should not disproportionately bear the brunt of these endeavors, both for practical and fairness reasons. Often, the voices of those who are most marginalized are numerically underrepresented in the organization. It is also necessary for those who enjoy the most advantages to learn to leverage their influence to support their colleagues in effecting change. This allyship can take different forms – it does not always look like being front and center.

Finally, you might want to consider a team-based approach to equity work that convenes communities of practice for staff and board members from different organizations to engage in learning sessions, peer sharing, relationship building and coaching. Check out ProInsipre for more tips on this type of team-based model for building equity, as well as other helpful resources and training opportunities.

If your organization has embarked on an equity journey, we’d love to hear what you have learned through this important and challenging work!

Interested in learning more from organizations who have successfully implemented these tips? Stay tuned to this blog for further discussion in our Elevate Q&A series with nonprofits and funders, or join our email list to be the first to know when new content is published.

Elevate recently shared news about our two IDEA + J (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility + Justice) partners and the work that we are undertaking to facilitate a holistic, multidimensional approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

I  had the opportunity to sit down with one of those partners, April Walker, founder of Philanthropy for the People for an Elevate Q&A, the first in a series of blogs where we “pass the mic” to another member of our extended community to gain their personal perspective on issues relevant to the philanthropic sector and nonprofits. These conversations are exciting to Elevate as they lift up the opinions and expertise of our partners — which sometimes differs from the perspectives of Elevate’s leadership or readers. We believe that rich dialogue and difference of viewpoints makes this work more meaningful. 

In my conversation with April, the first of our Elevate Q&A sessions, she shared her perspective and advice for organizations seeking to center equity and inclusion in their work. She also offered her thoughts on the limitations and challenges inherent in institutional philanthropy and fundraising – plus some advice for grant professionals and nonprofits. Here, I share some of the highlights of our discussion.

Institutional Philanthropy as an Imperfect Solution  

Every day, nonprofits navigate the uncomfortable realities of power dynamics and disparities inherent in grantmaking. I asked some questions that explore these tension points and how it is possible to embrace an alternative value system while attempting to meet an organization’s budgetary needs.  

Johnisha Levi: Institutional philanthropy is an imperfect solution to societal need, in part because it is the product of inequitable wealth transfers. Given this reality, what do we do to challenge and disrupt this system while society has yet to undertake the necessary systemic and structural reform to replace this entrenched system?  

April Walker:  When I started in the field, folks were not quite as bold as they are now. Now they are starting to say, “Hey, you over there with all that wealth that you amassed in a problematic way, or that you inherited, we see a problem with that. And not only do we see a problem with that, we’re challenging that because we don’t trust exactly where the money came from, or we see that you’re limiting how you actually show up inside of the values you purport to have. We see that you’re asking us questions that you yourself don’t live by.”

So with the big players in the philanthropic space, it is getting harder and harder to celebrate the ways in which those dollars are exchanged. They’re not actually losing much, and the demands on celebrating and recognizing them are creating an additional strain for those of us who see the truth of what’s happening. It’s not necessarily an indictment of individual wealthy people or of all foundations of all sizes. but it is a request and growing demand for transparency. I think one of the biggest things that we can do is speak truth to power and not just placate, laud, and celebrate people for having huge amounts of resources at their behest—and with that act of calling out comes incredible amounts of power. 

JL: When do you think the tide started to change in terms of calling out problems inherent in Philanthropy? 

AW: I think within the past five years things have shifted. We’ve seen this as funders invite more conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion by asking related questions of grantees. As a grant writer or grant professional, if you’re continually having to answer questions about how diverse or not a nonprofit’s board is, or how inclusive or not a program is from a funding entity that is none of those things, it is going to continue to expose these inequities. 

JL: What is giving as its most ideal? What other models of giving do you recommend we look to for inspiration in our work and in our own lives as givers?

