Opinion: 7 lessons from a nonprofit’s mission to embed equity

BC Women's Health Foundation shares what it learned about making the organization more equitable, diverse and inclusive.

equity, diversity and inclusion

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BC Women’s Health Foundation shares what it learned about making the organization more equitable, diverse and inclusive

“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” –John Dewey

BC Women’s Health Foundation (BCWHF) is a medium-sized philanthropic organization dedicated to advancing the full spectrum of women’s health. We help ensure that women have equitable access to the highest-quality health care when, where and how they need it.

Although our mission is clear, the work can be complicated when put into practice—especially when viewed through the lens of underrepresented communities. At BCWHF, we recognized that we had work to do and committed to a journey of learning how to meaningfully embed equity and equality practices throughout our organization.

We knew that equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) training would help provide clarity, support, and a sense of safety to our team. So we began this journey with dialogue and exploration—and by speaking truth to power.

The path

This year, we honoured Black History Month, which was a new experience for us. With no organizational blueprint, our approach was experimental but not haphazard. For such a significant month, we wanted to ensure that we were on the right trajectory in approaching equity and inclusion at an organizational level, first and foremost. Not just in how we show up internally but also alongside the communities we collaborate with.

We began our process months earlier and kept two questions at the forefront. How can we meaningfully engrain the foundations of equity and inclusion in our organizational DNA? And why does it matter in the first place?

We asked these questions reflectively while also looking forward and considering the trajectory of BCWHF. Primarily, we wanted to assess if/how equity existed in our organization, policies and culture and where we needed to fill gaps with action. We knew this internal unpacking was a critical step toward earning the right to join conversations surrounding equity and inclusion. 

Here are seven things we learned.

1. Stop stalling and start

Our organization, like most nonprofits, has a big mission, with finite resources and capacity. This creates the perfect conditions for pre-empting equity work with what-ifs. Moving beyond fear and courageously addressing the gaps is crucial. Not starting can undermine organizational trust, especially among BIPOC staff, who aren’t able to walk away from inequality because it gets “uncomfortable.”

2. It starts at the top

It’s vital to collaborate on equity work across the organization. But EDI is transformational, and so it must start at the top. Leaders have to take charge in guiding people through potential discomfort, friction and difficult conversations, which requires a considerable investment of time. They must also provide adequate support and feedback and not place that responsibility on BIPOC staff. This investment from leadership is essential, no matter how difficult the journey.

3. Authenticity is more than a buzzword

Bringing our truths (safely) to EDI work reveals our privileges, biases, values and power dynamics. In doing so, we can build trust and connection through our actions. This is the nexus where EDI work takes hold. Through transparency, discomfort and mistakes, impactful change can yield positive ripple effects that become organizational best practice. With authenticity no longer considered a soft skill, being an authentic organization can help develop community engagement. 

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4. Be on the same page

An organization may have many different voices, but having a unified institutional voice is imperative in EDI work. Partners, staff and community must know that an organization proactively drives efforts that bring about parity and inclusion. This voice demonstrates that an organization is serious—and that there are no debates when it comes to fairness. Also, while workplace consensus is important, so is striving to understand the legacies and histories of systemic oppression and instilling those learnings within the organization.

5. Be consistent

That’s more difficult than it seems, but with consistency comes hope. Anti-oppressive language, strategies for all teams, inclusive branding, revising policies, recruiting BIPOC staff, check-ins and call-ins, and measuring outcomes are tools that can help an organization remain on track with EDI goals. Unyielding effort is required for organizations to transform a commitment to EDI into action.

6. Community engagement is key

Primarily, it’s to walk the talk of equity and earn public trust. Communities best understand real and tangible action and know when their voices show up in policy. They also know when they’re being tokenized and when EDI actions feel performative and temporary. Authentic community engagement, deep listening, creating space for dialogue and committing to action matter most.

7. Mistakes are inevitable

No organization has ever gotten it right. But for many BIPOC, just knowing an organization is applying these lessons is significant. While mistakes bring discomfort, this can be a good thing. It allows individuals to learn, adapt and potentially change their perspectives. As staff, community stakeholders and the public watch your EDI journey unfold, remaining open to criticism, dialogue and assessment is paramount.

Equity work takes consciousness, commitment and consistency while recognizing that equity work isn’t for BIPOC. Ultimately, it’s a chance for organizations to catch up and mitigate systemic gaps. At BCWHF, we’ve learned that the journey is as meaningful as the outcome. This makes us better advocates as we undertake to serve, support and grow community.

Paromita Naidu is senior manager, public engagement and education, with BC Women’s Health Foundation.