Initial Steps In Catchafire’s Approach to Racially Equitable Capacity Building

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Last June, as Catchafire initiated a fulsome organizational commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) internally, we also looked outward to how a commitment to DEI and specifically racial equity and justice could impact our work, primarily as viewed through the lenses of our three primary stakeholders – nonprofits, volunteers and grantmakers. We sought to answer and respond to a series of questions 1) How were we currently performing as it relates to DEI? 2) Where were the gaps in our knowledge? 3) What immediate steps could we take that would uphold our early commitments to racial equity, diversity and  inclusion? 4) What did we need to plan for and where did we need to invest?

Many organizations last year took the approach of focusing on DEI investments and needs internal to their organizations before beginning their external facing work. For some, this was likely the right decision. Tackling internal and external DEI work simultaneously is challenging. It requires organizational alignment from top to the bottom, strong leadership and executive sponsorship, fortitude, honesty and humility. There is the danger that an organization takes on too much all at once, running the risk of succeeding at nothing. And last year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was so much else requiring the attention of organizations and their people.

However, choosing to delay the external DEI work carries the risk that it never becomes prioritized and the momentum of the moment is lost. It also means that stakeholders who could benefit from such work must continue to wait and in some cases flounder.

At Catchafire, we took the position that we must not wait. Indeed, as with our internal DEI work, our external work had been delayed too long. In fact, COVID-19 helped to sharpen this focus as BIPOC communities were particularly hard hit. Thus, serving nonprofits that address the needs of those communities was particularly pressing. Furthermore, many of our grantmaking partners were making new commitments (or increasing existing ones) to advance racial equity and justice.

In June 2020, we extended a free membership (gift) to our capacity-building program to help address the dearth of philanthropic funding going to organizations working with communities of color. This referral program was offered to Black-led organizations who do not have a capacity-building program to join, including nine Cincinnati organizations that were connected to us by the United Way of Greater Cincinnati. To-date, they have connected with volunteers to complete 86 projects or consulting calls, which has produced a total of $355,000 of total investment into their organizations – investments that might not otherwise have occurred. Nationally, our gift program has generated $1.3 million of pro bono investments across 74 organizations. The early data suggest that these Black-led organizations have myriad capacity-building needs and merely require the resources to execute on them.

We also began developing new demographic-related questions for our nonprofit user onboarding process. Prior to 2020, we deliberately collected only the most basic data because we did not (and do not) as a practice collect data that we cannot begin using to improve our work with nonprofits. This data gap, however, meant that we were significantly limited in our ability to understand what the leadership looked like across organizations and who their primary constituents were. We also could not then identify potential differences in experience, use, success and need across demographic groups (e.g., do Black-led organizations utilize volunteers through Catchafire at similar, higher or lower rates than do their white-led counterparts?).

In January, after months of planning, testing and using focus groups, we rolled out a more comprehensive demographic information intake form, which is giving the team a better understanding of our current users and providing early learnings on how different groups are benefiting from the platform and where we can be making investments to enhance the user experience and impact across different kinds of organizations. In the first phase of enhanced data collection, we are now asking nonprofit users to identify how the leader of the organization identifies racially and the racial/ethnic demographics of the target communities served.

We recognize conversations beyond data are vital and this effort isn’t possible alone. We strongly believe in the power of partnership because racial equity cannot be a siloed goal. To that end, we’ve taken efforts to thoughtfully diversify who we work with. This includes continued investment in vendors such as Jopwell, a career advancement platform for Black, Latinx and Native American students and professionals. At the same time, we are engaging with foundations like The Greater Washington Community Foundation who are themselves seeking to center racial equity in their grantmaking approaches.

As our DEI work and commitments sharpen, Catchafire knows that success will require our key stakeholders – nonprofits, volunteers and grantmakers. They continue to inform the development of our point of view on the important and specific role that capacity building plays in commitments to racial equity and justice. Equity has been at the philosophic core of our access model and theory of change, and the added refinement to specifically address the intersectionality of race and equity holds tremendous promise. We look to grantmakers to join us in transforming their own latent energy into collective action. Building a solid foundation in diversity, equity and inclusion and unpacking barriers to this triumvirate can create the conditions to enhance commitments and unlock undiscovered potential, pathways and promise. And if we find ourselves open to honesty, vulnerability, accountability and boldness, people, communities and society will all be the beneficiaries.

Gerard McGeary
gerard@catchafire.org
Senior Director, Strategic Partnerships
Catchafire.org

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