This article was originally published on Forbes.
In this article, “What Nonprofits Will (And Should) Be Talking About In 2021,” FINCA International President and CEO, Rupert Scofield, offers insights into the imperative topics nonprofit organizations should focus on in 2021, as well as the internal measures initiated by FINCA in response to systemic racism in America.
Apart from the pandemic, which came to dominate pretty much every phase of our existence in 2020 and will continue to make itself felt long into 2021, last year brought tectonic changes into the social conscience of America in how inequality and racism live on in pernicious ways.
For nonprofits, like ours, that work in the international arena, it was a stark wake-up call in which we saw unwelcome parallels to nations we already believed suffered from greater disparities in privilege, wealth and social justice. For FINCA, my nonprofit, not only did the pandemic threaten the very survival of entrepreneurial customers and the social enterprises we invest in, but it made me realize that as nonprofit leaders, we also need to address our nation’s moral challenge by putting our own house in order before looking at what we could do externally.
Responding to both challenges requires tenacity and bold action.
Hailing back to my organization’s early days, we took on gender discrimination in the financial systems of dozens of emerging markets, purposely skewing our policies to favor lending to female borrowers and single heads of households. Today, our microfinance customers, especially women, have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic’s economic fallout. As we redouble our efforts to provide more assistance, we find ourselves standing in awe at the creativity and adaptability of our clients as they find their own solutions to the crisis. Even as we read the sobering statistics of the progress lost on moving people out of poverty (150 million according to findings from the World Bank) or helping those suffering from acute food insecurity (130 million according to the UN via the World Health Organization), we remain mindful of the productive potential of the affected populations, and our vital role in catalyzing their recovery.
However, George Floyd’s killing rocked the country and prompted a strong examination of our country’s systemic racism. This prompted us to turn within, as it did in many organizations, both corporate and nonprofit.
As a first step, I asked my staff for their ideas on initiatives we could undertake in response. Two employees immediately stepped forward with the idea to first educate ourselves on the extent of the problem of systemic racism in America. They put together an exceptional four-part series that was eye-opening in its insights about buried historical events that many colleagues had never heard of but that revealed how racism and violence against people of color have persisted in our country. Our four-part series helped employees understand how race and individual experiences shape what each of us brings to and takes from conversations. When we met as a team shortly after the Capitol Hill insurrection, staff acknowledged that we were able to have a difficult conversation with diverse perspectives because we learned how to engage in open, honest discussions.
Understanding race and race equity is a process, and it is important for employers to provide a safe space for staff to have respectful and honest conversations. For nonprofit leaders, if starting this process is difficult, there are exceptional resources publicly available about having productive conversations about race and racism, and as a starting point, I recommend the National Museum of African-American History & Culture’s Talking About Race web portal. As nonprofit leaders, we operate in social spaces — addressing racism and social inequality is vital to ensure our operations are in order before furthering our organizations’ missions. It is our job as leaders to cultivate an opportunity to engage in these honest discussions.
Finally, we looked at our hiring, upward mobility and compensation practices, concluding that we needed to do more if we were to be faithful to our declared values and mission. We also now have a standing committee to ensure that we continue this process into the future and it doesn’t fade away as the headlines grow more muted and people forget the shocking events of the past year. Examine how your nonprofit operates internally in terms of hiring practices as well as diversity and inclusion. Look for weak points or areas of opportunity in your current processes, and use this as a chance to make adjustments as needed.
My nonprofit has, from its inception, enjoyed support from people of all political persuasions, yet in this politically charged world, we have encountered supporters who question why we take actions and positions that promote social justice and equality in America instead of “sticking to our knitting.” Recognizing that beliefs and perceptions cannot be unpacked overnight, we are now more equipped to engage in these types of difficult conversations.
In my view, the time has come for every member of the business community, nonprofit or for-profit, to convene all their employees and board members and begin frank, difficult conversations around this topic. This needs to be a global, not only an American, initiative.