AW: In proportion to what we have as a community and in proportion to what we have been able to amass on a large scale in terms of wealth, Black people are deeply generous. Sometimes it shows up financially, but there is also a generosity of time, of connection, of resources. Members of my family would likely never call themselves philanthropists, but have they put money into a pot to ensure a certain relative can achieve XY and Z dream? Absolutely. Is that a giving circle by the sector’s terms? Absolutely. 

I trust in the power of our ability to show up because you can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up, whether that means showing up with a plate of food or showing up with $20 or just to lend a hand, and not even needing a thank you. All of that to me counts as generosity where I come from, and there’s a different type of connection in that than when money is at the center and you have to perform a certain way in order to even be in relationship.  

Advice for Grant Professionals and Nonprofit Clients

JL: In a recent Cocktails, Conversations & Lessons in Philanthropy episode, you discussed funders’ need for public recognition and celebration and how that is frequently integrated into proposals. How do you recommend that grantees (and the fundraising consultants who work with them) respond to the common (and frankly uncomfortable) question of “How will you publicize our donation?” 

AW: There are two applicable buckets. The first bucket is name recognition, or the literal benefits the funder receives for donating—what I call the five star treatment. The other bucket is a funder taking credit for stuff that they didn’t really do—meaning that funding an initiative through-and-through looks very different from making a non-profit apply every year. The former takes a long-term, sustained investment where people do not have to question if this money is going to run out. I wish quite frankly someone would do a case study of how much funders, especially corporate foundations or businesses in general, spend on ensuring that their investments look a certain way versus actually ensuring that their dollars are impactful. 

Some grantees may decide that this recognition costs too much emotionally or mentally; other times, this may extend to telling the foundation this truth. It really comes down to being clear on how much risk your organization can assume. I’m also a huge advocate of telling other funders about their peers. I think at the end of the day, when you have a relationship with a funder who is deeply understanding—who does show up inside of their application in a way that’s not making you and your vision feel small—that it’s an opportunity to say, “Hey, I really appreciate your process for all of these reasons, and here’s how we also are engaging with other folks differently.”

JL: Funders are fixated on the idea of metrics and measurements, often to the detriment of smaller, less resourced organizations that are doing great work that is not necessarily measurable in the way that they demand. How do we evolve from this need to quantify? What have you seen other funders doing as an alternative? And how do we move away from the status quo?

AW: There are funders that will ask for anecdotes in lieu of metrics or measurements, including asking for successes and challenges encountered. I quite prefer those questions. My personal and ever-growing feeling is that funders who want metrics should collect them themselves. Nonprofits need not be experts in all things. You want someone that’s really skilled in data analysis and measurement, if you as a funder have a specific focus on funding poverty in this local community, is it not incumbent upon you to collect the data that you need to prove that you are funding it in the right way? I don’t know many nonprofits that can pay a data expert what they’re worth. 

Nonprofits are interested in the data too—we want to know that we are doing the “thing”—but we are also interested in the reality of the thing and data doesn’t give us all of that narrative. The question is really one for funders to start asking themselves. Given you as the funder have set your own focus areas and funding priorities, how do you plan to go about getting that information from nonprofits that you can see are under-resourced? And even what funders do get from nonprofits is not always the most accurate, most comprehensive, complete story.

I’m also not sure what all these reports are telling people. As someone that used to be a program officer and received grant reports, even I had the question of, “What do we do now?” And if an organization didn’t meet the metrics, are we using that reality that they fell short of the metrics to determine whether or not we fund them again, rather than to determine how we can help improve the situation?

JL: Sometimes as individuals and organizations, we feel powerless to effect change when the problems are so massive. What are some steps or some work that you recommend we can still do to make a difference in our day-to-day work? 

AW: Giving into hopelessness and giving up is not a path that we can choose. You have days that are challenging and demoralizing, but you can look up any number of leaders in the sector that remind us to be hopeful. Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson is a great example. And we do have wins along the way!

I’m also finding the people that I can link arms with. I’m not going to spend a huge amount of time on the people that are committed to moving slowly or delaying. I think your day-to-day has to find a balance between, “I have this capacity to fight, but when I feel like I’m at my wits end, I can turn back to the community that I know is bolstering me and take some strength from them.” 

