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Equity, Equality, and Equitability

January 18th, 2017

Richard Marker

For very good reasons, “equity” is a hot word in the philanthropy world. The last few years, and in particular the recent bizarre political process, have illustrated how much need there is for addressing fairness and equitable justice in the American political system, and in our society as a whole.

After all, we will soon inaugurate a president who received almost 3 million fewer votes than his opponent yet he and his followers claim a landslide endorsement.

We have a tax system that rewards the top 1 percent of the US under the guise, and disproven theory, that it will create jobs – while in the meantime we have the wealth divide of a barely developing nation.

We imprison and murder a radically higher percentage of our population than any other western nation. A disproportionate number of those are young black males, yet many people resent a movement that calls attention to it by claiming that all lives should matter, not just Black ones.

I don’t think I need go on. Those who are sympathetic with my underlying point of view will readily add to the list. Those who don’t will look to dispute any and all examples.

What I hope no one would dispute is that there are inequities in our country. And until they are rectified, or at least that there is confidence that we are moving in that direction, we will be a country rent asunder.

As in past writings, I look to our philanthropy world to see if there are insights that might inform how to move forward. In order to get there, let’s step back a bit:

Some years ago, as funders began to want more accountability for how and where our dollars were spent, we began to increase our own accountability systems. We want reports, we want evaluations, we want impact, we want metrics, we want evidence. What is the point of giving money to solve a problem if the problem isn’t solved?

Quite legitimately, many funders began implementing formal expectations of what each grantee needed to provide to monitor progress and expenditures, and ultimately to justify the money given. Since this discipline was new for many funders, many developed expectations that were to be applied to very single grantee: the same reporting forms, deadlines, accessibility, etc. If we ask the same from everyone, we can hold everyone equally accountable. Isn’t that fair?


What we soon learned is that equal is not always equitable. Of course, a major health care system or university has teams of people to track expenditures, prepare reports, and deal with funders directly. Shame on them if they cannot produce reasonable requests for information. [This is not the post to discuss reasonable vs unreasonable. Suffice it to say that not all funders are reasonable, but most try to be.]

But to expect that same report from a small start-up or an understaffed human service agency is not the same to expect that a report from a large health care system. It may put undue pressure on them to respond to the identical request. You may say: we didn’t ask them for any more than we asked of anyone else, but, in fact if not intent, our “equal” request is not equitable. It disrupts and it may assume access to systems they can neither afford nor manage. And so, under the guise of equality, we have created inequitability.

The difference is where in the continuum we start our look: at the end or the beginning? If we want equity as a result, our starting point must be to look at what actually is happening by our requirements and interventions, not what we hope will happen. What are the effects – and then work back to impactful interventions?

Once we look at end results, we realize that there are needs for different practices, resources, supports, and approaches for organizations of different sizes or maturity or fields of service? And as funders who care about getting use-able data and actionable choices, we are much better served by asking what happens, not what we want to happen.

As I listen to the political discourse now continuing unabated, I hear far too many conversations of public policy focused on ideological input and not functional output. Health coverage is a good example: every independent study shows that a single payer system would be fiscally more responsible, provide more equitable access, and would be financially more manageable for more people. And let us be very clear: that isn’t the Canadian system or the English system or any other public health system. Single payer says nothing about choice of doctor, hospital, and type of health care, only about how the insurance is provided.

I hope that this is not misunderstood: at a time when too many groups have been maligned for the simple reason of being different: racially, religiously, gender, national origin, this argument for equitability should never be read as the legitimization of patronizing difference. But that acceptance doesn’t exempt us recognizing that groups may need attention because of years of prejudice, bigotry, classism, and structural inequity. We in the philanthropy world need redress those inequities.

If equity means anything, it means that the results of our actions yield a fair, just, and caring society for all. And if that means we need to get there by multiple and dis-equal methods, so be it. Equality matters, but as an end, not a process.

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