Budgeting for Equity: 3 Steps to Creating a Framework for Lasting Change
Nonprofits are one of the most powerful forces for good in our world. They feed the hungry, house the homeless, stand up for those too often not heard and so much more.
However, even with the best intentions, nonprofits can sometimes fall short of realizing their mission. One reason for this is failing to budget for equity. That is — failing to invest the necessary time and resources to ensure programming is helping everyone, and especially communities most in need. Oftentimes, when a nonprofit’s existing resources are scaled back or new resources are allocated, communities of color and lower-income communities receive fewer benefits and shoulder more burdens.
As your nonprofit plans for 2022 and beyond, it’s essential to take a hard look at your current budget and the ways in which it benefits and/or burdens under-resourced communities. This process will help create a framework for lasting change — and set you on a course to do the most good for the most people.
Here are three key steps to get you started.
1. Establish Why Budgeting for Equity Is Essential
To succeed, nonprofits need more than a superficial commitment to improving equity. Organizations must truly understand what it is and why it matters. According to the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, “Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.” To achieve equity in the work you do, consider your organization’s budget at the most fundamental level.
Organizations must also grasp what they are up against. Structural and institutional policies and practices have reinforced the status quo and have left certain groups disadvantaged, in both the past and present.
2. Involve Multiple Voices in the Budgeting Process
Once the importance of and commitment to budget equity is clear, it’s time to start the work in earnest. It requires diverse voices as decision-makers — including clients most in need, whom the budgeting process and equity goals should serve. Traditional methods of public engagement, like town halls or input meetings, are good ways to start, but should not be the whole equation. Likewise, online surveys and virtual workshops can sometimes be helpful tools, but make sure that these tools are accessible via smartphones to reach a much more diverse set of stakeholders. According to the Pew Research Center, 15% of American adults use their smartphones as the means to access the internet because they lack traditional home broadband services. Reliance on smartphones for internet access is especially common among under-resourced groups, such as low-income Americans.
To truly engage, hear from, and include communities of color and lower-income communities, organizations must meet those communities where they are, and not expect them to come to you. Your nonprofit should attend community events, like food drives and fundraisers. You should plan workshops at popular community locations, like downtown parks or places of worship. And you should conduct on-the-ground canvassing. If you don’t have the resources to do this kind of work, consider engaging an outside partner.
3. Hold Yourself Accountable
Your equity goals will only be met if you take them seriously — and if you hold your nonprofit accountable. From the get-go, set clear, quantitative objectives and timelines, and be rigorous about collecting and reviewing the data. Then hold yourself to them through the budgeting process. This likely means regular check-ins with staff, from department heads to program managers. It also requires transparency into the process from the communities you serve. Work diligently to identify challenges and overcome them.
Also, consider recording your trials and successes along the way, so you can learn from them during the next budgeting process — be it a quarter or a year in the future. And remember: Budgeting for equity is outcomes driven. The changes you make shouldn’t just show up in the budget spreadsheet — they should show up as positive improvements in the lives of the people you serve.
While many nonprofits are committed to equity in theory, some overlook the importance of practicing it in their budgeting process. The results can be serious: If a community isn’t fairly represented in the budget, they won’t be fairly represented in the work, either. The next time you sit down to chart your budget for the months and years ahead, keep equity top of mind.
Celeste Frye, AICP, is co-founder and CEO of Public Works Partners LLC, a certified Women's Business Enterprise, Disadvantaged Business Enterprise and Small Business Enterprise planning and consulting firm, specializing in multi-stakeholder initiatives and building strong connections across the nonprofit, government and private sectors.