I also use my own philanthropy for this purpose. I support the organizations that I believe in and I know are doing good work and that I can trust, and that’s where I designate as much support as I can. I can also show up as a volunteer, I can show up as a board member, or I can just lend time to make an introduction. All of those things still matter inside of a system that is working to save itself, inside of whiteness as a construct that only knows how to defend itself. I have no qualms and no Illusions about how powerful the systems are, but I also won’t doubt my capacity for change and my capacity for impact. 

Interested in learning more about alternative models of fundraising that are more community-centered? Check out the 10 principles of Community-Centric Funding developed by fundraisers of color that are grounded in racial and economic justice. 

Keep your eye on this space for more ideas and strategies from April in the coming months as well as other Elevate Q&As.    

Elevate is excited to share two new partnerships that we have started in 2023 to support our Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Justice (IDEA+J) efforts.

Read more below to learn about our partners, our plans, and our journey.  


April Walker, Philanthropy for the People 

In February, we kicked off a year-long partnership with Philanthropy for the People, and its founder April Walker. April’s expertise centers specifically on racial equity and justice in fundraising and grantmaking

April is facilitating conversations and workshops for Elevate staff about wealth, philanthropy, and fundraising justice throughout 2023. Our aim for this portion of our work is to build a shared vocabulary and understanding among Elevate staff about these topics so that we can be better partners to our clients and drive meaningful change in the nonprofit sector. 

April’s unique focus on equity in philanthropy is particularly important to Elevate, given the nature of our work to support nonprofit fundraising in an inherently inequitable philanthropic sector. This context has major consequences for our nonprofit partners, and Elevate is committed to hastening change in the sector. 

Interested in hearing more about April’s expertise and her advice on what it will take to transform the philanthropic sector? Look for our next blog installment!

Dominique Hollins, WĒ360: 360° of Workplace Equity

We have likewise engaged Dominique Hollins, Founder and Connector-in-Chief of WĒ360, to conduct a company-wide equity audit. Our work with Dominique is internally-focused and designed as the primary information-gathering step in developing Elevate’s long-term IDEA+J strategy. 

Dominique will conduct a company-wide IDEA+J assessment that highlights strengths and areas of development for sustainable IDEA+J implementation in the years to come. Her assessment will include surveys of Elevate staff and a review of relevant internal policies and procedures. This information will inform the design of our long-term IDEA+J strategy. We intend to repeat this assessment every two to three years to measure and evaluate progress. 

Dominique is a sought-after consultant, coach and speaker who has been quoted in the Washington Post and recognized by Fortune for her work. She develops customized strategies that bridge the gap between corporate responsibility and organizational accountability to enable equitable and inclusive business practices. 

Why Two Partners?

Elevate strives to be an inclusive and equitable workplace where all members of staff are accepted and recognized for their contributions.  It is therefore critical that any work we do to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion is inclusive of our company operations and practices. 

At the same time, Elevate operates within the larger context of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, as we support our clients in their pursuit of funding from institutional donors. Our clients are in part dependent on the largesse of donors, and we are cognizant that philanthropy itself is inherently imperfect. Philanthropy writ large is a product of the income inequality and disparity rooted in a capitalist system –  a system in which much of this country’s wealth is and always has been generated by Black, Brown, and immigrant laborers. 

So, when tasked with identifying the right partners to support Elevate’s journey, the IDEA+J working group identified the need for two partners with distinct expertise who could support our work with both an internal and an external focus. While it took some time to lay the foundation for these two partnerships, we are optimistic that our collaborations with April and Dominique will facilitate the holistic and multidimensional approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion that we’ve been looking for.  

Laying the Groundwork

At Elevate, we believe that to build a workplace that is inclusive and equitable requires a values alignment, an invested leadership team, financial resources, and staff capacity for a sustained, long-term commitment, as the work is quite simply never finished if it is substantive rather than performative. 

