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#297 Equality Matters: Equity Matters More

January 1st, 2018

Richard Marker

Long time readers will find resonance with this post. This was written a while ago but not published; it is being posted as we begin 2018. At a time when a new tax law has exacerbated the divide between the very few super-haves and the rest, when upward mobility has come to a virtual standstill in America, and when some political forces clearly reject equity as a value, it seems obligatory to reaffirm our philanthropic and public policy commitments.


It was quite by chance that I learned the functional difference between equality and equity. It was sometime in the mid-70’s and I was Associate Chaplain at Brown. Brown’s unionized workers were on strike, and through a series of incidents, I got to know the leaders of the union and also happened to be friendly with the university president.

The strike began in the summer but, as it continued into the school year, it began to have more visibility and was proving to be a divisive presence on campus. As often happens, that led to a hardening of positions. The positions were very clear: The union wanted to give everyone a raise, and wanted that raise to lift the lowest paid workers to a defined minimum. The university was offering a percentage across the board, but was not willing to give a high enough percentage to accomplish one of the key bottom line goals of the union.

One day, I learned that the next negotiating session was to be at noon that day. I asked the union if they would be open to considering a split solution: giving everyone an across the board percentage increase, but having a one-time supplement to the lowest paid to bring their base salary up to an agreed base minimum. They said yes. I called the university president before the negotiations and suggested this solution. I wasn’t in the room, but that afternoon the strike was settled.

I learned that day that “equality” [in this case of “across the board percentage increases”] was not the same as “equity” [in this case, achieving the goal that no employee should be paid less than a living wage.] It is a distinction that subsequently has served me well as an executive/ceo, a consultant, and a philanthropy funder, educator and advisor.

For many years, in my speaking and teaching about best grantmaking practices and relations with their grantees, I have urged funders to not confuse the two. To ask an established university or museum or hospital for quarterly financial and program reports should be a no-brainer; to ask a 3-person non-profit start-up for detailed quarterly reports may be needlessly disruptive. On the surface, it seems fair: after all, a funder is treating all grantees equally. But functionally it is way off balance. If every funder expects detailed quarterly reports, and, typically, they are all different, it can take hours upon hours of adminstrativia away from the service or program the funder is actually funding. The bottom line is inequitable even if equal.

The same is true for proposal submissions, evaluations, site visits, and more. I have long urged funders to be aware of their impact on their current or potential grantees in all of their procedural practice. [For more on the topic of funder-grantee practices, see my numerous articles on philanthro-ethics.]

One way of understanding the difference is that equality [of access] should characterize the entry point; equity should define the desired outcome.

Which brings us to why this distinction is so crucial in our field at this time in history.

We, as funders, haven’t always been so great on the equality of access area, although thanks to the current momentum in our field in articles, conferences, self-studies, etc., we are getting better at it. But we are only beginning to scratch the surface of “equity as impact” as one key measure of our success as funders.

This has always mattered, but given the profound erosion of commitment to public support for education, health care, housing, child support [to say nothing of civil liberties, the press, access to the ballot box], as funders this should matter a lot. Our advocacy and our direct funding need to address cataclysmic challenges to populations at risk, and redress losses. The recent tax sham/scam should only reinforce the centrality of equity as a driving force for all funders.

The lesson I would urge upon us all as many of us re-think how we do business in this new and problematic era is to be careful to build equality of access into all of our work, and to work toward a commitment to equity as an essential impact of our grantmaking.

These times demand no less.

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