Individual Elevate staff members have consistently expressed enthusiasm and demand for the company to invest more in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work. While wanting very much to heed this call to action, founder, President and CEO Alayna Buckner, wanted to enter into this undertaking responsibly with sufficient internal assets in place. Equally important to Alayna was for Elevate to do its due diligence to avoid engaging in DEI that was superficial, counterproductive, or harmful. This was especially true in light of the proliferation of ill-conceived DEI pledges and initiatives in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. We also did not want a disproportionate amount of emotional labor to fall on staff belonging to marginalized communities, as often happens when initiatives are entirely staff-directed. Finally, we wanted to look both inward at ourselves and our organization and outward to our sector to better understand how intrinsic injustice and power imbalances are to the core of fundraising.  

Accordingly, we made certain we had the financial resources that would allow Elevate to invest in the necessary expertise to guide this journey. We hired Vice President of Personnel, Letese Lamb, to act as the executive sponsor of our DEI initiative. We also reduced staff workloads so that they would have the space to participate in IDEA+J working groups and committees. Then, we undertook a thoughtful year-long partner selection process as an IDEA+J Committee. 

Now that we are here, we know that this transformative work will challenge us in ways we may not expect. All the same, we are eager to begin this collective learning journey and to share our progress with you! 

Check out a few of our previous blogs for more on how philanthropy is changing and why it is critical that grant writers use empowering language in their funding requests. We also offer a webinar on Power Dynamics in Grant Writing as part of our Learning Collection on How to Prepare Expert Grant Applications. Join us on May 25, 2023 for a session that will explore the role of fundraising in creating equitable partnerships among communities, the social sector, and philanthropy.

OCTOBER 06, 2017

In the social justice lexicon, inclusion is defined as “authentically bringing traditionally excluded individuals and/or groups into processes, activities, and decision/policy making in a way that shares power” (H. Thomas and A. Hirsch, The Progressive’s Style Guide).

As grant writers and nonprofit professionals, we understand that language is a powerful tool when advocating for positive social change. In pursuit of this goal, it is critical that we understand the role of word choice in conveying a broad range of identities and perspectives. Various terminologies can be packed with assumptions— economic, social, cultural, and educational. It is essential when writing for social justice causes to be aware of these assumptions, which in turn helps us to embrace writing that combats discriminatory language and conveys an authentic sense of inclusivity.

Writing in a style that is inclusive and ethical is a skill. Like any skill, gaining facility and comfort with using inclusive terminology requires thoughtful, consistent practice. Though there are many approaches and schools of thought when it comes to inclusive writing, two core principles include:

1. People-First language

People- first language aims to make personhood the essential characteristic of every person. People- first language views other descriptive social identities that people may hold as secondary and non-essential. Though adhering to people-first language can lead to awkward sentence constructions, it is critical to center people rather than their circumstances as the heart of your storytelling.


  • “Children from low-income backgrounds” vs. “low-income children”
  • “Formerly incarcerated person” vs. “ex-offender”
2, Self-Identification

Inclusive writing, as much as possible, should strive to include language that respects peoples’ choice and style in how they talk about themselves. By using language that reflects how people self-identify, you respect aspects of their culture, agency, and spirit and lend power to their voices. If you are unsure of preferred terminology, research the most current discourse on the topic using such resources as the Disability Style Guide and An Ally’s Guide to Terminology.


  • “Individual with a physical disability” vs. “handicapped”
  • “People of color” vs. “minorities”
  • “Transgender person” vs. “transgendered”

Understanding and committing to these principles is the first step in working towards writing in a style that consistently incorporates inclusive language. Of course, language evolves and appropriate terminology is shaped by the continued larger conversation around social justice, intersectionality, and what authentic inclusivity entails in practice. As much as using the “right” terms or words is something we all work towards, it is equally important to foster a climate of open communication and demonstrate a willingness to learn.

As you work towards developing a writing style that features inclusivity, remember to keep an open mind, keep resources close at hand, and – most of all – keep learning!

Suggested Resources

The Progressive’s Style Guide

Racial Equity Resource Guide Glossary

An Ally’s Guide to Terminology

The Disability Style Guide

The Social Justice Phrase Guide